The jukebox musical that Carole King only agreed to kicking and screaming has left audiences around the country clapping and singing
Beautiful is subtitled The Carole King Musical and contains many unforgettable Carole King songs (“Will You still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “A Natural Woman”). But this show is a jukebox musical that King had little to do with beyond agreeing – kicking and screaming – to let the producers base it on her life and songs. Crazy?
The other players in this jaunty evening of musical comedy – a breezy mix of nostalgia, great songs, spirited dance and romance from the 1960s and ’70s – are Cynthia Weil (words) and Barry Mann (music), good friends of King and King’s then-husband and collaborator, the late Gerry Goffin.
The Manns’ own romance and marriage is prominently featured in the story, often as comic relief. So are some of their compositions (“On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”), along with snippets by others and including that 1929 anthem, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” used by Franklin Roosevelt as his 1932 presidential campaign song, but offered here with reinvented Weil-d new lyrics.
So, what gives…?
Enter sunny producer Paul Blake, strongly suspected to be the mastermind behind this Beautiful gambit.
“Yes! … No!” he said, quickly reversing himself. “The phone rang one day and it was the president of EMI music who said, ‘Paul, we own these songs and I think there’s a show in there.’ Why call me? ‘Well, you got the [Irving] Berlin sisters to give you the rights to ‘White Christmas.’ You’re the most persistent producer I know.”
It was a comment Blake had to live up to. But when he approached Carole King, she demurred.
A musical? About her? Too personal! Too private! Too invasive! He pleaded, she hemmed; he begged, she hawed; persisting, he made a commitment: “You say no,” he told King. “I say yes. And if you don’t like it, I’ll kill it.”
It was reassurance enough to get King to relent, but when invited to a first reading, she walked out. What?!
When Blake caught up with her, she said she had to leave; the musical, which prominently features her break-up with Goffin, was too emotional for her to watch. But, she added, she could see “people loved it, it was very well written and performed” and, while she didn’t want to get any closer to the production, she would allow it to go on…
Time to exhale.
It took another couple of years to pull it together.
The book writer Blake wanted, Doug McGrath, also kept saying “no,” but Blake told him what he’d told King: “That’s the first no; we’ll eventually get to yes,” for which he smartly enlisted the help of McGrath’s wife. Bingo.
“Once we really got going,” said the persistor-in-chief, “it worked!” By then, Weil and Mann were on board and the messy collaboration was underway. McGrath wrote the book, made decisions and song choices, with the others – except King – chiming in, disagreeing or not.
Interviewed at their Los Angeles home in June, Mann and Weil said the idea for this unforgettable musical had started with Carole’s manager at the time.
“She thought it should be a story about all four of us,” offered Mann, “Cynthia, me, Carole and Gerry.”
“Because we were best friends and also fierce competitors, we were to have equal weight,” Weil clarified. “Then Paul came in and we interviewed writers with him. When we settled on Doug [McGrath], the first version was about the four of us. But after that first reading, which ended with us getting married and Carole going off to California, everybody felt cheated that they hadn’t heard a single song from “Tapestry,” which was Carole’s big album.”
“We saw this was a problem,” Mann added. “Of the four of us, she was the famous one. It was her album. People wanted to hear that story.”
King, meanwhile, continued to insist the show should be about the four of them, but by then everybody knew better. “We kept telling Doug that Carole and Gerry were Lucy and Desi and we were Fred and Ethel,” Mann deadpanned, “and it kind of worked out that way.”
How difficult was this to sort out?
“You can imagine,” said Weil, “four people, all with different ideas of what the show should be…” Less difficult, Mann insisted, because McGrath is “a great guy and real talent who was very sensitive to us.”
Weil and Mann have seven songs in Beautiful to King’s 14, and while they would have loved to have more, “we had to go home with it. Carole is a terrific talent and she’s family,” said Mann. “If she was a lousy person, it might have been hard, but Carole is so wonderful, we took the realistic view.”
“Carole is not someone who seeks to be the center of attention,” Weil affirmed. “The show is what it was meant to be. That Carole walked out of that first reading saying ‘I don’t want to relive that,’ tells you everything.”
“The musical zips along,” Mann concurred, “and we did get to approve the actors who played us!”
Beautiful had a pre-Broadway try-out in 2013 at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre selling out its run. It opened on Broadway in January 2014.
Fearful of her emotions, King did not attend. When Beautiful was declared a hit, recouping its investment in a dizzying eight months, and when her friends told her how much they loved it, King again relented.
“She sat in the audience in full disguise,” said producer Blake, chuckling at the memory. “No one knew she was there! She couldn’t stop crying. ‘I wasn’t ready for Cynthia and Barry getting married,’ she told me.”
They got her out of her disguise, up on stage and eventually joining in song with the show’s star and King impersonator, Tony Award-winning Jessie Mueller. It was the joyous capper to an exhilarating evening.
Some kind of wonderful.
Sylvie Drake was Director of Media Relations and Publications for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts 1994 – 2014. She is a former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and current contributor to culturalweekly.com.
Beautiful, The Carole King Musical: Ticket information
This Tony Award-winning musical tells the inspiring true story of King’s remarkable rise to stardom. Along the way, she made more than beautiful music; she wrote the soundtrack to a generation. The score includes beloved songs written by Gerry Goffin/Carole King and Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil, including “I Feel The Earth Move,” “One Fine Day,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “You’ve Got A Friend” and the title song. Beautiful has a book by and Tony Award-nominee and Academy Award-nominated writer Douglas McGrath, direction by Marc Bruni, choreography by Josh Prince and took home two 2014 Tony Awards.
- Sept. 4-9
- The Ellie, Denver Performing Arts Complex
- Tickets start at $25
- Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
- Groups of 10 or more: 800-641-1222
- Accessible matinee performance 2 p.m. Sept. 8