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26, Mar 2016
photo by Joan Marcus

Beautiful: the Carole King musical

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

A ticket-buyer might justifiably wonder why go to see someone imitate Carole King when you can sit at home and listen to King herself on CDs and see her on videos.

Beautiful, however, offers much more. It chronicles an era in pop music that was creative and cutthroat simultaneously, intertwined with the personal travails of Carol and her partner/husband Gerry Goffin.

Their main rivals as songwriters were the team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, who became their best friends. This relationship gives soul to the show and makes it superior to most jukebox musicals.

The Broadway production of 2013 has been preserved on CD by Sh-K-Boom Records, and it gives a panorama of the music business that goes well beyond Carole King’s individual accomplishment.

There were many writers working in adjacent offices on Broadway in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, as shown in cubicles on stage, spotlighted one by one — see the photo above. They were in constant struggle to get their songs recorded. I was a witness to some of that, as I was hired, while in my teens, as record librarian at WIP and then WFIL, two of Philadelphia’s top music stations in that period.

My job was to pick the records that would be played by the disc-jockeys. I had very little oversight by management and the deejays did not choose their own playlists, except for Bob Horn and Dick Clark at WFIL. During most of each work day I’d be visited by record promotion men, pressuring me to give air time to their latest releases. Often they’d bring singers with them, to make their pitch personally. As Beautiful shows, some singing groups were hastily improvised, using performers who had different names in various day jobs.

Laughs greet the disclosure that Carole and Gerry’s babysitter was pressed into service to record “The Loco-Motion”. It’s true. Eva Boyd, age 18, did become a pop star as Little Eva.

There  was an immense amount of conflict and jealousy among songwriters and record companies. It was not a friendly or happy business. One-hit wonders came and went, and some record labels existed for only a short time. Corruption tainted the business. Bob Horn, the original host of Bandstand was fired after he had sex with a teenage girl and Dick Clark was hauled before a congressional committee to testify about receiving payola for promoting certain records.

Beautiful simplifies matters (perhaps over-simplifies) and focuses on just the one rivalry as it details the romantic tribulations of the two couples. Carole is shown as a “normal person” (as she describes herself), insecure and square. Goffin is a womanizer who felt hemmed in by his wife and babies. His behavior is due, at least in part, to the malady we now know as bi-polar, but he comes across as unsympathetic and the audience cheers when King finally leaves him. His use of LSD also unsettled him, barely hinted at in the script.

Weil and Mann are two fleshed-out characters who contrast with each other and also with the King-Goffin team. Cynthia is blonde, sparkly and assured, Barry is a dark-haired hypochondriac. In one upsetting scene, Goffin proposes that the two couples play strip poker. While Weil and Mann are game for it, King is horrified and refuses to participate.

The two teams had almost equal shares of hits — “On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”, “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” by Weil & Mann; “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “Take Good Care of My Baby”, “Up on the Roof” by King & Goffin.

After a very few years, the music business changed and came to be dominated by singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, by British groups, and by Motown. The world of Broadway song-writing factories and record companies crumbled. This is described in the show, and Carole herself overcomes her shyness to become a singer-songwriter.

Through all the scandals mentioned above, those four writers remained uncorrupted. Weil and Mann are still married and living in California. King and Goffin divorced in 1969; he died in 2014.

King wrote and recorded the album Tapestry and became a solo star, which provides an uplifting climax to the second act. Beautiful opens with King at a piano on stage at Carnegie Hall, the action flashes back to her teenage years at home in Brooklyn and moves gradually forward til she’s back at Carnegie for the finale.

She’s portrayed by Abby Mueller, who sounds accomplished as a pianist and has a nasal, belting voice that’s not much like King’s. (Abby is the sister of Jessie Mueller, who originated this role on Broadway.) Goffin is played by Liam Tobin with a shambling, awkward manner and a mediocre singing voice. Ben Fankhauser is outstanding as Barry Mann, gaining respect and laughs and displaying the best voice in the cast. Becky Gulsvig is an effervescent Cynthia, Curt Bouril is strong as the producer/publisher Don Kirshner, and Suzanne Grodner is fine as Carole’s mother. A variety of performers do double and triple duty as Drifters, Shirelles, Righteous Brothers and other singers who recorded the music.

As if in answer to the question at the top of this report, Beautiful dares to stand on its own without trying to present a faithful imitation of its subject. Even the arrangements used for the various vocal groups are updated, rather than being authentic to the period. It succeeds with its portrayal of personal stories within a mercenary business.

The personal story, by itself, isn’t much more than a soap opera; the description of the record business is only an approximation; but when both are blended with the fine music we get a pleasurable show.

 

The original cast album is available from Sh-K-Boom Records.

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