The weekend before Christmas, my favorite theater buddy and I were trying to decide what Broadway show to go see. She had just seen a couple plays that week, so it was decided we should go see a musical. We opted to see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
We chose wisely.
Beautiful chronicles the beginning of Carole King’s songwriting career through her performance at Carnegie Hall after her hugely successful album “Tapestry” won several Grammys. We watched Carole blossom from a beyond talented 16-yr-old to a mid-30s mother of two who somehow managed to write and co-write some of the most popular pop songs in our nation’s history.
Even if you didn’t grow up during the early years of Carole King’s career, you know her songs. Beautiful uses them as a musical timeline to show how King went from “It Might As Well Rain Until September” to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to “It’s Too Late” to “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” King wrote a number of songs with her ex-husband, Gerry Goffin, and it was an emotional rollercoaster seeing their romantic and working relationships rise and then tumble down.
During their time at the record label, King and Goffin befriended another songwriting team, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Though they had a little bit of rivalry to see whose songs stayed at the top of the charts the longest, it was fun to see the pairs supporting each other at work and outside the office.
My parents listened to a lot of Carole King music when I was growing up and I knew she had (co-)written a lot of songs for other artists, but it is nothing short of amazing when you look at the track list for the show. Every song is a toe-tapper. My friend and I had standing room tickets and for the first half of the show, it felt like our own little dance party up in the mezzanine. (For the second act, the ushers seated us in the orchestra… so that was awesome.) I would watch other people in the audience every time the intro to a song played. All the songs are so recognizable and it was fun to see people gasp at the familiar tune and nod their head, as if they were remembering a significant moment in their life where that song played a part. I don’t really remember the first time I heard any of these songs, but the older people in the crowd probably do. It was neat to get to share that with them, even from afar.
The only person in the cast who I had seen on stage before was the man who played Barry Mann – Jarrod Spector. (I saw him in Jersey Boys when it opened in Chicago.) He was awesome, of course. But, the person who really holds the show on her shoulders is Jessie Mueller. Mueller plays Carole King and she plays her to perfection. Her singing voice is not an exact replica of King’s, but it’s pretty damn close and exquisitely captures the tangible emotions of all the songs. King’s music career started off happy and upbeat, (co-)writing love songs and catchy tunes you can never get out of your head. But, as her relationship with her husband grew apart and she branched out on her own, King’s music became more than soulful – it became soul-bearing. Her lyrics punch you in the feels in the best way possible and are still anthems for women everywhere.
There aren’t any huge dance numbers. (Well, Little Eva and the ensemble do do “The Locomotion…”) And some of the performances are simply people singing into a microphone either at a stand or a piano. These songs don’t need huge production value like other musicals. They do help drive the story, but the music and lyrics provide the substance rather than lavish costumes and intricate choreography. It’s not a boring show by any means, but it is one where you need to be ready to appreciate the understatedness of it all. Carole King was not a flashy woman (at least that’s what I gathered from the show…), but her music definitely lit up the charts and that stage.
I really enjoyed this show. Jukebox musicals, when done properly, are a lot of fun. I knew Carole’s music, but now I feel like I know her. And she’s Beautiful.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is currently in previews and opens on January 12, 2014. It’s playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on 43rd St in New York, NY.