Beautiful—The Carole King Musical

Book by Douglas McGrath, songs written by Gerry Goffin / Carole King and Barry Mann / Cynthia Weil
Stephen Sondheim Theatre, New York

Beautiful—The Carole King Musical

Jessie Mueller is a sensation. If viewers did not know that Carole King is now in her 70s, they would swear that she is participating in her own tribute on Broadway every night.

The vocal resemblance is uncanny to the extent that you watch the lips like a hawk to see whether the actress is lip-synching. She isn’t and the acting and piano playing are the real McCoy as well.

Beautiful is the latest in a long line of jukebox musicals. It fits the Jersey Boys or, if you prefer, Sunny Afternoon formula matching the much-loved songs to the biography of the person behind them.

The story as told here sounds too much like a lowbrow romantic novel, probably in part because it is quite extraordinary, although book writer Douglas McGrath seems to favour simple, sentimental emotions that are de rigueur in bad pop songs but not usually those of Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

In brief, Carole Klein was a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who by 16 had already penned a pop hit, “It Might as Well Rain Until September”. She then decided that composition was her strong suit and met wannabe lyricist Gerry in high school.

The partnership was an immediate success and produced not only music but a baby leading to marriage when she was a tender 17 and he little older.

Unlike most gymslip mother-brides, Carole King as she had re-named herself swiftly became rich and famous.

Sadly, within a few years, Scott J Campbell’s moody, muscular Gerry was sleeping around and losing his Mojo.

By then, shrewd producer Paul Anthony Stewart as Don Kirshner had set the Goffins in opposition to Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, respectively played by Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector.

The two pairings were remarkably prolific and potent, producing floods of hits. For those that do not know the latter duo by name, they were responsible amongst much else for “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”.

The quartet also became the best of friends, surviving the emotional ups and downs together as often as not.

After finally deciding that Gerry was too volatile and unfaithful to live with, Carole found herself without a partner in either life or music.

While the former state is not addressed, her musical solution was to write and record the painfully autobiographical, Tapestry, which will have received an amazing sales boost over the year that the show has been promoting it on Broadway.

It would be easy to select any one of a dozen or more songs to celebrate the Carole King songbook but as a quick sample of those that particularly stand out in the show, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” sung by The Shirelles is as good as it gets, while Miss Mueller’s renditions of “It’s Too Late” and “You’ve Got a Friend” will have brought tears to many eyes.

Marc Bruni’s production conjures up the era effectively and features some spectacular lighting effects from Peter Kaczorowski.

It seems that as a general rule, the popularity of this genre is at least as closely connected to the music as the musical. In this case, although the book is nothing to write home about, Carole King’s story is lively while her music, enhanced by the efforts of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, is still as popular as ever. As a result, the show looks set to extend well beyond the year that it has currently enjoyed on Broadway.

There is also every chance that Londoners will fall in love with Beautiful, assuming that Katie Brayben can do even half as good a job as the wondrous Jessie Mueller.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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