“Beautiful” review: Skin deep

Musical based on the life of songwriter Carole King sacrifices authentic drama for Broadway bombast

Scott Fitzgerald, who famously claimed there were no second acts in American lives, never met Carole King. The Brooklyn-born teenager vaulted to fame by co-writing a slew of ‘60s hits for various bands, beginning with the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” in 1960. As rock grew more ambitious, her reputation faded along with those of other early-mid ’60s singles hitmakers — until she re-emerged in LA’s fertile early-1970s Laurel Canyon scene with her breakthrough Tapestry album, a much more personal statement featuring King’s own voice and piano that helped kickstart the singer-songwriter era.

After that second act, King moved to what the B-52s called her own private Idaho to be closer to the land and farther from celebrity culture. Her music made little public impression until the last few years, when she returned for an extended encore: her Live at the Troubadour nostalgia album and tour with James Taylor and their original LA band; her 2010 memoir A Natural Woman; a release of the classic demos she made made in the 1960s for performers like the Drifters and the Monkees who turned her songs into hits; and the 2013 musical Beautiful, now headed for the big screen in a Tom Hanks production, and whose national tour alights this weekend at Portland’s Keller Auditorium.

Carnegie Hall. Julia Knitel (“Carole King”) in 'Beautiful.' Photo: Joan Marcus.

Carnegie Hall. Julia Knitel (“Carole King”) in ‘Beautiful.’ Photo: Joan Marcus.

Should you see Beautiful? Probably, if:

• You grew up on King’s glorious music, one of the most important and popular contributions to 20th century song.

• You’re a female boomer of a certain age inspired by King’s transformation from prodigious pop craftswoman to self-actualizing singer-songwriter.

• You enjoy sometimes snappy, sometimes sappy humor, snazzy sets (by Derek McLane) and period-appropriate costumes (Alejo Vietti), bubbly choreography (Josh Prince) that smartly plays off 1960s variety show styles, and an evening of good time vibes and nostalgia.

• You admire the title song “Beautiful” as an Oprah-esque work of self-affirmation based on attributes other than physical appearance, rather than the shallow “you-go girl” Hallmark sentiment that marred the otherwise transformative album, Tapestry, that spawned it.

• You cherish King’s immortal songs so much that you don’t really care how they’re Broadwayed into bombast, and you are comfortable standing and singing along with one of her finest songs, along with  the rest of the crowd, at the end. Because you will.

You might want to miss it if:

• You love King’s immortal songs so much that you can’t bear to hear them Broadwayed into bombast.

• You demand a story that includes compelling drama along with two hours of some of the 20th century’s greatest songs.

• You’re craving any insight into what makes Carole King tick or what made her one of America’s greatest musicians.

Beautiful must have seemed like a perfect opportunity for its producers: a jukebox musical bursting with boomer bait songs that would lure that generation, tied to an actual true and dramatic story like Jersey Boys or the Fauxtown Dreamgirls, rather than a contrived one like Mamma Mia!

King in the studio in the 1960s.

King in the studio in the 1960s.

No question about its ostensible subject’s significance. King’s songs, from early hits for pop bands like the exhilarating “One Fine Day” to her ‘70s stretch of platinum-selling solo albums, helped define pop music from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s. The Beatles even paid her the honor of covering two of her songs. Many, including most of those in this musical, sound like classics today. You could probably fill another musical with the hits they didn’t have room to squeeze in, e.g., “I’m into Something Good,” “Cryin’ in the Rain,” “Goin’ Back,” “Sweet Seasons,” and on and on.)

Book writer Douglas McGrath’s story whisks us from the living room in her mom’s Brooklyn flat through King’s bold auditions with music publishing impresario Don Kirshner to her college meeting with an older student who’d become her lover, husband and songwriter partner, Gerry Goffin. Between the show’s bookending scenes at King’s triumphant 1971 Carnegie Hall performance, we follow the pair and fellow married songwriting team Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann over a decade as they crank out hits in New York’s legendary Brill Building songwriting factory, in recording studios, in Goffin and King’s suburban New Jersey home, and in a couple of nightclubs.

To fashion a cohesive story, the book takes the usual necessary liberties with the facts — various compressions and changes in time sequences, composite characters, etc. — all understandable, none significantly contradicting the underlying truth.

The show wisely ends when King completes that second act, but she’s led an exemplary life ever since. A strong and kind parent and colleague, willing to give up the celebrity lifestyle to move to a farm and get up at dawn to do chores so she could live a more grounded life, an ardent supporter of progressive political and environmental causes who has donated years of her life to making the world a better place… Carole King is one of the artists I admire most. Last year, President Obama bestowed the Kennedy Center Honors upon her, adding to her long list of laurels that include Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, the first woman to be awarded The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, membership in the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, and so many more.

