Theater Life, for Ben Fankhauser, is “Beautiful”by Pat Launer August 1, 2016
It’s been a wild ride for Ben Fankhauser, who’s traveled pretty far in his 27 years. He spent his first five in Switzerland, his father’s native land. His mother was a Jewish psychologist from Detroit, where the couple met.
When his parents divorced, Mom took her two sons and relocated to Cleveland, where her sister and other family members lived.
“It was a great arts town,” Ben enthuses.
When he was 9 or 10, his mother enrolled him in a summer day camp that specialized in the arts. At the end of the four-week session, the kids put on a show. Ben played Crutchie, the disabled orphan newsboy in “Newsies.” That early role was to be prophetic. Ben made his Broadway debut in “Newsies,” playing Davey, the only parented, educated member of the paper-pushing kids’ gang, the behind-the-scenes idea-guy who urges the others to follow their leader and strike for their rights.
That early experience was the beginning of Ben’s lifelong love of theater. In 6th grade, he starred in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” As his parents recall it, “I sang my little heart out and everyone loved it.
“I fell in love with the camaraderie and community and friendships of the theater.” says Ben, who’s been on the road for nearly a year, in his latest national tour, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” (San Diego Civic Theatre, Aug. 2-7).
“As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a professional actor.”
He could sing from the start, and he had a really good ear for music. Though he only took “about a year” of piano lessons, he taught himself to play gospel, blues, boogie-woogie and of course, show tunes. Even on tour, he’ll sneak off and find a piano to play for himself, or for his singing cast-mates.
He has an impressive fanbase which even include dedicated online fan sites. But he has no idea where his talent came from. His parents were in business and heathcare. His older brother works for the State Department. He was told that his great grandparents were involved in Yiddish theater “in the Old Country” (Poland), and that’s good enough for him.
On tour and on Broadway
He was 18, attending Ithaca College when he landed his first national tour, “Spring Awakening.” While he spent a year playing the sensitive gay teen, Ernst, he took time off from school, but still managed to graduate in three years, with a BFA in Musical Theater.
“In ‘Spring Awakening,’ we felt like rock-stars every night,” he has said of being on the road in the Tony Award-winning musical. “People in the audience were screaming. We were in this extremely popular show about sex and coming of age. And we had our fair share of showmances. When you do a show about sex and hormones, it’s destined to happen.”
Beyond that, he keeps his private life pretty private. He may or may not have had his heart broken on Broadway, but he certainly did a number on his back.
The entire run of “Newsies” was 1,000 performances, most of which Ben was part of, except for the three months he was out with a back injury.
“There was a lot of heavy dancing in that show,” he says. “It wore away my disk.”
It took him a year to recover, with physical therapy every day. “Performing is pretty athletic,” he asserts.
He’s a lot more sedentary in “Beautiful,” which is not a hugely physical dance musical like “Newsies.” But he does get to play piano in the show, and he had to learn guitar for the role.
“Newsies was the most challenging, physically and vocally,” Ben says. “Those boys are screaming to demand justice. I lost my voice a lot, and I studied with my voice teacher a lot” (Joan Lader, who won the Tony Honors for Excellence award this year).
“While I’m on tour, I Skype with her. It’s like physical therapy for your voice. ‘Spring Awakening’ was vocally challenging, too; I had a high solo and very pure singing.
“‘Beautiful’ is definitely vocally demanding, but in a different way. I have to do some really high rock ’n roll singing. And I get to do a lot of comedy, too. Barry and Cynthia are the comic relief to Carole and Gerry’s diminishing marriage.”
“Touring is really fun,” Ben says. “There are no financial responsibilities. You get a salary and a per diem, so your income feels dispensable. But the downside is, you can’t go home at the end of the week. There’s no downtime to let your true self marinate. You’re an actor 24/7. It’s the cocktail party that never ends. Also, you’re often totally disoriented geographically. Those one-week runs [like San Diego] are tough.”
There are about 28 people on this national tour, a “mixed bag,” Ben says, of married’s, engaged’s, singles, those with significant others. “They’re all experienced, so they know to treat each other kindly on tour. We don’t get to choose our friends and family; we have to use our cast for that.”
Another downside of being on the road: “no opportunities to get another job.” For this tour, Ben signed a one-year contract, which expires in September. “I’ll probably stay,” he says (contracts are only offered a year at a time). “This tour is scheduled for about two more years. It’s doing really well, and I’m having a blast.”
Being a Jew, playing a Jew
Back in Cleveland, Ben had attended Sunday school at Temple Tifereth Israel (Reform), and was bar mitzvahed, consecrated and confirmed. He continued in Hebrew School through high school, even though he was also in his school show choir and “pretty busy with community theater.”
It’s difficult to practice Jewish customs on tour: “I’m usually working on Shabbat, and the High Holidays,” he laments. “Even fasting on Yom Kippur is hard when you’re touring.”
