One of the great things about SHN’s season of shows at the Curran, Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters—what used to be called the Best of Broadway series, just as SHN used to be called Shorenstein Hays-Nederlander—is that in addition to all the hit shows fresh from Broadway, we occasionally get to see future hits on their way to Broadway. Wicked was one notable example, as were Mamma Mia and Legally Blonde—and then there are the ones that didn’t fare as well. (Lennon, anyone? Anyone?) Part of the thrill of getting the first look at these things is that you really never know what you’re going to get.
It’s pretty rare to find a new Broadway show that’s not either an adaptation of a beloved movie or a jukebox musical of preexisting pop hits, usually structured around a biographical sketch of the people who made those songs famous. Making its world premiere at the Curran courtesy of SHN before heading to Broadway in November, Beautiful—The Carole King Musical is obviously squarely in the latter category. It profiles songwriter Carole King, who composed hits from “Will You Still Love me Tomorrow,” “One Fine Day,” and “Locomotion” to “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Written by Douglas McGrath (writer/director of the movie Emma) and directed by Marc Bruni, the play follows Carole from a Brooklyn teenager peddling her pop songs to hitmaking music publisher Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown as an amusedly indulgent show-biz magnate) at the music publishing house Aldon Music—not the Brill Building, but right across the street and creating that same famous sound—and helping define the pop landscape of the early ’60s to finding a second life in the ’70s as a singer-songwriter in her own right. We see her meet a handsome young lyrical genius, Gerry Goffin (an effectively conflicted Jake Epstein), who quickly becomes her boyfriend, songwriting partner, and then her husband, though he proves too restless to be all that good at the last part. The two find themselves constantly in competition with another tremendously talented songwriting team turned couple: Cynthia Weil (a bright and charismatic Anika Larsen, with a terrific singing voice of her own) and Barry Mann (a comically neurotic Jarrod Specter). Weil and Mann are a constant presence in the show from this point on, getting almost equal time with Carole and Gerry. But that’s a good thing because they function as the comic relief, getting all the good lines in the show. (“You have a husband? You don’t look old enough to have a bike,” Weil says when she meets King, and when she listens to Mann canceling rendezvous with a half-dozen women to work late on a song, she cracks, “I feel I’m getting pregnant just sitting here.”)
It should almost be called The Aldon Music Musical, because less than half of the approximately one million songs in the show are actually by Carole King. There’s also a ton of Mann/Weil songs included (“Who Put the Bomp,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”) to give a sense of the friendly hitmaking rivalry between the two songwriting couples, plus a number of other tunes to give a sense of what else was going on in the building and the business at the time. (One highlight is a medley of “Splish Splash,” “Love Potion #9,” “Poison Ivy,” “Yakkety Yak” and a bunch of other songs all being recorded at once, to give a sense of what a hub of pop-music activity 1650 Broadway was at the time. (Derek McLane’s ever-mutating set, which previously seemed to be simply decorative, suddenly becomes a giant multi-level recording studio buzzing with future hits in every room.) In fact there are even fewer Carole King songs in the show than are listed in the program, apparently because a few numbers were cut before the show opened.
Unusually for a musical, people don’t just burst into song for no reason. It’s always the songwriters working on a new song, or pitching it to Kirshner, or occasionally even performing it in public. But the show really comes to life when the songs are performed by the “real” acts—immaculately styled groups with matching glitzy outfits (great costumes by Alejo Vietti), big smiles and synchronized dance moves (slick choreography by Josh Prince). E. Clayton Cornelious, Douglas Lyon, Arbender J. Robinson and Antoine L. Smith are dynamite as the Drifters, and Ashley Blanchet, Alysha Deslorieux, Carly Hughes and Rashidra Scott are beautifully polished as the Shirelles. Kevin Duda makes an amusingly peppy Neil Sedaka, and he and Josh Davis nail the ponderous gravitas of the Righteous Brothers. It’s probably good that these moments are used sparingly, to avoid the whole show becoming a revue of imitation pop groups, but they’re invariably when the music really takes flight.
Jessie Mueller gives a curious performance as Carole King. She embodies the songwriter with a sympathetically unassuming air of a regular person from Brooklyn navigating her way through an irregular world of outsize personalities. But for the entire first act it seems like someone who can’t sing has been cast as the lead in a musical. As young Carole sings songs she wrote that other people made famous—“Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”—her voice is flat and strained and difficult to listen to. It could be that this is a character choice, that Mueller is trying to convey King’s reticence and tentativeness as a performer, as well as difficulty sticking up for herself in general. And the fact is, King’s voice does have rawness about it that can be an acquired taste. Maybe this is Mueller’s immaculately researched “young Carole King voice,” and it’s not supposed to sound too good. This possibility seems more likely because once the play goes on to King’s 1970s solo work, Mueller delivers songs such as the jubilant finale “Beautiful” with strength and aplomb.
There’s something appropriate about that, because so much of the show is about King coming into her own as a songwriter and a composer, especially after the collapse of her marriage to her longtime writing partner. It’s as if we’re hearing her literally find her voice.
Mind you, it’s hard to get all that involved in King’s ups and downs, because like most biographical popsicals, this is a formulaic, Cliffs Notes version of a life, running through the highlights as if from a checklist. You can admire how succinctly the show captures the changing times, and particularly the changing musical styles, but there’s a difference between covering a life and capturing it. Beautiful cleverly and concisely touches on the important bits so that you get a sense of King’s life and career and her place in musical history, which is really what you want from a show like this. An emotionally involving story that really lingers on any of these moments, that would be extra.
Show #112 of 2013, attended October 8.