Stratford Festival veteran Chilina Kennedy, star of Broadway tribute to hitmaker Carole King, on living in her “favourite city in the world”
Chilina Kennedy is friendly and down-to-earth in a way that you would expect a Canadian to be. An actress who established her bona fides in Canada’s prestigious festival circuit, Kennedy can these days be seen playing Carole King – one of the most prolific and successful singer-songwriters of all time – to rave reviews on Broadway in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. She can also be found displaying her welcoming Canadianness by actively meeting her fans, including those who travel to New York from Canada to see the show.
“I met one group of people from New Brunswick, where I was born. They brought me like 10 New Brunswick flags, and they’re still in my apartment,” she says, noting the gesture “was really quite lovely.”
Kennedy was born in Oromocto, N.B., but she didn’t live there – or anywhere for that matter – for very long when she was growing up. Her dad was in the army, and her family bounced around Australia, England and Canada. “The life of an actor is perfect for me because of my upbringing. I think three years was the maximum we ever stayed in any one place,” she says. “It was incredible. When we lived in Australia, we got the chance to travel to Thailand and all of these other wonderful countries. We wouldn’t have been able to do that if we were living in Canada.”
She now calls New York home, thanks in part to her Broadway role, but it wasn’t a simple transition. In fact, Kennedy might not have spoken as highly about New York a few years ago. “Funnily enough, the first time I was here [doing Jesus Christ Superstar] I wasn’t sure if I liked the city. I was really on the fence. There were days that I loved it and days that I hated it,” she reflects. “I think I was succumbing to the rat race the last time I was here, always feeling I needed to be doing something or working on a new project. This time around, I know the things I need to do in order to relax.”
Kennedy’s path to New York came, naturally, through theatre. It was in her native Canada where she received most of her theatre training, majoring in musical theatre at Sheridan College before moving on to stints at the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival. “The country’s theatre system is based on the festivals,” she points out. “All actors basically go through these festivals at some point, and I feel like those six years that I had at Shaw and Stratford were major for me in learning how to be part of a company and to play different kinds of roles.”
Those roles ranged from Eileen, a small-town girl from Ohio who moves to New York City with her sister to make it as a singer and actress, in a Shaw Festival production of Wonderful Town back in 2008 to Mary Magdalene in a 2011 Stratford revival of Jesus Christ Superstar that Tony Award-winning American-Canadian director Des McAnuff brought to Broadway in 2012. “It’s people like Des that really pave the way for everyone else. The whole reason that Jesus Christ Superstar went to Broadway was because of Des, and he pushed for us to go, for the cast to stay intact, and for all of us to go – not just one or two of us,” Kennedy says. “He really is a wonderful, wonderful guy. I’m very grateful to him because here I am in my second Broadway show.”
Courtesy Joan Marcus
Kennedy took over the role of King in Beautiful from its originator Jesse Mueller in March of last year, joining another Canadian in the production – Scott J. Campbell, who plays King’s husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin, hails from Waterloo, Ont. As we learn in Beautiful, King and Goffin wrote some of the biggest songs of the 1960s together, including hits like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? for The Shirelles and Up on the Roof for The Drifters, and they had two daughters together before they split up personally and professionally in 1969. King would go on to find her voice and launch a successful career as a singer in the 1970s.
In addition to the sheer enjoyment she gets out of singing classic King songs like Natural Woman at every performance, Kennedy says she also gets deep satisfaction out of portraying an artist who is invested in both her work and her life. “When you meet her in person, you see it right away. She just loves to live. She’s very present. You can tell that she’s practiced yoga and that she’s meditated, and that she’s gotten into living in a real way,” Kennedy says. “She’s a very smart woman, and I find her really, really inspiring. The longer I play the role, the more I hope that I’m taking from her as a human being into my own life.”
“I’d love to be able to satellite between New York and Toronto, or New York and Stratford, for the rest of my life.”
Inspired by King, Kennedy – who lives in Manhattan on the Upper West Side with her partner Jacob James, also a Canadian and an actor, and their two-year-old son Henry – strives to create a work-life balance. (She spoke with Billy on the phone on a sunny summer day while sitting in park near her Upper West Side apartment with her toddler. “I live near a park so I can get out on days like this,” she says.)
Does she like living in New York City this time around? “Oh my God, I love the city,” Kennedy says, noting that the energy she feels here and the interactions she has every day fuel her creativity. “You can be walking around, you can go to an art gallery, you can look at people on the street, you can have an interesting conversation with somebody – all that can inform your show that night. There’s so much here to take with you through your day – the good and the bad. The human condition is alive, and the best and worst is all in one little tiny space. I find it really, really inspiring. I love it. I love it here. Ideally, I’d love to be able to satellite between New York and Toronto, or New York and Stratford, for the rest of my life if I can. This is my favourite city in the world.”
Here, Kennedy shares some of her favourite Manhattan spots for thinking, coffee drinking and entertainment in the city:
Kennedy’s favorite spot in Central Park is Strawberry Fields, a 2½-acre patch of the iconic outdoor space designed to pay tribute to John Lennon – a mosaic embedded into the pavement on the site reads: Imagine. “It’s a beautiful, peaceful spot that reminds me of a lot of the good things in my life,” says Kennedy, who also recommends visitors take the time to explore the lesser-known parts of the park. “I always tell them to get off the beaten path. There are so many great trails and little places to go in Central Park.”
Near Central Park West between 71st and 74th Streets
The Met Cloisters
In an ideal world, Kennedy says she would have time to visit one of New York City’s museums at least once a week. “But I haven’t been able to do that,” she says with a laugh. “I love modern art, and I don’t get there nearly enough, but I love going to the MoMA. I’ve also taken Henry to the [American] Museum of Natural History, and I love going to The Cloisters. I think The Cloisters is my favorite, all-around museum because it’s so beautiful to walk around. I love the natural beauty.”
Located in northern Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park, which offers stunning views of the Hudson River, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Met Cloisters showcases mediaeval art, including an incredible collection of tapestries, and architecture and is also known for its gardens.
99 Margaret Corbin Dr., 212-923-3700
“I am not a big coffee snob at all. I’ll drink pretty much any kind of coffee, especially if I’m tired, but when I want a good coffee, this is the best coffee. They have the best cappuccino I’ve had in my entire life,” Kennedy says of the tiny Upper West Side spot, adding, “The people are friendly. I know all their names, and they know mine, and they always know what I order.”
Beyond coffee, this location of the Italian cafe chain (there are four in the city) is also a great place to have breakfast. “They have the most amazing organic oatmeal, and they’ve got these Brussels sprout/egg things that they do for breakfast – really out-of-the-box, interesting stuff,” she says. “It’s all delicious.”
313 Amsterdam Ave. and other locations.
The Bitter End
There is a scene in Beautiful in which we see a young Carole King performing at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, for the first time, and the club, which opened in 1961, is still a great place to see live music in New York City. “I do try to get out as much as I can to see live music and theater, and I went to The Bitter End not long ago to do an interview, then I went again to see a friend of mine sing,” Kennedy says, noting, “It’s such a historic place.” Bette Midler and Joni Mitchell, and many others have done shows at the intimate club.
147 Bleecker St., 212-673-7030