Sweet Little (Not So Much a) Rock and Roller
Beautiful: the Carole King Musical
Stephen Sondheim Theater
124 W. 43rd Street
New York, N.Y.
One of the least written about subjects in the history of American music is the story of how music producers got songwriters to write tunes for rock singers and groups in the 1950s and 1960s and, in some cases, almost in assembly line fashion. Songwriters toiled long hours to work their magic for singers like Neil Sedaka and groups like the Drifters and Shirelles, who rocketed to fame with their music.
One of the top guns in that mostly all male songwriting field was young Carole King, a whiz kid who skipped two grades in school and was just 18 when she rode to the top of the charts with her first smash hit, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, performed by the Shirelles. Carole wrote or co-wrote 118 songs over a long career and survived the end of teenybopper rock, the British invasion and the disco era to become a beloved and enduring musical star.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is King’s story. It just opened in New York and while not a lustrous musical like Jersey Boys, that told the story of music in that same era, it is a delightful historical look at the history of the backroom of the rock music business and many of the colorful writers and singers who lived in that world with the majestically gifted King.
King, just 16 when she sold her first song to music impresario Don Kirshner, grew up in Brooklyn just as the rock and roll wave started to wash across America. She got herself a job as a songwriter, worked in the Brill Building in Manhattan with dozens of other writers and singers and, with boyfriend Gerry Goffin, banged out hit after hit. Her songs chronicled life in the 1950s and 1960s and, as the country changed, her music changed. She was one of the few women songwriters of the day and, unlike most writers, managed to stay on top as a composer even after the new singers started to write their own music. Her later songs, such as Beautiful, So Far Away, It’s too Late and (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman, and her many tunes from the highly successful Tapestry album, were just as good as her early rock hits such as Take Good Care of My Baby, One Fine Day and Chains.
The main reason the play, with book by Douglas McGrath, works is the success of the incredibly talented Jessie Mueller as King. Mueller is not only a gifted actress, but a fine singer with a voice big enough to belt out King’s early rock hits and yet soft enough to cover the later songs. She also portrays King as the ordinary girl with extraordinary talents, a combination that made her so popular. She was always in touch with the great mass of American music lovers because she was one of them herself, not a music eccentric.
Director Marc Bruni lets Mueller be the main force of the show. In scene after scene we see her story and then watch as she, with others, launches into a song, often followed with another version of the song by the group that performed it (the girls who play the Shirelles as wonderful on stage). I grew up in the sixties and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow was one of the songs I hummed all night long. It is the centerpiece of the first act and the audience went wild at the performance I caught.
The plot of the play is rather simple. Carol and her boyfriend become man and wife and work in the Brill Building next door to the equally gifted musical team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil at the same time they are raising a child. Life was very busy. They constantly try to outdo Mann and Weil on the Top 100 chart while becoming best friends with the pair. Anika Larsen is superb as Weil and Jarrod Spector is just as good as Mann. The rest of the cast supports the stars.
The rock music of the fifties and sixties, led by King’s work, was the musical heartbeat of the country and lives on today on radio channels from coast to coast. It was a time both of innocence and dramatic change in America.
The play does have some problems. First, and foremost, it is too long. The first act is overloaded with songs and while entertaining, just about blows a musical fuse. Twenty minutes could be cut from it. The first act also needs more of a play and less of a concert. The whole play needs more depth and better characterizations for the stars (the husband is very shallow). There is almost nothing in it about King after she moved to California and began to sing her own songs or about Brooklyn in that era. How did she view the British invasion? The Vietnam War? The women’s movement? The changing America she wrote about?
These are minor points, though. Overall, Beautiful… is a winner, a valentine to Carole King, the early days of rock and roll, the legendary Brill Building and, more importantly, American music.
Carole King? We will still love her tomorrow.
PRODUCTION: Produced by Paul Blake, Sony/ATV music, others. Scenic Designer: Derek McLane, Costumes: Alejo Vietti, Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski, Sound: Brian Ronan. The play was choreographed by Josh Prince and directed by Marc Bruni. Open ended run.
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