Carole King is the most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century, having written or co-written 118 pop hits on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1955 and 1999. It was not surprising when a jukebox musical of her songs, Beautiful The Carole King Musical, opened on Broadway in 2014 where it is still running. The National Tour is making its second stop at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre and this reviewer finally got to experience it. King was 16 and already in college (she skipped two lower grades) when she sold her first song. Soon she was assigned a songwriting partner (she wrote the melodies, he wrote the lyrics) in Gerry Goffin by music publisher Don Kirshner at 1650 Broadway (sort of a low rent version of the Brill Building). Their first #1 hit, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” for The Shirelles in 1960, was also the first #1 hit for a black all-girl group. The couple, who had earlier married and had two young girls, quit their day jobs and began composing full time.
Kirshner pitted the King/Goffin team against another duo in his stable—the hypochondriac composer Barry Mann and the wannabe Broadway lyricist Cynthia Weil. The couples seemed to alternate pop, doo-wop hits until the Beatles led the British invasion in the mid-1960s and changed the music industry. Beautiful is not just the story of King and her songs but of Goffin, Mann and Weil. To music lovers of a certain age, the more than two dozen songs heard in the show make for a wonderful trip down musical memory lane. As the Goffin/King partnership and marriage unravel we watch the Mann/Weil partnership grow into marriage.
In style and content, Beautiful reminded this viewer of the 1985 musical Leader of the Pack: The Songs of Ellie Greenwich. That show also charted not just Greenwich’s production of doo-wop hit after hit in the early 1960s but her personal and love life. The main difference was that Darlene Love, who had recorded many of the demos of songs written by Greenwich and Jeff Barry, narrated the story and finally got to sing the songs in all her diva glory. Greenwich herself appeared in the show’s final minutes to lead a mega mix of hits.
The four leads in Beautiful all have strong voices—Sarah Bockel as Carole, Dylan S. Wallach as Gerry, Alison Whitehurst as Weil and Jacob Heimer as Mann—and deliver musically as well as dramatically. Douglas McGrath’s book doesn’t just show the duos sitting at pianos creating their songs, it morphs into a performance by the groups or artists who originally recorded them. Thanks to the direction of Marc Bruni, and especially the choreography of Josh Prince, this jukebox musical looks like a jukebox that has exploded and metamorphosed into a performance on American Bandstand or The Ed Sullivan Show. Hits like “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by The Shirelles, “On Broadway” by The Drifters, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers, “Locomotion” by Little Eva are all performed full out.
Beautiful is a rocking good time and the music by the 14-piece orchestra under conductor Susan Draus sounds symphonic at times thanks to the sound design of Brian Ronan. Derek McLane’s scenic design adapts itself to many locations and is well lit Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design. The show bookends with King’s 1972 concert at Carnegie Hall, after her multiple Grammy Award-winning solo album Tapestry. Beautiful is a beautiful way to spend an evening.