James Clow talks about playing Don Kirshner in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”

I’ve seen enough theatre in my life that often, I’ll have caught some major talent on the way up. I’ve seen people like Bebe Neuwirth, Kevin Spacey and Steve Zahn LONG before they’ve become household names. What I’ve really enjoyed is being able, years later, to occasionally interview them. Last year I got to speak with Justin Kirk, who I had caught back in 1995 in “Love, Valour, Compassion.” In 1993 I saw the show “Blood Brothers,” which featured a young actor named James Clow in the cast. Guess who I talked to this week?

Mr. Clow has had an impressive career in musical theater since his “Blood Brothers” debut. From Peter in “Jesus Christ Superstar” to Captain Hook in “Peter Pan,” as well as roles in such Stephen Sondheim classics as “Company and “Assassins,” Mr. Clow has worked consistently since I first caught him on stage. Currently he plays the role of music producer Don Kirshner in the Carole King-inspired musical “Beautiful.” While preparing for the show’s arrival in Kansas City, Mr. Clow took some time to talk about the show and his career.

Mike Smith: Before we begin, I wrote myself a note to ask you this. I couldn’t find my “Playbill”…were you in “Blood Brothers” when the Cassidy brothers took over the show? (NOTE: Step-brothers and former teen-idols David and Shaun Cassidy were part of the cast of the musical)

James Clow: I was. Ironically I gave my notice that I was leaving the show on what was their opening night. I did the show with Shaun, David and Petula Clark for a month. Then I went on for another show.

MS: So I have seen you before. I went the second week of their run. Great show!

JC: You know, there are no people that are middle-of-the-road on that. You either loved the show or you hated it.

MS: Well I’m one of the ones that loved it.

JC: Good. Me too! (laughs)

MS: First “real” question – had you seen “Beautiful” before you were cast?

JC: I saw it before I auditioned. A couple of days before. I was surprised that I hadn’t seen it before then but I was in and out of town. I just loved the show.

MS: I guess it’s just an assumption that if you live in New York and are in the business you get to see everything but I guess you don’t.

JC: It’s odd, because I had many friends involved in the show. I really don’t know how I didn’t end up seeing it for two years.

MS: You are portraying Don Kirshner, who I would say, next to Carole King, is one of the most recognizable characters in the show. He was very well known because of his “Rock Concert” television show and had a very unique speaking voice. Do you carry that voice over into your show or do you give him your own spin?

JC: I’m trying to not do an imitation but am trying to capture the character. I’m trying to incorporate that he was born in the Bronx but not do an exact impersonation.

MS: In preparing for the role were you able to watch any archival footage of him to get an idea about how to play him? (NOTE: Don Kirshner passed away in 2011)

JC: I had seen episodes of “Rock Concert.” Thank God for YouTube. I also saw some videos from later in his life when he’s looking back on working with the Archies, the Monkees and all that. It gives you glimpses but the show portrays a different time in his life. He’s a music publisher. It’s the late 50s/early 60s going into the 70s. The videos helped me a little with the essence but I also realized that I had to subtract 30 years.

MS: Were you able to speak to anyone that had worked with him?

JC: It’s funny, I just got off the phone with a friend of mine, Lorna Luft. Clive Davis (founder of Arista Records) has an Oscar party every year and she was telling me about how she was sitting next to Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. I love their work. (NOTE: Weil and Mann were also great songwriters, responsible for such hits as “On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place.” They are also major characters in “Beautiful.”) I started talking to her and she said, “Yeah, I knew Don Kirshner.” So we talked a little bit about that. The remarkable thing is that what Don Kirshner was doesn’t even exist anymore. Maybe Clive Davis, but nobody else of that ilk. In his day, being a music publisher, then a producer and then a talent manager…he was involved with music at the very beginning of rock and roll, before things really started changing. Before artists started writing their own material, he would listen to a song and then match it to just the right artist.

MS: You have done a few Stephen Sondheim shows. Is there a role out there, not necessarily in a Sondheim show, that you would like to do one day?

JC: (Immediately with no hesitation) Sweeney Todd. I think it’s just genius. It’s a dark, dark, dark place to live, although it’s very funny. I think the score is genius. I love the whole piece. That’s one of them, for sure.

MS: Anything else on the horizon?

JC: No. I’m committed to “Beautiful” for a year. I just finished doing “They’re Playing Our Song” with Andrea McArdle and then I did a Frank Loesser concert with a bunch of great people in New York. And now THIS happened and it’s where I am. And I’m really happy to be here for a year because I do love the show. Have you seen it?

MS: Not yet. I live in Kansas City. When I lived in Baltimore it was a 3-hour drive to New York. I saw a lot more shows back then.

JC: (laughs) It’s fantastic. It has all of these great songs that everybody knows. And if they don’t know them they will and they’ll fall in love with them. For the first time or all over again.

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