Hometown boy making ‘Beautiful’ music at Gammage
Bridgette M. Redman • College Times
When the “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” pulls into ASU Gammage this month, it will feature an actor from Bullhead City.
James D. Gish plays the role of Gerry Goffin, Carole King’s husband and musical partner who created lyrics for some of the best-known music of the 1960s and 1970s.
Gish got his start at Mojave High School in Bullhead City. He figured out he wasn’t good at sports and needed something else to do. His friend suggested choir, which he resisted until his mother insisted. Then, when the actor playing the Beast in the school’s production of “Beauty and Beast” dropped out, Gish suddenly found himself on stage.
“We put everything together with cardboard and plastic, but we had a great time doing it,” Gish says. “There is an addiction to it.”
From there, his path was set, and musical theater became his passion. His more than 400 performances paid for his schooling at ASU’s Barrett The Honors College.
He’s played such roles as Tony in “West Side Story,” Jack Kelly in “Newsies” and Bob Gaudio in “Jersey Boys” at the Phoenix Theatre and Lord Farquaad in “Shrek: the Musical” at Desert Stages Theatre.
He also released the album “So in Love,” with DW Music in Nashville with a full orchestra and supporting choir.
This past September, he joined the touring company of “Beautiful.” While he had been unfamiliar with Goffin’s story, he was very in tune with Carole King’s music.
“In my household growing up, you could hear oldies blasting through the stereo,” Gish says. “That meant Carole King and her music. My patrons say, ‘This is my music,’ and I say it’s mine, too. I was raised on it and it is really wonderful to share it.”
Gish has become fascinated with Goffin’s story. Goffin, who died in 2014, wrote such No. 1 hits as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Go Away Little Girl,” “Theme from Mahogany” and “Saving All My Love for You.” He wrote 114 Billboard Hot 100 hits, including eight chart-toppers.
However, he struggled with mental illness, something that would rock his marriage to King. The musical portrays his breakdowns and what he did to get help.
“The musical sheds light on mental illness,” Gish says. “That isn’t usually touched on in musical theater and especially wasn’t talked about in that time period.
“His arc is that he received the proper treatment he needed. He went through electroshock therapy until he died.”
Goffin struggled with manic depression and bipolar disorder, two terms that were not commonplace during the time period. It’s a subject that the musical handles with all of its challenges and heartbreak.
“It is very fascinating and challenging for me to play him,” Gish says. “There is just so much in him and that’s how people are. It is very cool to play someone who is written as deeply as the people in ‘Beautiful’ are.”
The musical shows the relationship between King and Goffin and their competition with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil at 1650 Broadway recording studio. While the story is filled with drama and heartbreak, it is also uplifting and moving.
“It has a bright, powerful ending,” Gish says. “Gerry is sort of the supplier of the drama and those moments that make you cry and those are instrumental to the concoction that makes a good musical.”
Gish points out that the King’s music is timeless. It’s what makes the musical appealing to so many people.
“The music has beauty and simplicity,” Gish says. “Their ability to say so much is what really speaks to people. Often, we have either very simple pop music for clubbing and dancing, or we have really sophisticated music that is more like show tunes. Gerry and Carole found that happy place in between. It’s appealing to a wide audience, but there is a sophisticated message.”
“Beautiful” also breaks one of the traditions of musical theater. In most musicals, the lyrics of the songs are part of the storytelling. Characters break out into song to sing about their feelings or to advance their character. As a jukebox musical that is a biopic, “Beautiful” includes songs as part of the history.
“No one sings unless they would have actually been singing in real life,” Gish says. “There is a ton of music, but you only see the Drifters perform if the story is showing you when they performed on ‘American Bandstand’ or something similar. It makes it more live and cinematic. People are on the edge of their seat the entire show. It’s more believable.”
Gish praises the talent level and skill of the entire cast, saying he has grown as an actor and a storyteller on this tour because of his interactions with them.
“It is incredible to really connect with other actors on stage,” Gish says. “Not just to say lines, but to truly look into their eyes and know what they are feeling. The level of talent in this cast lets me explore every night what that does as an actor and a storyteller.”
As someone who used to see shows at ASU Gammage, he says it is exciting for him to perform on that stage.
“It’s a performer’s dream to get to come back to their roots,” Gish says.
His hometown shares his excitement and is rallying to come out to see him. Several of his friends are planning to come out and he says there is a group of seniors who are taking a bus for the four-hour drive to come see the show.
As a self-described proud Phoenician and Bullheadian, he hopes he might inspire other young people who are considering doing something artistic.
“I’m living proof you can come from anywhere,” Gish says. “They think you have to come from L.A. or New York or Chicago. I came from Bullhead and I was in Phoenix for four years. I had a taste—if you want it badly enough, you can make it happen anywhere.” CT