NEW YORK, NY—“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre brings to Broadway a stunning, dramatic, soul-satisfying rock ‘n’ roll history show with particular nostalgic appeal to those who grew up in the early 1960s.
Before Carole Joan Klein became pop superstar Carole King (whose 1971 Tapestry album has sold 25 million copies and counting), there was the Goffin/King husband-wife songwriting partnership who worked out of the legendary Brill Building at 1650 Broadway writing hit after hit like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (#1 for the Shirelles in ’61), “Some Kind Of Wonderful” (The Drifters), “Chains” (The Cookies in ’62 and famously covered by The Beatles in ’63), “The Loco-Motion” (#1 for Little Eva, their cleaning woman, in ’62), the infamous Phil Spector production of “He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss” for The Crystals in ’62, “One Fine Day” for The Chiffons in ’63, “Up On The Roof” for The Drifters, “Don’t Bring Me Down” for The Animals, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for The Monkees and a whole lot more.
Their best friends and rivals, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, also married and working out of the Brill Building, wrote “Kicks” (Paul Revere & The Raiders), “On Broadway” (The Drifters), “Walking In The Rain” (The Ronettes), “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (The Righteous Brothers) and a whole lot more.
It would be simplistic to say that the great Brill Building era ended when bands started writing their own material…but it wouldn’t be far from the truth.
The heart and soul of this production is the interaction between the four songwriters when one of them has an idea, plays it for the others on piano, then—BANG!—there’s those great girl groups in full flower finishing the song the way we remember it.
There’s no holding back on the drama either. The sense of female empowerment is palpable when the Goffin/King partnership—and marriage—crumbles after Goffin gets a little too cozy with one of those girl groups. “I don’t deserve this,” King yells. “I’m leaving! We’re done!” First-time theatergoers could even feel a bit uncomfortable at this raw, naked human emotion…and that’s a good thing because it’s so real. The juxtaposition of hearing these joyous early-rock ‘n’ roll songs come to thrilling life—this is one ass-kicking pit band!—and the principals arguing, pleading, cajoling and crying, gives the production the kind of balls that elevates it from your usual feel-good baby boomer jukebox musical.
King is crestfallen over the loss of her marriage and songwriting partner but is counseled by her mother who reminds her that she wrote great songs before Gerry Goffin and she will write great songs after Gerry Goffin. How prophetic! Problem is, she now has two little children to care for on her own.
In Act #2, King reinvents herself to write deeply personal songs of her heartbreak and loss, taking them to the Brill Building and very tentatively playing them for Don Kirshner who, throughout, is a rock of encouragement for his stable of songwriters. It’s Tapestry and the moment is goosebump-inducing. Kirshner is blown away by the new sophistication of his songwriter and immediately starts thinking out loud which artists could make these songs into #1 hits.
“No no,” Carole boldly says, “I know who should sing them. Me.”
Kirshner is incredulous at the audacity of this suggestion. “Really?”
“I just know it’s right,” she answers. “I haven’t felt like this since the first day I came to see you.”
There’s a pregnant pause. You can practically feel the audience holding their breath.
Kirshner smiles and asks, “How can I help?”
He hates to lose her but she gives him a parting shot, another new song she wrote. She sits down at the piano and sings “You’ve Got A Friend.”
Kirshner is awed. He hooks her up with producer Lou Adler. She moves to the West Coast, and goes into the studio with Adler to record Tapestry. But she’s a song short. Problem is, the song Adler suggests is a tune Aretha Franklin covered four years earlier and Carole King refuses to record because it’s just too painful.
“It’s just too hard for me to sing that song,” she admits.
“But you wrote it!”
“I wrote the music but the words are Gerry’s. It brings up a lot for me.”
“Let me tell you why I like the song,” the ever-patient producer explains. “A lot of the music on the album is about the pain relationships can bring. But when you first fall for someone, there’s a lot of joy. This has that. The album should have that too.”
“I know…but I’m scared to feel that again.”
Still, she goes to the piano and sings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” It’s the emotional high point of the musical. In one of the final scenes, she’s backstage at Carnegie Hall, a star in her own right, ushering in the ‘70s singer-songwriter era. Guess who comes backstage to wish her luck? Yeah, it’s her ex-husband with a boatload of apology.
Kudos to Jessie Mueller (Carole King), Jake Epstein (Gerry Goffin), Anika Larsen (Cynthia Weil), Jeb Brown (Don Kirshner) and Jarrod Spector (Barry Mann) who are all spectacular, especially Mueller who nails Carole King’s singular essence completely. (King, who reportedly helped with the original production, has declined to see the finished product). Spector, who played Frankie Valli for 1,500 performances in Jersey Boys, is also affecting on an emotional level. My favorite scene? It’s where he shows off another song to his friends he’s just written. It’s “We Got To Get Out Of This Place,” one the all-time great rock ‘n’ roll songs (The Animals), a song so spectacularly resonant in standing the test of time, a song that Bruce Springsteen has repeatedly said is the precursor to everything he’s ever written. When he sings that opening line, “In this dirty old part of the city where the sun refuses to shine,” and finishes so strong, that moment, in and of itself, is a moment to remember.
Carole King’s name might be in the title, but this show is just as much about Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann, Gerry Goffin (all still alive) with Don Kirshner [1934-2011] and, to a lesser degree Lou Adler (now mostly known as the guy who sits next to Jack Nicholson at Laker games). It’s a delicious slice of rock ‘n’ roll history with some tearful histrionics thrown in to slap your face. It’s what theater is supposed to do and this production does it in spades.