But Ben is thoroughly enjoying playing a Jewish character – Barry Mann (born Imberman), a songwriter who, with his wife, Cynthia Weil, created 98 hits, including “Uptown,” “On Broadway” (with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller),” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “Walkin’ in the Rain” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” (both with Phil Spector), all of which appear in “Beautiful.” Mann and Weil were best friends of superstar singer-songwriter Carole King. They have referred to themselves as the “Fred and Ethel” to Carole and Gerry’s “Lucy and Desi.”
“He’s kind of a stereotypical Jew,” says Ben of Barry Mann, “though he’s not defined by it. Kind of like Woody Allen, a hypochondriac who’s always seeing what’s wrong. But he’s a mensch, an artist, a lover. He’s funny and smart. His personality is a by-product of his passion.”
Ben wrote Mann when he took over the role for the tour in 2015, and Mann, now 77, sent back “a lovely email.” Ben got to meet with Barry and Cynthia in San Francisco when he and his co-star, Becky Gulsvig, who plays Cynthia Weil, were with them for an audience Q and A.
“We got to hear their stories,” says Ben. “It was great!”
He had done a good deal of his own research on Mann and Weil, still married after 58 years, and on the time period.
“There are so many good books about it. It came after the Tin Pan Alley era,” he explains. “And in one building, the Brill Building, a handful of Jewish composers were churning out material for all the hit groups of the day. It was like a Wall Street frenzy. Very competitive.”
The Brill Building, located at 1650 Broadway, was just north of Times Square and uptown from the historic Tin Pan Alley neighborhood, situated around W. 28th Street, which had dominated music publishing in the late 19th-early 20th century. From the late ’50s to the end of the ’60s, 1650 Broadway was the most prestigious address in New York for music business people. In 1962, it contained 165 music businesses, including publishers, printers and promoters, as well as songwriters.
This is how Carole King described the Brill Building environment in “The Sociology of Rock,” by Simon Frith (1978):
“Every day we squeezed into our respective cubbyholes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubbyhole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific – because Donny (Kirshner) would play one songwriter against another. He’d say: ‘We need a new smash hit’ — and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition for Bobby Vee’s producer.”
Kirshner, the music producer, song publisher and talent manager known as “the man with the golden ear,” “changed the game,” as Ben puts it. “He hired young composers like Carole and Barry. It was not just the old guys any more.”
From Klein to King, the musical queen
Before she was Carole King, she was Carol Klein, a precocious, late-1950s Brooklyn girl with passion, talent and chutzpah. She fought her way into the record business as a teenager, and by the time she reached her twenties, she had the husband of her dreams (Gerry Goffin, whom she had met at Queens College) and had a booming career, collaborating with her mate in writing powerhouse hits for the hottest rock ’n roll acts of the day (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” recorded by The Shirelles, “Up on the Roof” for The Drifters, and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin).
After her marriage to the serially unfaithful, emotionally unstable Goffin fell apart, she found her own voice, began a stellar solo career, and in 1971, released “Tapestry,” one of the best-selling albums of all time, with more than 25 million copies bought worldwide.
“Beautiful,” with a book by Douglas McGrath (all the songs are by King and her colleagues), traces King’s story, from struggling teen to disappointed wife to independent woman to chart-topping music legend. When it premiered on Broadway in 2014, The New York Times said the musical showed the “real, conflicted person within the reluctant star.”
The tour, which began in 2015, has been very well received. The L.A. Times said it’s “as rich in poignant emotion as it is in Broadway pizzazz.”
One of the most intriguing parts of this production is that the title role is played by Abbie Mueller, the older sister of Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony Award for her heart-rending performance as King on Broadway.
“I can’t tell you enough about Abbie,” says Ben. “It’s just astounding that two sisters can be so gifted. Seeing Abbie work is magnificent. She’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. She’s so available and giving. She’s the best at embodying the emotions of the character. She’s really going through everything Carole went through – a tough life, with one husband who was emotionally abusive and another [of four] who was physically abusive. Carole is such a strong woman. And Abbie is Carole. She’s so captivating, and her voice is astounding. She’s the real deal.”
No playing favorites
In contemplating his career thus far, Ben says “it would be hard to pick a favorite” from among his touring and Broadway experiences.
“I just feel really lucky to be able to do these shows that evoke such a strong response in the audience. ‘Beautiful’ really appeals to Boomers. ‘Newsies’ was visceral for all generations, but especially the young. ‘Spring Awakening’ resonated with teens. Many told me how that show helped them. That’s why I love doing what I do.”
“Beautiful,” Ben explains, “is a play with music. It’s not a typical jukebox musical. The characters aren’t expressing themselves through song. They’re working on a song, pitching their songs. It’s the story behind the music. You could say it’s ‘Jersey Boys’ with girl power!”.
“These shows,” he continues, “‘Newsies’ and ‘Beautiful’ – are built for entertainment. But the stories feel important. I love this role, and this show. People walk out floating on air.”
The national touring production of “Beautiful,” brought to us by Broadway San Diego, runs at the Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Ave. at B St., downtown, Aug. 2-7.
Tickets ($20-$175) are available at (619) 564-3000 or broadwaysd.com.