There are only a few cast albums I listen to over and over and over again, and one of them is the Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. It’s bouncy and joyous, and Jessie Mueller, the original Tony-winning star, captures King’s emotion and phrasing without trying to duplicate her sound. In other words, it doesn’t keep me from going back to King’s iconic album Tapestry over and over as well.
Even so, I hadn’t seen Beautiful since May 2014, just a few months after it opened. Now that I’ve returned, as the show is nearing its 2,000th performance, I couldn’t help but wonder, What took me so long?
The script—by Douglas McGrath, who elegantly adapted Jane Austen’s Emma for the screen in 1996—is snappier than I remembered. “Girls don’t write music; they teach it,” Genie Klein (Liz Larsen) tells a teenage Carole (a marvelous Abby Mueller, sister of the aforementioned Jessie). Genie is full of great advice: “If there were only two places on earth, hell and Times Square, the nice people would live in hell.” Smartly, McGrath doesn’t bite off more than he can chew; the show focuses only on King’s breakthrough, when she sold her first song to Don Kirschner (Curt Bouril) to the start of her solo career. Along the way, she marries her writing partner Gerry Goffin (Evan Todd), befriends fellow songwriters Barry Mann (Ben Jacoby) and Cynthia Weil (comic whiz Kara Lindsay), and divorces Goffin. There’s much, much more to her story, of course, but how much can you fit into a two and a half hour musical?
Music-wise, the biggest thrill is hearing contrasting versions of songs you know and love. King and Goffin’s version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is full of questions and insecurity; it’s tentative and slow. When it’s sung by the Shirelles (Gabrielle Elisabeth, Alex Hairston, Housso Semon, and Yasmeen Sulieman), it’s confident and hopeful. Goffin imbues “Up on the Roof” with pain and anguish; the hands of the Drifters (Sidney Dupont, Paris Nix, Nicholas Ryan, Dashaun Young), it becomes buoyant and cheerful. The switches between the writers’ and the pop stars’ renditions, thanks to director Marc Bruni, are quick and polished; and, even more important, the music, thanks to orchestrator/arranger Steve Sidwell, sounds dynamite—especially the “1650 Broadway Medley,” which blends and layers tunes including “Splish-Splash,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Poison Ivy,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Yakety Yak,” and “Stupid Cupid.” The orchestrations are especially ebullient on “It Might As Well Rain Until September”—which the crowd definitely appreciated on a drizzly mid-September evening.
You’re bound to recognize all these songs—and more—but please, for the sake of your fellow Carole King–loving audience members, don’t sing along. You’ll have your chance during the curtain call. Until then, there’s no need to sing along with Mueller, Lindsay, Jacoby, and Bouril on “You’ve Got a Friend.” And there’s really no need to sing along with Mueller on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” She’s already competing with Aretha Franklin. (And doing quite well with her own rendition, thank you very much.) She doesn’t need to compete with 1,000 off-key theatergoers as well.
Beautiful opened Jan. 12, 2014, at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Reviewed: September, 2018. Tickets and information: beautifulonbroadway.com