If ever pop music could be said to define a generation, it was in the 1960s, a time of social ferment set to the beat and rhythm of youth. Carole King, working with her husband Gerry Goffin, helped to set the tone for that era with her catchy tunes about the elusiveness and slipperiness of love. In “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opened last Sunday at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, King’s music shines through the decades. But the musical itself, which stars Jessie Mueller in a scintillating performance as the composer, never quite coheres into a satisfying show.
Given the success of jukebox musicals these days, it must have seemed like a good idea to make a musical about King. But “Beautiful” takes a different tack from “Jersey Boys,” “Mamma Mia” or even — to take an example of a show about the work of a solo artist, the Billy Joel musical “Movin’ Out.” While these shows tell a fictional story that is undergirded by the music that they celebrate, “Beautiful” purports to tell the life story of King, along with the stories of Goffin (Jake Epstein) and the other couple with whom they compete, Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Specter).
But King, who first broke into the music industry as a teenage, newly married Jewish woman from Brooklyn, had a fairly ordinary domestic life, despite Goffin’s infidelity and their ultimate divorce. True, she had to overcome her middle-class Jewish family’s attitudes toward their daughter’s career — “Girls don’t write music, they teach it,” her mother (Liz Larsen) tells her as she begins to demonstrate talent as a songwriter. And then King had to break into a fiercely competitive industry, and, ultimately, to deal with her husband’s philandering. But is such a familiar biography the stuff of which musicals are made? Douglas McGrath, whose script is studded with clever lines, has too little with which to work in shaping a powerful story about King.
Moreover, as reasonably well-acted as the show is (with Epstein particularly appealing as the self-centered but occasionally tender husband), the three other main characters never come into focus as interesting subjects in their own right. Nor are any of the minor characters, including Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown, in a one-note performance), the recording company executive who pitted the songwriters against each other to get them to produce, particularly interesting. Further, while these characters are all Jewish, the script never engages with their Jewishness, and we are left to wonder if their Jewishness even matters — either to them, or to any of the creative talents behind the show.
“Beautiful” might be better as an Off-Broadway, perhaps even a solo, show. Director Marc Bruni is best known in New York as the director of “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” While he has directed musicals out of town, most notably in St. Louis, he lacks experience in directing Broadway musicals — and it shows. The impressive, bi-level set shows the different cubicles in the Brill Building (or, actually, a nearby building), where aspiring songwriters tried out for Kirshner. This makes for a few wonderful scenes, particularly at the beginning of the show, when one gets the sense of the building as a humming beehive of musical talents. But too many of the scenes take place in one corner of the stage or another, which seems like a waste of the huge set.
Even more surprisingly, the kind of big production numbers that one associates with a Broadway show are few and far between. It works well to have the main characters start singing a song that they are composing, and then to have actors playing the group that recorded it burst onto the stage and finish the song.
For example, King starts playing “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” on the piano and then The Shirelles come out and take over the tune. A highlight of the show is when Mann is composing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and The Righteous Brothers come out and start crooning the song. But otherwise, the show mostly lacks visual punch. One misses the kind of ecstatic singing, dancing and on-stage playing of musical instruments (not just a piano) that a show — especially a show about music making itself — demands. Limited by the constraints of trying to tell King’s story, the musical misses the opportunity to simply glory in the music, to open up the songs and to take them in new directions.
Still, I was glad that I saw “Beautiful,” if only for those wonderful times when Mueller sat at the piano and belted out classic King tunes. “So Far Away,” “It’s Too Late,” “Natural Woman” — these are songs of yearning and passion and heartbreak that Mueller puts across with great heart and soul. While her voice is not at all identical to King’s, Mueller captures the contradictions in King’s personality: her tremendous drive and steely vulnerability, her competitiveness and seeming unselfconsciousness, her desire to please and her iconoclasm.
If you see “Beautiful” for no other reason, see it for her; she would be very difficult to replace, if the show ever gets that far. To quote a song from King’s contemporary, another Jewish songwriter named Carly Simon, “Nobody does it better” — and nobody, I would predict, ever will, at least in this particular, ill-fated musical.
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” runs at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $75-$152, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.