Carole King is a national treasure. There are no ands, ifs, or buts about it. The woman who is the epitome of the title singer/songwriter as far as American popular music goes, also wrote some of the greatest hits of the 60s, and has not stopped working since she first professionally sat down at the piano in 1960, at the age of 17.
So it is only natural that in a world where Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia are some of the longest standing Broadway successes, hanging their hats on the audience’s built in familiarity with the music material, a staging of Carole’s life/work was inevitable. And now, after a triumphant Broadway debut, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical has landed at the Kennedy Center. And it is terrific and possibly (probably?) the best time you’ll have in a theatre this month. No ands, ifs or buts about it.
The story is based on King’s career trajectory and covers the time from her as a bobbysocked, ponytailed teenager from Brooklyn who just wanted to write songs to a (very) young wife and mother and writing partner to college sweetheart Gerry Goffin, to Gerry’s betrayal of their marriage and work together (men! right?!!) to her playing Tapestry, her breakthrough solo record, to a sold out Carnegie Hall. No spoilers here, a quick google search reveals how this will all end within seconds.
And even if you couldn’t google it, you’d see where this was going. It is a story of the American Dream made, reconfigured, and adapted in ways you have, in theory, seen a thousand times before. And yet, it undeniably, remarkably even, works.
The reasons for success are manyfold:
For starters, the cast is as close to perfect as a musical cast can get. Abby Mueller, who plays King has a great everywoman/girl quality that makes her outstanding voice stand out even more. And while the men are great too, the show belongs to her and Becky Gulsvig, who plays Cynthia Weil the female half of the other writing couple in their pop music factor. Gulsvig has a certain panache you just can’t take your eyes off, and her slightly helion-y voice is perfect for her sardonic lyrical deliveries and one-liners. And yet, despite being musical characters (and musical characters are not known for great characterization) they both manage the tricky chemistry forged by two women in a man’s world, rivals, friends, and soldiers in the same pop music war. Carole proves stronger than she gave herself credit for, and Cynthia more vulnerable that she would let on, and those revelations lend the show the necessary humanity.
The small but top-notch chorus lends the show the necessary comic relief in the middle of all that humanity.
The structure and workplace setting ingeniously allows for The Shirrelles, The Drifters, Little Eva, The Righteous Brothers, and most endearingly Neal Sedaka, to pop-in and out of frame and do terrific, just-hammy-enough renditions of some of the hits the two couples in the movie wrote (opening the song book to Mann/Weil songs on top of the King/Goffin ones adds a nice added and maybe unexpected layer to what we expected to hear as an audience, and some of the Mann/Weil numbers get a bigger applause, in part, we feel because they feel like little unexpected, delicious, bittersweet cherries on top of the King sundae you bought a ticket for).
And what hits they were AND are. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow! On Broadway! Loco-motion! You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling! Chains! And That is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg! Beautiful has one of the greatest song books for a musical out there and no songwriting even needed to be done for it.
And in the end that’s what it comes down to: if you are a fan of the music and a King superfan, you’ll obviously love it. If you are sort of a fan of the music but not a King aficionado, you’ll still love it and be surprised by just how many hits Carole King was responsible for (Paul McCartney and John Lennon were quoted as saying that all they “ever wanted to be was like Goffin and King”). And if you don’t know a Carole King from a Karen Carpenter, you’ll love it and be served a perfect introduction to a national treasure. Regardless, as I mentioned, don’t miss it.
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical plays at Kennedy Center through October 25th. Details and tickets here.