It was fall 2013 when Broadway actress, singer, and Cambridge native Anika Larsen found herself on her knees in an Austrian cathedral, praying to get pregnant.
On a rare week off before she began rehearsals for a new Broadway musical, Larsen traveled to Salzburg with her sister, Britta, to tour the city and see the sights of their favorite movie, The Sound of Music. "She and I are obsessed," Larsen notes.
While many of the movie's filming locations are in Salzburg, one important must-see for the sisters -- Mondsee Cathedral, the scene of Maria and the Captain's wedding -- was not. The women took a four-hour lakes and mountains tour that would get them near Mondsee (located about 15 miles east of Salzburg), but not in it. At least not without a little help.
"Britta and I made nice with the guide all afternoon, and by the time we got to that town he said, 'We can stop,'" Larsen chuckled. "We were so thrilled, we went in, sat in a pew, and held hands. We never really did religion in my house [growing up]. We didn't pray to God."
But the sisters had a specific goal, so they appealed to another deity.
"We prayed to Julie Andrews that we would be pregnant together," Larsen laughs. "At the time I was 39 and single, and [Britta] had had a lot of fertility issues with her first son. The idea that we would magically within the next year be pregnant together was so implausible. But everyone should pray to Julie Andrews -- by the end of next year we were both pregnant."
That trip to Mondsee eventually delivered not only a son, Kie, now 1, and a husband, but the best year of her 20+ year musical theater career. "It was," she says, the smile full-blown in her voice, "the best year of my life."
Larsen's voice is joyful and bright as she talks about the role she's waited years to play -- mom -- as well as her recent run on Broadway in Beautiful, the Tony-nominated musical about the life of singer-songwriter Carole King. And, she says, one would not be a reality without the other.
"Kie [pronounced "key"] only exists because of the musical Beautiful. Thank you, Carole King," Larsen sighs.
A 'Beautiful' year
In 2014, Larsen originated the role of lyricist and Carole King friend Cynthia Weil on Broadway. (Weil is also an incredibly prolific, successful songwriter, and an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, writing or co-writing classics including "You've Lost That Lovin Feeling," "On Broadway," "Somewhere Out There," and countless others.) The musical opened at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in January, and a few months later Larsen was nominated for a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Personally, she was on a major roll, too. Her dresser (the backstage pros who help actors quickly change in and out of costume) had set her up on a blind date with jazz trumpeter Freddie Maxwell.
"It was the best blind date of my life," Larsen says. "Within three months I was living with him and within six months I was pregnant."
Although Larsen had been working on and off Broadway for 20+ years, including roles in Broadway shows such as Avenue Q, Xanadu, All Shook Up, and Rent, Beautiful was her greatest success to date. Professionally and personally, everything was coming together at once.
"I kept saying to people, 'My cup runneth over,'" she remembers. "I had been working to this. It was late for me, to finally be a mother at 41. I wanted it my whole life. I nannied and babysat for so many people's babies, always learning stuff and retaining stuff I wanted to do when I was a mother. I had started to despair that I would never get there, that I would ever find somebody."
Larsen notes she was close to becoming a mother on her own when fate -- or Julie Andrews -- intervened.
"For a theater person, where every job is finite and you're never sure of your work or how you're going to get your health insurance, it's a real scary thing to try and have a baby on your own," she notes. "I had gotten to the place where I decided, 'OK, I have to do it now,' and just in the nick of time Freddie came along, and I gotta tell you, I don't know how I'd do it without him. I have such a greater -- 'respect' doesn't even hold enough in it as a word -- the feeling I feel for single mothers or fathers who are doing it on their own. It's a Herculean task."
Larsen notes her husband, who was 50 when they met, is similarly grateful: "He always wanted a family and had almost given up on it himself. We so understand how lucky we are.
Pregnant on Broadway
Larsen stayed in Beautiful, playing eight shows a week, until she was six months' pregnant.
"I had arbitrarily chosen the date I was leaving so they could have my replacement ready and lined up," she says. Larsen could have stayed until she gave birth, but the six-month mark proved prescient as playing the chic-dressing Weil got tougher and tougher as the baby grew.
"My costumes were so fitted, and it's a part of the show that [Weil is] very stylish," she says. "I jokingly said she should, sitcom style, enter every scene holding a bag of groceries and never explain why. It was so fun to have the wardrobe department on my side, letting out the costumes little by little!"
Larsen also experienced a pregnancy symptom she had never heard of before: "My ears would get stopped up, like when you're really congested, you can't pop them and you can't hear very well. The worst part is it would get stopped up and go in and out, so I'd be onstage singing and the sound would be going in and out in my ear. Sometimes I'd start my song and not really be sure I was in the right key or tempo because I couldn't hear the orchestra. That was scary."
By her final pre-birth performance in March 2015, Larsen declared herself "ready to go" for the previous reasons and one other familiar to most pregnant women: "You have to pee all the time and there's only certain times I can pee during the show! There were lots of ways it's not a job that's conducive to being pregnant."
