For kids growing up in the Seventies, Carole King's "Tapestry" album was the pivotal album of independent women and a testament that relationships and feelings went far beyond "He's So Fine" and "Some Kind of Wonderful." The fact that it stayed on top of the charts for the better portion of two years gives credence to its staying power. Yet, more important than its heartfelt songs was the emergence of the songwriter into a performer of great worth and import.
King had a troubled upbringing, emerging from a broken Jewish home in Brooklyn to begin penning popular love songs from the Broadway mill at the tender age of 16. As the book by Douglas McGrath explains, she was a prodigy who, despite classical training, yearned to be a writer of popular song. Music came naturally to the precocious teen, but the words were more daunting.
The mark of truly gifted actor is an innate ability to take on the role, but at the same time to find their own persona in it. No one knows exactly how Carole King talks, but everyone knows exactly how she sings. It was important to the producers that the star of the show carry off the physical similarities to King, but also mimic King's style so as to give a truly accurate performance.
In Jessie Mueller one finds a rare commodity on Broadway - an actress with a truly beautiful voice who not merely emulates her subject, but adds her own vocal twists and turns that enhance the live performance. When she plays King as a struggling teen, there is a tentativeness and uncertainty in her demeanor. When she portrays an older mother raising her children while trying to eke out a career as a songwriter, she exudes confidence.
And another key element to enjoying the show is Mueller's impressive piano skills. She is not merely sitting at the piano pretending to play; she is actually producing the notes and stylings of King while maintaining her character and working with the full orchestra accompanying her in the pit. This is clearly an advantage most Broadway leading actresses lack and could very well be key (pun intended) as to why she won that coveted Tony Award.
At the beginning of the run of "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," the title subject indicated a reluctance to see the musical based on her early married life to lyricist and partner Gerry Goffin, who recently died. The relationship with her first husband was still so very painful to her that she avoided seeing the show.
It is understandable, but the outstanding performances by Mueller and Jake Epstein, who plays Goffin, capture the emotional roller coaster ride that the couple experienced in gut wrenching ways. When King finally did stop by a performance two months ago, she expressed feelings of thanks and seemed able to cope with the very private portions of her life.
Also to be given kudos for great singing and comedic timing are Jarrod Spector and Anika Larsen, who portray competing songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
That competition between Goffin and King and Mann and Weil is a critical component to McGrath's book. Pitting the two couples against each other is the design of music impressario Don Kirschner, who is played by Jeb Brown.
While all of the supporting players - including a cast of talented performers who portray the Drifters, the Shirelles and a host of others from the era - are good enough to move the plot along, the focus of the musical rests squarely on the shoulders of Mueller and her effective channeling of King.
The songs by King (and Goffin) play well and follow successful hits by Mann and Weil, who, as the musical shows, also moved their partnership into a marriage. Whereas Goffin and King got married a bit too early, Mann and Weil avoided the trappings of advancing into a marriage for the sake of their careers.
These songs speak for themselves as touchstones from the era. A medley of hits from the 1650 Broadway building may not be exactly like the fabled Brill Building, where other Jewish songwriters and performers hung out and churned out hit after hit. But it is remarkably similar.
“It Might As Well Rain Until September” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” document the early success of the young couple. Then come other hits by Mann and Weil like “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Walking in the Rain.”
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway,” “The Locomotion” and “One Fine Day” are but a few of the songs given an opportunity to shine with nice choreography by Josh Prince. Scenic design by Derek McLane and costumes by Alejo Vietti also enhance the vocal performances greatly.
The second act shows the young couple spinning out of control and out of love as Goffin begins to suffer from the ravages of drug abuse and mental illness, forcing his young bride to have to grow up in a hurry. Mann expresses his love for Weil, but she is reluctant to ruin a successful songwriting team with the prospect of an unhappy marriage. Eventually, that too is resolved.
When the final, classic songs from “Tapestry” are heard – “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Beautiful” – the audience has taken a journey with King to a place where her insecurities are broken down and she begins to shine as a solo performer.
The word on the show had been positive and upbeat even before the Tony Awards. Following Mueller’s Tony Award, the musical has been establishing new records at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, playing to standing room only audiences. With the highest gross ever seen there, tickets are extremely difficult to get, but are highly recommended.
Ticket prices for “Beautiful” range from $99.00 – $169.00 and are available for purchase via Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. Additionally, they may be obtained in person at the Sondheim Theatre box office.
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” plays at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd Street, Tuesday through Thursday at 7:00 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinees are held Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and on Sunday at 3:00 p.m.