It’s tough to imagine what kind of event could put a high-powered crowd including Phil Collins, Nathan Lane and Clive Davis under the same roof in New York while most of the entertainment world was gathered on the opposite coast for the Golden Globes. Until, that is, you factor in the timeless appeal of Carole King. Those showbiz icons and more turned out last night for the Broadway opening of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. The show chronicles King’s early career, from her time as half of the heroically hit-making Sixties songwriting team with her then-husband Gerry Goffin to her emergence as a phenomenally successful solo singer-songwriter in the Seventies.
“If there were only two places in the world, Hell and Times Square, the nice people would live in Hell,” says King’s mother in the beginning of the show, when her teenage daughter (played by the Tony-nominated Jessie Mueller) plans to travel from their Brooklyn home to midtown Manhattan’s Brill Building to pitch a tune to pop impresario Don Kirshner. The line playfully underscores the fact that the bulk of the action in Beautiful takes place just blocks from the Sondheim Theatre’s 43rd Street digs.
The stretch of Broadway that Mueller describes as “just like a factory, but they make songs” is where King and Goffin (Jake Epstein) penned a head-spinning array of hits for some of the era’s biggest acts. The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the Drifters’ “Up On the Roof” and the Monkees‘ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” are just a few of the King classics included in the show. Even a two-and-a-half hour musical can barely scratch the surface of the towering pop edifice King and Goffin created.
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But Beautiful isn’t just about King. Though it follows her stormy marriage to and eventual divorce from Goffin (with whom she had two daughters), as well as her Sixties and Seventies triumphs, it’s also about the Brill Building era itself. King and Goffin’s colleagues, friends and rivals, the songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (who also became husband and wife), have as important a role in Beautiful as they do in pop/rock history. Mann-Weil hits such as “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (the Righteous Brothers) and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (the Animals) are crucial to the flow of the show, as all four songwriters follow the cultural zeitgeist from the carefree pop of the early Sixties to the weightier sounds of the decade’s latter half.
King’s ultimate emancipation from her emotional and artistic ties to the troubled Goffin are emphatically punctuated by Mueller’s encore of “I Feel the Earth Move,” from King’s multi-Platinum 1971 solo debut album, Tapestry, bringing the star-studded audience to its feet in a kind of mass catharsis. Beautiful is the journey of a gutsy Brooklyn girl from teenage bride to independent woman, from New York pop purveyor to Laurel Canyon songpoet, and the show’s Broadway bow brought the story back to the New York City streets where it all started.