There’s something unexpected that might occur while watching the first half of the hit Broadway jukebox musical, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, now playing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, November 27. It’s not discovering the things you didn’t know about the career or the personal life of singer/songwriter Carole King. It’s remembering the things you did know, but had forgotten.
Not unlike The Jersey Boys – which time period this show parallels – there are songs you’ll hear in this national touring production you haven’t heard in ages; songs that, depending on age and pop musical tastes, made a great chunk of the soundtrack of your life. But unlike The Four Seasons where the sound of the song was unmistakeably theirs, something different happens when hearing the songs in Beautiful. You’ll know both Up on the Roof and Some Kind of Wonderful by The Drifters, you’ll easily recall Bobby Vee’s Take Good Care of My Baby, and when you hear The Shirelles and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow you may be transported back to where you were in 1960 when you first heard it on the radio. But unless you’re a pop music trivia enthusiast or a collector of old 45’s, what may not be quite so obvious is realizing the name of the composers behind those songs. It was Carole King with her lyricist partner and husband Gerry Goffin.
At the start of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical we’re in Carnegie Hall. It’s 1971 and Carole King (a thoroughly engaging Julia Knitel) has already scored a huge success with her landmark album Tapestry, a twelve track LP that went on to win four Grammy Awards and become one of the best-selling albums of all time. She’s playing the familiar So Far Away, the second track on the album, when within minutes, we’re whisked back in time, to Brooklyn, 1958, when Carole was only sixteen and her last name was Klein.
The first half of the show charts Carole’s song writing career from the early days when, against her mother’s wishes, the young girl headed into Manhattan in the hope of impressing music publisher Donnie Kershner (Curt Bouril), the music publisher who would later earn the nickname The Man With Golden Ear. The song she plays is It Might As Well Rain Until September (a song that would go on to be a hit for Carole and later recorded as an album track by Bobby Vee). The publisher not only likes the song, he hopes Carole has others just like it.
The show will eventually circle back to 1971 at Carnegie Hall as it begun and end with Carole at the piano, but in-between, we’ll learn of her stormy relationship with Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), how they met at Queens College, and the competitive musical rivalry between Goffin and King and Cynthia Weil (Erika Olson) and Barry Mann (Ben Frankhauser). Not only does this create conflicts, both personal and creative, but it gives the show an opportunity to incorporate other songs of the sixties which only adds further to that soundtrack of our lives. Barry Mann not only wrote and recorded Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp), but like Carole he also wrote some of the most famous songs of the sixties, partnered with Cynthia Weil, including On Broadway, and the classic Righteous Brothers song You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, all of which are included in the show.
In terms of telling Carole’s full story, the show is heavily fragmented, concentrating more on the songs and whatever big production number is coming next. It’s like a lengthy version of This Is Your Life, but instead of guests turning up every few minutes to tell their anecdotes, it’s the songs. Later, when Carole’s career changed course once her marriage dissolved, it was at the urging of James Taylor who encouraged the stage-shy Carole to write and perform her own, new material, culminating with the 1970 album Writer. It didn’t do so well.
It was the album that followed, Tapestry, that gave her that breakthrough, though the show suggests she went straight from a failed marriage to the songs from Tapestry via her own creative input. Plus, earlier, after Neil Sedaka wrote his hit Oh! Carol dedicated to her, she responded with the song Oh! Neil, but it went nowhere. The show never covers either of these events; it’s understandably concentrating on the hits, not the bombs. If music purists want an in-depth telling of the story of the girl from Brooklyn, they’ll have to go elsewhere. But what remains is one thrilling presentation where song after song comes at you at a rapid pace, hit after hit, presented not so much as they sounded on the singles but as catchy pop songs presented with the glizy flair of Broadway. The nostalgic value alone is worth the price of admission.
The show is also constantly amusing. When, as that sixteen-year-old, Carole suggests to Kirshner’s secretary that even though she has no appointment, the music publisher will want to see her. “Yeah, because people in showbiz are famous for their kindness,” the secretary deadpans. And when Carole, Goffin, Weil and the hypochondriac Barry Mann are on vacation up in New England, Mann complains, “Vermont is too quiet. I keep thinking I’ve had a stroke.”
When Carole, who was famous for her stage-fright and had little faith in her own sound, is pressed to sing one of her songs, she declines stating, “Who wants to hear a normal person sing?” She’s just compared herself with the glamor of Diana Ross and Petula Clark and is convinced she could never be in their league. Interestingly – though not a part of the show’s time-frame – it was later in 1994 when Carole debuted as an actor on Broadway, taking over the role of the mother in the gritty musical Blood Brothers. She replaced Petula Clark.
Beautiful: The Carole King Story is a breathless, jukebox musical thrill ride of a remarkable woman that tells of two careers; one as a songwriter when she was a part of the sixties hit factory of American pop, and the other as a singer/songwriter whose breakthrough album Tapestry changed everything (it remained on the charts for more than six years). As you leave the theatre, those infectious songs of the sixties will be bouncing in your head, guaranteed, and as soon as you get home you’ll want to revisit Tapestry on the turntable. When you do, you’re going to experience a fresh appreciation of each track. It’ll be as though it’s 1971. You’ve just stood in line at the record store and you’re hearing it for the first time.
Photos by John Marcus
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ASU Gammage website