Some would say jukebox musicals are going out of style, only there to captivate the attention of the LIRR/Metro-North crowd who will pay $80+ for a night out at the theatre.
In some cases I would agree with that, but in the case of Beautiful, The Carole King Musical that is certainly not true. We all know of Carole King as being iconic, a songbird of her generation, but I don’t think anyone truly knows the extent. She (and her first husband Gerry Goffin) co-wrote an incredible amount of bops in the 60’s (many that were on her iconic album Tapestry) — this is the story of her life and how they came to be and more importantly, how she persevered after a lot of bumps in the road.
Don’t get me wrong, Beautiful (book by Douglas McGrath) is still 2.5 hours of elation on a stage with a hint of darkness. Staged (direction by Marc Bruni) as a concert at Carnegie Hall, the piece is essentially the equivalent of opening up a time capsule to the record industry during the early 60s-70s. We see Carole (beautifully portrayed by Abby Mueller) sell her first song, her connecting with her lyricist, Gerry (Evan Todd), and her competitive friendship with Cynthia Weil (Kara Lindsay) and Barry Mann (Ben Jacoby), the show’s supporting characters who were also an impressive songwriting duo during this time. It’s an honest testament to the human condition dealing with dark issues. For instance, we “re-live” the moment of Carole learning of Gerry’s dishonesty, drug usage, mental health issues and all the ups and downs that are inevitably related to his usage.
The sets are campy, but realistic for the time period. Many of the scenes take place in the record studio, centralizing the plot back to the origin of these iconic songs, many of which you probably didn’t realize she penned (for me, the most surprising was The Locomotion). Overall, smart use of lighting and sound, the audience is taken on a journey throughout the late 50’s-70’s with “performances” from some of music’s greatest groups such as The Drifters and The Shirelles. The entire piece felt properly timed and well-staged.
What sets Beautiful apart from other bio-jukebox musicals before it, is the honesty about sexism and racism during those decades. Several times throughout the piece, we were reminded of the difference “girl songs” and “boy songs” as well as a blatant call-out for the differences of musical styles between black and white artists during that time period. Despite this infuriating truth, we also see the genuine strength and human goodness of Carole King as both a humanitarian and an empowered woman. When odds were against her in her marriage or in how she could best adapt her songs to better suit a musical group, she would consistently come out on top. Eventually, this manifested in finding her own musical voice and thank goodness it did.
In its 5th year, Beautiful continues to answer its real-life protagonists’ question, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” — the answer is yes, Carole, “You’ve Got A Friend” in New York theatre-goers.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre (124 West 43rd Street). You can learn more about the show and buy tickets at https://beautifulonbroadway.com/