Contributing editor Jim Gladstone offers a sneak peek at the Broadway-bound Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
Singer-songwriter Carole King sewed up her status as a smart, sensitive, women’s lib-era icon with the classic 1971 album,Tapestry. The theatrical version of her life story— currently in a pre-Broadway run in San Francisco—is more of a patchwork affair. The show is enormously entertaining thanks to the outstanding cast’s performances of hits by King, her first husband Gerry Goffin, and their compatriot songwriting couple Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, but Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is also stiltedly dutiful to the formulas of standard-issue celebrity biography and the contemporary jukebox musical.
Bookended by scenes set at King’s June, 1971 Carnegie Hall debut, Douglas McGrath’s script unimaginatively shorthands its way from 16-year-old King (nee Klein) fantasizing about songwriting, to a meet-cute romance with Goffin, to the couple’s initial Brill Building success, their marital dissolution, and King’s eventual emergence as an empowered, self-sufficient single woman.
The captivating Jessie Mueller brings a palpable warmth and affecting ache to her renditions of “A Natural Woman” and “It’s Too Late”—but that’s too little to lift the show to truly formidable heights. Beautiful metronomes along in a connect-the-dots, lets-get-to-the-next-song format that, frankly, aligns quite well with the commercial song factory mode of the early ‘60s music business, when King and Goffin knocked out timeless pop baubles like the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion,” and the Drifters’ “Some King of Wonderful” (all performed here by an impeccable singing and dancing ensemble).
But as King’s songwriting evolves from calculated craft toward personal art—less formulaic and more psychologically acute—neither McGrath’s book or director Marc Bruni’s staging offers a comparable stylistic shift. The quick-stepping hit parade of the first act mirrors King’s upbeat rapid rise to success as a work-for-hire composer, but act two of Beautiful fails to effectively connect King’s interior emotional searching with the looser, flowing structures of the compositions she wrote for herself as a performer.
That said, Beautiful as a whole is intended as a commercial confection, more akin to King’s Brill Building efforts than her later work: It’s a bright, snappy song-delivery system. While Beautiful shows occasional glimpses of the ambition to emulate Dreamgirls, it settles for being Jersey Boys with a shot of estrogen and a sprinkling of granola. It doesn’t make you feel the earth move under your feet, but it certainly gets your toes tapping.