We choose the soundtracks of our lives, we Boomers who were the first generation to grow up suffused with disembodied emanations from the pop-culture spheres via Zenith transistor radios, push-button AM car radios, groove-worn 45s and “concept” albums, the Filmores, dorm rooms fibrillating from Pioneer receivers and Advent Large speakers, TV variety shows, 8-tracks, Dragon tape-decks, Sony Walkmen and Apple iPods. We didn’t have to go to church or the movies or a Broadway show to hear the musical expression of our lives. It was here, there and everywhere, all the time. How else explain the capacity of our aging pot-addled brains to retrieve vast cantos ranging from doo-wop doggerel to Paul Simon’s free-associating to “I Got You, Babe,” not to mention “It Ain’t Me, Babe?”
Like Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (and, for that matter, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg), Carole King and her husband-for-awhile Gerry Goffin began writing songs during times of cultural upheaval and tapped into wellsprings of urban uncertainty, fear and social change. The Greenwich Village longhairs might be thinking A-bombs and the Vietnam War, but the Tin Pan Alley songsmiths were thinking and writing micro: Where can I find some peace in a high-decibel world? Up on the roof. Now that I’ve slept with you, will you love me tomorrow?
Beautiful, the new musical that follows King’s career from Brooklyn youth as classical piano-playing Carol Joan Klein (Jessie Mueller), through the exuberantly rich partnership with would-be playwright Goffin (the terrific Jake Epstein) as they began turning out one Top 40 tune after the next, often spurred along by the comparable success of their friends and competitors, Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector), both couples feeding the pop-music maw under inspired if relentless pressure from producer Don Kirshner.
There are no surprises in this comfort-food bio-musical. How could there be, when the story is so familiar? Goffin cheats, they fight, he splits, returns, then splits for good. Mann and Weill stick by her through thick and thin. King reaches beyond composing and begins telling her story through her own words as well as music, the result being 1971’s “Tapestry,” a beautiful, humble album of mostly personal songs that lacks the exquisite artistry of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” from the same time, but struck no less deep a chord not only in the women of that time but plenty of us boy-men as well.
Doug McGrath can be a fine writer, but his book for Beautiful is clunkily pedestrian. It’s superior to Motown, but that’s an awfully low bar, and it’s not as revealing as A Night with Janis Joplin (which has its own book problems but at least takes us down some unfamiliar alleys).
Marc Bruni’s production – sets evoking the Brill Building era by Derek McLane, costumes by Alejo Vietti, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski – pays tacky homage to better shows of this type, from Dreamgirls to Jersey Boys. But what Beautiful brought to my mind was the somewhat unheralded movie Grace of My Heart, which made art of the stories of King, Mitchell and Laura Nyro, among others, without cannibalizing their work or seeming imitative. Beautiful could have been so much better if it weren’t working so hard to stick to the facts.
Still, there are those songs, sweetly orchestrated by Steve Sidwell. And there’s Mueller: This is not Barbra Streisand knocking them dead with “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” but a star-making performance of a subtler order. Mueller’s voice is a warm bath of poignance, vulnerability and humbleness – all qualities defining her physical performance as well. It’s rare on Broadway for a lead character to be allowed to win us over so unemphatically – and an experience to be savored.