By Bill Hirschman
The score of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical encompasses a dozen hits from the ‘60s and half of the iconic Tapestry album.
But bookwriter Douglas McGrath assures theatergoers that this is not a revue like Ain’t Misbehavin’ or even a weak pretense of a plot to hang a catalog of songs upon like Mamma Mia.
The national tour of the hit coming to the Broward Center May 10-22, but still running on Broadway, is an uplifting story with a strong narrative drive.
“The only thing is matters is the story; you’re telling your story,” McGrath said in a recent telephone interview.
“A great musical is about the score, but you can’t have a great musical without a great story. It doesn’t have to be a complex story, it doesn’t have to be suspenseful or psychological — though it can be — but it has to be a story where you’re worried about the characters.”
Fortunately, this biographical tale about the evolution of one of the first successful female rock n’ pop songwriters and performers in American history has all the elements needed for a saga of challenge, heartbreak and eventual triumph set against one of the most fertile periods in American music.
Of course, the score doesn’t hurt. Carole King, with husband Gerry Goffin, supplied the soundtrack for their lives of most Boomers — from “Up On The Roof” to “The Locomotion,” from “So Far Away” to “You’ve Got A Friend.” And since McGrath’s plot includes the parallel careers of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, you also get “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”
McGrath, a genial interviewee with an obvious affection for this piece, stressed that the creative team used the songs to illustrate points in King’s life — mostly, but not always in chronological order.
“It took a long time (to write). I had four life stories (including those of Goffin, Mann and Weil) and I had hundreds of pages of transcripts, and I was surrounded by papers and notes. I said, ‘What am I going to do?”
He did the obvious thing. He played the music as he worked. “I started to hear connection between events and lives, and because of my intense desire to have the songs connected to events and lives, Beautiful is a traditional musical. Every time you hear a song, you know they wrote it and that it’s a special expression of something going on. When she is singing her heart out when she comes to the Bitter End (nightclub) and sings ‘It’s Too Late,’ every lyric, the audience hears it as a direct connection to what is going on in the show.”
He added, “When she sings ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,’ that in itself is a theater song rich with vulnerability.” Because of the story, the musical “goes beyond the purely nostalgic experience.”
Besides the humor (“These are very funny people”), McGrath said, audiences will be surprised at the emotion involved. “I think some people come with a fear that it’s a jukebox show when it’s really a poignant story they did not know.”
Much of that is rooted in King’s deteriorating relationship with Goffin, which is portrayed both with honesty and compassion for the spouse’s fallibilities. McGrath said husbands who are dragged to the show by their wives are relieved that Goffin is not portrayed as a villain.
“He is a troubled, well-meaning person, sometimes foolish in his actions….” Goffin died months after the musical opened, leaving behind a massive musical legacy.
“The show forgives him because Carole forgave him in life, and I always used that as a guide… he show has a very big heart in that way,” he said. “It’s always her example of forgiveness.”
In fact, all four songwriters contributed extensive interviews to McGrath’s research and signed off on the script. This was especially crucial for King, whom McGrath says is a surprisingly “publicity averse” and a protective person who did not want some people’s real names in order to spare them pain.
The show bowed in San Francisco in 2013 and on Broadway the following year to strong reviews and an ensuing wave of popularity. It won special notice including a Tony Award for its star, the Chicago-based Jessie Mueller who had been the only person to get any kudos from a Broadway revival of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. This national tour stars her sister, Abby Mueller, who is also garnering positive acclaim.
McGrath is New York-based film director, actor and playwright. He collaborated with Woody Allen on the screenplay for Bullets Over Broadway, for which they were nominated for an Academy Award, although he was not connected directly to the Broadway musical two season ago.
Although he is obviously a fan of the music and he knows the primary draw that gets audiences in the door are the tunes, McGrath hopes audiences will come out realizing “The real job always is a tell the story.
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical plays through May 10-22 from Broadway Across America at the Broward Center For The Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday the 18th and Saturdays; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35-$150. Call (954) 462-0222 for tickets, at www.browardcenter.org