Carlton, who has had ups and downs since her breakout 2002 single, "A Thousand Miles," read the script for "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" and cried. Then she thought of her own life. "I thought, 'OK there's something here that I think I can bring myself. I can bring some of my own essence to this and maybe it will make it better somehow or different or feel different or bring some kind of unique energy to it that will be cool.'"
"Beautiful" is based on King's life from when she was a teenage songwriter in New York to her time as a wife, mother and co-author of scores of recognizable songs, including "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."
Though King and Carlton created music in different eras, the younger singer-songwriter easily recognized similar experiences: the stress of auditioning a song, being a young woman in the music industry, the need to manage men's feelings, the frustrations and joys of the creative process, and being a working mom.
"It's the story of someone taking great risk," Carlton said. "I really wanted to help honor the arc of the story. But I do have a lot of personal experiences that I am channeling in a lot of the scenes."
Carlton is still somewhat shocked to be making her Broadway debut. She may have attended many shows growing up in New York, but she studied ballet and piano, not musical theater. "It was emotional for me to get through the show the first time," she said. "It's a lot of work. And it was so exhilarating. And it just kind of worked out. I just cried at the end. 'I did it! Now I have to do it 79 more times. How is this going to happen?'"
Mike Bosner, a rising young Broadway producer, wooed Carlton for over a year to come aboard his "Beautiful," convinced she could add something special to the role by pulling on real feelings. "She's bringing something to it that no one else could because she's actually lived this," he said.
Carlton's Broadway pit stop marks another fascinating turn in the career of the 38-year-old whose debut album, "Be Not Nobody," earned three Grammy nominations, including record of the year and song of the year.
"I was really a young female artist packaged as a pop star and I was trying to follow the rules and I got to a point where I just ran out of juice," she said. "I kind of hit that ceiling within myself as an artist in like 2010, where I was like 'I can't create music the way I've been doing it. I need to change everything.'"
She started over, releasing the independent "Rabbits on the Run" in 2011 and the admired album "Liberman" in 2015. She submitted the demo to "Liberman" to her current label, Dine Alone Records, anonymously so that no prior baggage would cloud its evaluation.
"I wanted to be able to start a new relationship based on the music," Carlton said, revealing that a new album is due next year. "I get to start over with people. And that's what Carole got to do, too. It feels so good when you have a horizon that's open to you."
To be ready for Broadway, Carlton began preparations in her home in Nashville, Tennessee, where an acting coach had to gently remind her to stop walking around like a ballet dancer. In New York, she shadowed the actress playing King to learn the tricks of the trade.
"She asked to be put into boot camp," Bosner said. "She was determined. She kept saying this: 'I will not be the worst person on that stage. I can't do that to myself.'" To get into character each night, Carlton has arranged in her dressing room photos of King at 16, 17 and 18 to try to connect with her own youthful innocence as well as King's.
"How do I get back to that naive girl? I was so goofy and I thought the world was my oyster. I could probably do anything, right? She had that, too." Carlton said. "I think as we all get older, as we all become adults, all that kind of goofy kid stuff, that innocence, that power, that energy, just kind of gets dulled."
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits