The creators of “Beautiful,” the beautifully performed and tuneful new entertainment now opened on Broadway about Carole King’s early songwriting career, faced a challenge — the same challenge faced by the creators of Motown The Musical, A Night With Janis Joplin, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys, to name just currently playing shows: How to turn a playlist into a Broadway musical.
The Beautiful solution more or less follows the formula. The story serves as an efficient delivery system for Carole King’s surprisingly diverse hits – not much more, nothing less. But there are also some secret weapons. One of them is Jessie Mueller.
Beginning with King’s solo concert debut at Carnegie Hall at the age of 29, the story by playwright and screenwriter Douglas McGrath (Checkers, Bullets Over Broadway), flashes back to her life as a teenager, already eager to make it as a songwriter. There is some effort at a dramatic arc and a feminist spin. We see her mother in their Brooklyn home telling her at 16, “girls don’t write music; they teach it.” We follow her evolution from shy aspiring child songwriter; to pregnant teenager marrying too young to a man who has become her lyricist, and who turns out to be mentally ill; to hit songwriter too nervous to perform; to independent woman and emancipated performer. It ends as it began, back at that Carnegie Hall debut in 1971.
“Beautiful” ends, in other words, 42 years ago. But King didn’t die in her 20’s, like so many of her contemporaries. She is still alive, still writing and performing, still having adventures, not all of them some kind of wonderful. She’s been married four times; one of her husbands abused and terrorized her before overdosing on cocaine. She has four grown children. Indeed, she just published a memoir in 2012 that offers a sweeping story of her life that resists the star-is-born clichés that “Beautiful” indulges in. “I kept pushing music away because I thought it was keeping me from having a normal life,” she writes.”At this moment I understand that for me, music is normal life.”
It is certainly fine, perhaps even dramatically preferable, to focus a stage show on a specific time period in a person’s life, and there is also plenty of precedent to alter biographical facts, which “Beautiful” does: Born Carol Klein, she was a musical prodigy, performing on television as early as eight years old, signing a recording contract at age 15. But even accepting the focus of “Beautiful” on just 13 years of her life, the musical counts as a missed opportunity for some interesting dramatic explorations. She was the daughter of a Jewish firefighter, a white girl whose songs were performed by popular black R&B vocalists and girl groups of the early 1960’s — an exact reversal of the norm of just a decade earlier. We see this in “Beautiful” but it isn’t dramatically explored.
Still, let’s put these dramatic shortcomings in perspective. How “Beautiful” frames its story is not as self-serving as Motown, not as whitewashed as Janis Joplin, and certainly not a complete fabrication like Mamma Mia. (As for Jersey Boys: That show is an obvious model for this one, though this one’s not as good.)
For many people, the music will be more than enough. Tapestry, her breakthrough album (the year of that Carnegie Hall debut) — one of the best-selling albums of all time – contains songs that come very close to being anthems of a generation, among them “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “I Feel The Earth Move,” “So Far Away” and, yes, “Beautiful.”
But Carole King, with first husband Gerry Goffin as her lyricist, was writing pop hits for more than a decade before that, and these too are included: The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” the Drifters’ “Up On the Roof,” Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby” and most memorably, “Do The Loco-Motion,” an early 60’s dance hit that made the Top 5 charts performed by three different pop stars in three different decades.
From a musical standpoint, the smartest choice was probably to incorporate King’s best friends and competitors, the writing partners Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, into the story, which allows the musical to present their hits as well, such as On Broadway and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.
“Beautiful” also turns a potential liability – that until Tapestry, King’s professional career was as a songwriter, not a performer — into an asset: We get Motown-like re-creations of songs performed by ensemble members portraying the various pop groups that performed their songs.
If much of the choreography is exactly as you’d expect, there is an early number, 1650 Broadway Medley, that comes close to thrilling. Carole is visiting the Tin Pan Alley offices of hitmaking record producer Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown), and we see and hear overlapping teams of songwriters on a three-tiered set pitching by singing a whole string of early 60’s melodies – “Splish Splash,” “Love Potion #9,” “Poison Ivy,” “Stupid Cupid” and “Yakety-Yak.”
What makes “Beautiful” riveting are the performances. Jessie Mueller wowed audiences in her Broadway debut in the otherwise forgettable “On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever,” and has since kept steadily employed on Broadway, in “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and as Cinderella in “Into The Woods” at the Delacorte in Central Park, and in the New York Philharmonic’s production of “Carousel.” What is impressive about her Carole King is that it doesn’t feel like a star turn; she persuasively inhabits the awkward but eager teenager who blooms before our eyes, still convinced she’s just average. It is a bravado performance of humility. Her singing takes us on that same journey, subtly reflecting King’s journey, yet with a voice that is sure to keep Mueller employed on stage…forever.
But it isn’t just Mueller. Anika Larsen as Cynthia Weil, Jarrod Spector as Barry Mann, Liz Larsen as Carole’s mother, and Jake Epstein as Carole’s husband Gerry — it is safe to say that, in the performances by the principal cast members, there is not a wrong note.
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Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Stephen Sondheim Theater
Book by Douglas McGrath; words and music by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
Directed by Marc Bruni; choreography by Josh Prince; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Alejo Vietti; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Brian Ronan; hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe; makeup design by Joe Dulude II; orchestrations, vocal and music arrangements by Steve Sidwell; music supervision and additional music arrangements by Jason Howland
Cast: Jessie Mueller (Carole King), Jake Epstein (Gerry Goffin), Anika Larsen (Cynthia Weil), Jarrod Spector (Barry Mann), Jeb Brown (Don Kirshner) and Liz Larsen (Genie Klein).
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.