This musical bio of song writer Carole King might have been called BEAUTIFUL – On Broadway, for though it purports to show us Carole King and her music, the musical includes half a dozen songs by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, and its book by Douglas McGrath gives almost as much time to the meeting, romance and marriage of those two as it does to Ms. King.
Not a bad idea actually, for the book ties together a bundle of some 28 numbers penned in the 1960s and 70s that made for many a mirthful evening out for the Baby Boomer generation when they were young and lively. King, the composer, met and married her lyricist Gerry Goffin when she was just seventeen, a Brooklyn girl who, like Fanny Brice and Barbra Streisand and Barbara Stanwyck, moved on to fame and fortune across the bridge to Manhattan.
McGrath’s book covers the meetings, courtships and marriages of both teams hitting their high and low points and in brief between-numbers scenes, moves the story seamlessly and often with high humor. He begins with Carole at Carnegie Hall, at the peak of her career when she had emerged as a singer of her own songs. He gives her a monolog that sets the tone for the evening — informative, sassy, full of self knowledge and lots of fun. Jessie Mueller, in her first break through role on Broadway, puts us at ease at once; she’s appealing, can act, plays a mean piano, and she captures King’s mannerisms and vocal quality, and we out front know we are in good hands for the evening ahead.
Yes, it’s all a bit formulaic. We have a book scene with Carole and her Mama, and Mama is another of those nay sayers who firmly suggests her daughter protect her future by playing music for fun and teaching for a living. At 16, having skipped two years because she’s bright, she’s out in the world seeking a place in music. In about ten minutes she finds the guy she should marry, a clever freelance lyricist named Gerry Goffin, who falls for her at once. Her fate is sealed. She and he will live happily ever after, writing tunes and making babies.
Under the guidance of Don Kirshner, a publisher who takes a shine to her when she first sashays into his office, she begins to write and under specific orders from him, she hands him her first hit, “It Might As Well Rain Until September”. In his offices, we find contemporary competitive song writers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil who meet cute and begin a collaboration that also leads to marriage and great success. The book is painted in bold brush strokes, which is fine for it really tells a familiar story. Ambitious girl from Brooklyn meets ambitious boy with talent, and together they set out on the bumpy road to stardom. The scenes that follow are short, to the point, often very funny, and tell us all we really need to know about these rather typical show biz characters.
As each team writes, big names of the period appear as characters. They serve us The Shirelles, the Drifters, the Righteous Brothers, Neil Sedaka, Little Eva and backup singers plus of course the two central couples. So there’s not a lot of room for detail, and what we get is a jukebox musical with a palatable story to glue it all together.
It’s blessed with a cast headed by the totally believable and deliciously talented Jessie Mueller who’s been warming up in the bullpen as a replacement in Nice Work if you Can Get it opposite Matthew Broderick, who now proves she can carry a musical if she’s given the kind of support she gets here. The combined heat of her leading man Jake Epstein and the pairing of Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector as Weil and Mann, further bolstered by Jeb Brown who brings great charisma to the catalyst Don Kirshner, all adds up to socko entertainment. Liz Larsen as Carole’s whitewashed monster mom completes the septet of talented actors gathered to tell us all about Beautiful. And the ensemble that works as the cover acts for the famous groups is top notch too. For those of you who precede even the Boomers whose music is this show, you might be reminded of the days when George Abbott would come up with a cast of young talents like this one for his almost seasonal direction of musicals like Best Foot Forward, Too Many Girls, On The Town, The Boys from Syracuse and in later years The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees.
For those of us who mourn the passing of the Golden Age, of course all those Abbott shows and their equals had original scores, often written by youngsters like the actors cast to play them. This lent an air of freshness, of discovery to going to a musical. Now that’s history, and the current trend is to manufacture musicals out of old movies and catalogs of jukebox songs, and in this genre Beautiful compares well to Mamma, Mia!, which tells an original story and uses the Abba catalog of hit tunes to implement it, and Jersey Boys, which is a musical biography like Beautiful. Those who come to it fondly remembering the songs of their youth will love meeting up with them again, and you could hear the murmur of recognition each time a tune popped up. Some of them were stage worthy, and others lent themselves easily to the simple but effective choreography of Josh Prince, and the easily flowing direction of Marc Bruni. Paul Blake and his legion of co-producers have provided a tasty look to the evening, smoothly designed by Derek McLane and colorfully costumed by Alejo Vietti.
The whole thing has an expensively gleaming professional look to it, and I’m sure it will attract the generation to whom Carole King and her work have meant good times. For the rest of us, who came before and after the Boomers, and I am one of those — it was more of a long, beautifully done stage show of the sort that we used to watch between movies at the Paramount or the Strand. Again, for those too young to know what I’m talking about, those were two first run movie palaces in Times Square that featured the new hot films with a live show between screenings. Not exactly ground breaking or original, but an easy listening and painless way to be introduced to a stage full of talented performers struttin’ their stuff.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is onstage at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43 Street (between Broadway and 6th Avenue), NYC. Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
Richard Seff is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.