Given Kie's six-month in-utero run in Beautiful, Larsen laughingly wonders if the experience will have any future effect on him: "Kie was in the womb and he heard Carole King music every day. I love the idea that someday he's in Bloomingdale's or some department store, and overhead he hears a Carole King song. Suddenly he's, like, 'I don't know why, but I am intensely claustrophobic right now and I have to get out of this store. Let me out! Let me out!'"
Kie arrived patriotically on July 4, 2015 at 7 lb. 15 oz. Larsen told theater website Playbill.com: "He is a Cancer with a passionate belief in the relevance of theater, an abiding love of jazz, and punctuality issues (he was born 11 days late)."
The baby was named after Larsen's brother, Peik (rhymes with "cake"), who died suddenly the previous year at just 42, leaving behind a wife, 4-year-old twins, and a baby on the way. Devastated by the loss, Larsen thought "Kie" ("Peik" spelled backwards, minus the "p") was a special way to honor her brother and also give her son a unique name. "There probably won't be a Kie M. and a Kie R. in his class," she laughs.
The naming of her son is just another way Larsen is tied to her very large, very unique family. She grew up in Cambridge in the '70s, one of 10 children in what resembled a multicultural Von Trapp family. Larsen is "fourth by arrival, sixth by age. Every therapist I've gone to has told me I'm a textbook fourth-by-arrival, sixth-by-age personality," she jokes.
She describes her parents as "children of the '60s affected by the Civil Rights movement," "extraordinary people," and "people with big hearts," who began adopting in 1971 from America, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The latter "was a direct result of being so against the Vietnam War and seeing all the orphans we were creating over there and feeling a responsibility to do something about it."
"We would often be stopped in restaurants or public places, and people would tell my mother, 'Oh, you guys are saints!' and my mom would always get grouchy about that," Larsen recalls. "She thought that makes it like we're extraordinary and everybody couldn't do it, when more people should be doing what we do. She was always very aware that we were a model for international adoption when we were out. I know the reasons why they did what they did, but having just one child now I don't quite know how I could possibly fathom having 10. I don't think that was the intention from the start, I think it was just that every new child seemed like a good idea."
The family grew by eight children within five years, and at one point sported seven children under the age of 7. (Regardless of birth country, every Larsen child received a Norwegian name, thanks to father Rikk.)
"People would ask, 'What's it like?' and I wouldn't understand what the question was," she says of growing up in a large, diverse family. "For me, it was the only thing I knew. Looking back now, it made me the person that I am today, made me somebody for whom diversity and multiculturalism is really important. And also somebody that really cares about being a team player, everybody carrying their weight, sharing, and being good members of their community. I know that has a whole lot to do with being 1 of 10."
Larsen also believes her family constellation impacted her choice of career.
"I also know it is the reason why I do theater because I was desperate for attention," she says. "I realized very early on that if I sang loud, people would pay individual attention to me. We were all called 'The Larsens' as a group. I think everybody needed to find their individual way, and my individual way was to sing, act, and eventually do musical theater."
Having Kie has made her appreciate her parents even more: "Boy, is motherhood an astonishing thing. It's so hard to do, it's so mundane, but at the same time until you do it you don't realize what a big deal it is," she says. "I always thought Mother's Day was a Hallmark holiday. My first Mother's Day was this year and I got teary. I now understood why we need to honor our mothers -- and our fathers. I knew how cool they were for the choices that they made and the family they created, but also for the love and the loving way they raised us, the day to day in and out, the mundane details of organizing and loving 10 children."
Sing You To Sleep
Larsen says Kie was conceived during a period in which she was performing in Beautiful and recording her first solo album, Sing You To Sleep, a collection of lullabies. When initially approached about a solo recording, Larsen declined: "I said, 'Absolutely not.' Just me? For a whole hour of a CD? Why would I do that, that's so self-indulgent? I couldn't find any way to justify that, and I think that has a lot to do with being 1 of 10. A few weeks later, I was singing lullabies with my nieces and nephews and I thought, Actually an album of lullabies I could get behind. It was a purpose that is greater than me. It's doing something for somebody else's children. It makes me so happy because it serves the community."
The singer had a plethora of songs to choose from given her 14 nieces and nephews and years of babysitting and nannying, her day jobs while auditioning for theater roles.
"I didn't know a lot of [traditional] lullabies. I would sing whatever song came to mind, and slowly over time there were some I liked singing better. I had quite a repertoire by the time I was asked to do it," she says.
Favorite tracks include "Summetime," a surprisingly soothing voice-trumpet "duet" with husband Maxwell; "Four-Leaf Clover," the Larsen family lullabye; "You Can Close Your Eyes," featuring Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony for her performance as Carole King in Beautiful; and Sting's "Fields of Gold," which Larsen sang at brother's Peik's wedding, and several years later, his funeral. The album is dedicated to Peik and his family.
