‘Beautiful’ looks back on a prodigious pop songwriter
The album “Tapestry” was such a towering achievement, even baby boomers think of Carole King in terms of her 1971 album, which included such instant classics as “You’ve Got a Friend,” “So Far Away,” “Beautiful” and “I Feel the Earth Move.” “Tapestry” is one of the best-selling albums of all time, with more than 25 million copies sold.
“It’s as if Carole was born, she learned to walk, and she recorded ‘Tapestry,’ ” said Douglas McGrath.
But McGrath knows how much more there is to King’s story — he wrote the book for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opens Dec. 13 at the Fisher Theatre and runs through Jan. 8.
“Beautiful,” which premiered on Broadway in 2014, focuses upon the most dramatic part of King’s life — her early years. Born Carol Klein in 1942, by the late ’50s she was a music-crazy New York teenager determined to break into the music business. And she did, becoming part of one of the most successful songwriting teams in pop, with husband Gerry Goffin.
Despite their struggles — King became pregnant at 17 and Goffin had to work a day job as a chemist — the couple peddled their songs in and around the Brill Building, where most American pop music was composed up into the early ’60s.
Goffin and King worked alongside other youthful talents, including Neil Sedaka, Phil Spector and Don Kirshner, selling songs to such acts as the Shirelles, the Drifters, Gene Pitney, the Crystals, Dion, the Righteous Brothers, Herman’s Hermits and later, the Monkees.
Goffin wrote lyrics, and King composed and arranged the music. Their catalog includes such classics as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (the Shirelles), “Up on the Roof” (the Drifters), “One Fine Day” (the Chiffons), “Hey, Girl” (Freddie Scott) and “Natural Woman” (Aretha Franklin), to name a few.
The show draws nostalgic baby boomer fans, as one might expect. But “Beautiful” became a hit because it transcended the “jukebox musical” tag, with a strong dramatic narrative about the trials and triumphs of young people starting their lives out in a cutthroat, creative business.
“It’s the story of a kid who breaks into the music business, has tremendous success, and has her heart broken,” said McGrath. “Everybody relates to heartbreak and romance. And for some in the audience, they get the joy of hearing these great songs for the first time.”
King’s heartbreak was watching as her husband struggled with psychological issues, experimented with drugs and eventually, left her.
The story also centers upon the friendly competition between Goffin and King and another superstar songwriting couple, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”). Many songs by Mann and Weil are included in the show as well.
“We used to call Carole and Gerry ‘Lucy and Desi,’ while we were ‘Fred and Ethel,’ ” said Weil, referring to the 1950’s TV stars. The two couples bonded because they were experiencing the same pressures, and rush of fame.
The musical was originally intended to be about all four. “But they said, ‘Where is Carole’s album?’ ” Mann said. “They had to have ‘Tapestry’ in there. So it became more Carole’s story.”
“And we’re the comic relief,” Weil added.
Before her songwriting adventures, Weil did a brief stint at the University of Michigan — she thought she wanted to be a journalist. But she returned east to attend Sarah Lawrence College and study musical theater instead. So it tickles her that so many young performers who have cycled in and out of the cast of “Beautiful” come from Michigan’s musical theater department.
Those Michigan grads currently in the cast include Josh Dawson, who plays one of the Drifters and Ximone Rose, class of ’15, who is one of the “swing” performers, covering many of the female roles.
Rose, who attended high school in New Orleans and is the daughter of a musician, said the show has expanded her appreciation for King’s songs. “It was fun because some of the songs, you didn’t even know that she wrote them, or that Cynthia Weil did, and I’d been loving them forever,” she said.
At first, King was ambivalent about “Beautiful” being so tightly focused on her, personally.
“It’s not that Carole didn’t like the show,” said Mann. “But I don’t think she wanted to relive a lot of that time, it was very painful for her.”
But King soon embraced the show, which has brought attention to her music with and without Goffin (who died in 2014, just months after the show opened), as well as to Mann and Weil.
McGrath said Goffin, who was interviewed at length for the book, was encouraging from the start. Although very ill at the time, Goffin was able to see the musical on Broadway. (He died within months, at age 75).
Though Goffin and King divorced in the mid-’60s and he was married to his fourth wife, the songwriting duo had made peace long before his death. King sang at his funeral, McGrath said.
“I got to say my goodbyes to Gerry at the show,” said Mann sadly. “I hugged him, and told him I loved him.”
Some of the more dramatic moments shown in “Beautiful” include the making of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in 1960, Goffin and King’s first No. 1 hit.
Somehow Goffin was able to write heartfelt lyrics in the voice of a female teen, for the Shirelles (later he was similarly adept at writing from a woman’s viewpoint in “Natural Woman”). The lush instrumentation was provided by King, who learned how to arrange strings from a library book. In the recording studio, King, then 18, had to conduct a large string section of grouchy, seasoned pros.
“Carole goes into the session and says, ‘OK, let’s get going,’ ” said McGrath. “And all these older men who played for the New York Philharmonic, they looked up and said, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I wrote the song, and I’m running the session,’ she told them.”
That period in time and the youthful effervescence of those songs, is served well by the musical’s young cast, and that energy has translated well across the generations.
“The show is a journey of discovery for her fanbase,” McGrath said. “But when they come back, they bring their kids and grandkids.”
Susan Whitall, a music journalist and author, is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News.
Contact her at susanwhitall.com
The Carole King Musical’
Music by Gerry Goffin/Carole King, and Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil. Book by Douglas McGrath, direction by Marc Bruni.
Dec. 13-Jan. 8
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand, Detroit.
Show days and times: 8 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 2 and 8 p.m. Sat.; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun. Select Tuesday and Wednesday matinees, 1 p.m. No performances Dec. 24 and 25
Tickets: Available at Ticketmaster, or charge by phone at (800) 982-2787. For more information, go to broadwayindetroit.com.