Everyone associated with “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” won’t come see the show, won’t come to opening night, etc. “It’s too emotional for her.” What? I saw the show last night (it opens on Golden Globes night, so I will be out of town), and it’s great. Carole, who has withstood more than anything in this show, should hop on a plane and get to New York. “Beautiful” is going to be a big, big hit.
What writer Doug McGrath has done so beautifully (ahem) it to make the show a snapshot of Carole’s life from the age of 16, when she started writing hits for Don Kirshner, through the launch of “Tapestry” in 1971. The story concerns her marriage at 18 to lyricist Gerry Goffin, and the birth of their two daughters, Louise and Sherry. This includes their marriage breaking apart thanks to Gerry’s affairs and craziness, and her transition from 60s pop tunesmith to 70s leader of the singer songwriter movement.
Carole, you can relax. There’s nothing about your subsequent marriages, and all the meshugeh stuff that came later. “Beautiful” freezes King and Goffin, as well fellow pop songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, in their golden moment.
It doesn’t hurt that the songs– and there are lots of them– are the very best of their time. Around the moment when Little Eva, Carole and Gerry’s babysitter, is singing “The LocoMotion,” you’re actually thinking, ‘Oh my god they wrote this too.’ This is after a parade of hits from both couples, and many many more to come.
The four actors playing the two couples are especially good, too. Jessie Mueller makes a career performance as Carole, singing her heart out on the hits and making pretend piano playing seem authentic. She’s not too Jewish or neurotic, but just enough. You also see that Carole King was no nebbish, and she took her own career very seriously. Hers is not the story of an artist who gets ripped off. Mueller, without mimicking her, gives us the Carole King we always wanted her to be.
Jake Epstein plays Goffin, who is nuts in real life but very gifted. Epstein is extremely likeable even when Goffin is gaga. Anika Larsen and and Jarrod Spector are almost too good to be true as Mann and Weil, the couple who teamed up to write or co-write “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling,” “Walking in the Rain,” “On Broadway,” “Uptown,” and the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” among others.
The genius here: By combining the Goffin-King story with Mann and Weil, McGrath director Marc Bruni were able to take — to paraphrase King from another song — the bitter (the first couple) with the sweet (the second). They made what will stand as the official Brill Building musical for Broadway, told most of the truth, and gave the audience songs to sing on the way. They were very clever, and I know it took a lot of work.
What you don’t get is what happened after the show ends. After “Tapestry,” King had a string of hit albums and singles through around 1978. She was married and divorced a lot more, had three more kids, moved to Montana and caused a lot of trouble for her neighbors. We don’t a musical for that. Goffin also had a lot of hits without King including Gladys Knight and the Pips’ great record, “(I’ve Really Got to Use) My Imagination.” Mann and Weil are always writing, had lots more hits themselves, and remain married and a lot of fun. It’s nice to see them get their due in “Beautiful.”
PS If Sony does some quick reissues, “Tapestry” will probably go back on the charts in conjunction with this show.