The tracks are arranged specifically so they get slower in tempo as the CD progresses, "a little trick I learned from babysitting," she notes. She loves hearing from listeners who say the album puts their kids to sleep, and unsurprisingly her son is a fan, too.
"Kie, within 10 minutes of getting in the car, he'll start to fuss and the only thing that will stop him is playing the album. I'm so touched by it, but it's also the last thing I want to listen to -- my own voice!" she laughs.
Larsen returned to Beautiful last October and gave her final performance as Weil this April. Kie became "the mascot of the show," and would join his mom at the theater on two-show days, Wednesdays and Saturdays. A sitter would pick him up from her dressing room a half-hour before the curtain went up and return him during the several-hour break between the afternoon and evening performances.
"Anytime people would see his stroller outside my dressing room, cast and crew would stop in and ooh and aah and coo over him. Sometimes his stroller would be there, but he would not because he'd be with the babysitter. People would stop in and say, 'Hey, where's Kie?' I'd say, 'He's not here' and then they'd leave and pop back in and say, 'I'm sorry, Anika, you exist, too,'" she laughs. "I totally get it'."
Now post-Beautiful, Larsen says her career plans are to be determined, but summer included Kie's first birthday, and time off and traveling with her family. In June, Larsen joined a who's-who of Broadway celebrities, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald, Carole King, and other all-stars, to record a cover of "What The World Needs Now Is Love," in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting. All proceeds of the single will benefit the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida (available at iTunes and broadwayrecords.com/broadway-for-orlando/). She also performed the song with the group at the Democratic National Convention.
"The year I was 40 was the best year of my life. I met Freddie, got pregnant, we opened this show, and I got all this attention that is good for my career, but makes me uncomfortable personally, perhaps," she admits. "Far more important than any [career success] is finally becoming a mom. I think every parent knows once you have a kid you realize that's what matters, that's what's important. There's nothing I've done in my life that matters more than him. It sounds trite and cliché, but it's the truth. As I go forward I like thinking about what might be next in my career, but I also know this chapter right now is about family."
Larsen's Advice for Parents of Potential Performers
A career in any area of the performing arts has never been easy, but Larsen says kids who have a dream should go for it. She offers three pieces of advice from her 20+-year career.
-*- Enjoy the arts with your children. Larsen says her father was the only person in her large family who loved the theater. The pair would enjoy rare 1-on-1 time by attending whatever they could.
"It was one of the most special times for me in my childhood," she recalls. "He'd take me into town, we'd get on the T and go see any show I wanted to see. Those times meant so much to me."
She encourages families to take their children to as many amateur or professional performances as possible.
"Any way you can indulge them in it," she advises. "The arts are so hard to make a living in, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't foster their love for it. It could be one of the most special times you share, loving the arts. It will only enrich a child's life and make them a more well-rounded citizen and adult to have that kind of a knowledge and richness in their life."
-*- Go to college. "You're a better artist if you are an educated artist," she notes. "I think that's a better idea than a conservatory program. Who knows if you're going to end up doing it, and the more well-rounded person you are, the better off you are." Larsen graduated from Yale and laughs, "At the very least it got me better temping jobs to pay the rent while I was pursuing my dream. You're a better, smarter actor the more you know about the world. The most successful people in the arts are the ones you can tell clearly are educated."
-*- Go "Strong and Wrong."
"'Strong and wrong' is something we say often in the business," Larsen says. "Don't be scared to make a big choice, try something. Try it strong and take the chance it might be wrong. It might be awful, but we can work with that. When you're too timid to even try, then you don't get anything out of it, you don't learn from it."
With today's lifespan, the next generation has the potential for two to three careers if the first doesn't pan out.
"For kids, it can't hurt to try," she says. "There's nothing worse in life than regrets and wondering, What if? I think kids should always give it a shot."
Larsen went to high school at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, and credits her high school drama teacher with giving her a piece of advice she followed throughout her career. She notes she was never a big fish in a small pond, never getting leads in high school or college.
"He said, 'If you have the talent, you will work.' It may take 10 years, but you will work. In movies and TV it's made to seem like you need to get your big break, your lucky break, and there's some aspect of timing in it, but I also think if you are good at what you do and you're a responsible, smart person who is a good employee, you will work eventually," she says. "You may not get famous or rich, but if that's what you're aspiring to, you're not aspiring to be an artist. I'm so grateful he said this to me, it might be the single largest reason I'm doing what I'm doing because it made it seem possible."
Also, a failure in one area may lead to success in another.
"One of the nice things, it might funnel you into another aspect of the business you never thought you would do," she adds. "I don't think any kid grows up thinking, 'I want to be an agent', or a press agent for theater. They come to the city and start trying to do it, and then say say, 'Maybe I could do that instead.' It's still a way to be a part of that community and help make that happen that's more suited to your talents and skills."
-- Melissa Shaw