So Far Away

But despite its relative fidelity to facts and the presence of so many of her songs, Beautiful fails deliver the real drama of King’s life or the essence of her music. Notwithstanding its title, this musical is almost as much about Goffin, Weil and Mann as its ostensible subject. Weil serves as a character King can tell her feelings to (so that the audience can hear them) and a proto-feminist perspective that contrasts with King’s own shy recessiveness. In Erika Olson’s sassy portrayal, it’s the best acted role in the show. Ben Fankhauser’s Mann, cast as a Woody Allenish hypochondriac, provides a comic foil and gets most of the funny lines that keep the first act mostly moving.

Four Friends. (l to r) Curt Bouril (“Don Kirshner”), Liam Tobin (“Gerry Goffin”), Julia Knitel (“Carole King”), Ben Fankhauser (“Barry Mann”) and Erika Olson (“Cynthia Weil”) in 'Beautiful.' Photo: Joan Marcus.

Four Friends. (l to r) Curt Bouril (“Don Kirshner”), Liam Tobin (“Gerry Goffin”), Julia Knitel (“Carole King”), Ben Fankhauser (“Barry Mann”) and Erika Olson (“Cynthia Weil”) in ‘Beautiful.’ Photo: Joan Marcus.

Moreover, including Mann and Weil allows the musical to include still more boomer bait that they wrote (as if King’s 400-plus songbook wasn’t capacious enough!), like “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” and the most covered song of the 21st century, their “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” so rousingly delivered here by Andrew Brewer and James Michael Lambert (who also had the audience cackling with a couple of charming Neil Sedaka cameos) that you don’t mind the contrived set-up. Weil and Mann also provide an excuse for King to sing “You’ve Got a Friend” with them, in a spirited quartet version that avoids James Taylor’s sentimentality.

The show’s sensitive if underwritten portrayal of Gerry Goffin (played by Liam Tobin) makes me wish the whole show had revolved around their relationship. King always generously credited her partner in music and marriage for much of their success, and it’s much easier to tell a personal story about a lyricist like Goffin than a melodist like King because the words reflect his feelings. Still, Beautiful smartly appropriates Goffin lyrics to tell parts of King’s story; it helps that some of his finest songs, like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Natural Woman” were told from a female point of view. Beautiful shows how the lyricist’s introspective and searching attitude made his verses some of the era’s most moving. I’ll never hear “Up on the Roof,” for example, as just a peppy pop song again.

Despite the team’s success, like many in his generation, Goffin wanted to expand his mind and music beyond Cold War-era conventions. The honest vulnerability of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” was a real breakthrough in the otherwise lyrically vapid pop rock of the early ‘60s. The 17-year-old King’s music so beautifully captured those emotions that when Julia Knitel played the opening chords (from King’s solo version), an audible sigh emanated from the Keller audience. Inspired like so many others by Bob Dylan, Goffin’s lyrics increasingly sought greater sophistication and depth than bubblegum pop radio permitted.

Queens College. Julia Knitel (“Carole King”) and Liam Tobin (“Gerry Goffin”) in 'Beautiful.' Photo: Joan Marcus.

Queens College. Julia Knitel (“Carole King”) and Liam Tobin (“Gerry Goffin”) in ‘Beautiful.’ Photo: Joan Marcus.

Unfortunately for their marriage, the bipolar Goffin’s longing to break conventions also expressed itself in desires for sexual and psychedelic exploration, so much that he abandoned his suburban wife and young children to find himself in California — a prototypical ‘60s story. As depicted here, he’s a more flawed, more troubled and therefore more interesting character than his wife, and I wanted more of his intermittently tragic story. But a musical called Conflicted: The Gerry Goffin Story surely wouldn’t sell a fraction of the tickets as Beautiful.

However entertaining, these engaging portraits of King’s friends and lovers make the title character a bit player in her own musical, her easygoing personality overshadowed onstage by her flashier fellow songwriters. That may actually be fair to history, because for all her musical gifts, during the 1960s stretch that makes up the bulk of Beautiful, the Carole King portrayed here isn’t that dramatically compelling.

It’s Too Late

Throughout the early and mid-‘60s, King, unlike Goffin, initially resisted her generation’s journey from conventionality to personal fulfillment. She was content to live in the suburbs with her family and make music with her life partner — until Goffin left, impelling her to reinvent herself. She decamped to LA, embraced a guru and a young lover, took charge of her destiny, and, still not yet 30 years old, wrote (with help from lyricist Toni Stern) the more personal and self-expressive songs that helped create the LA singer-songwriter genre that ruled the early ‘70s. And when LA celebrity culture proved too slick, she moved to a more grounded life in the Northwest, yet continued involvement in public issues.

King’s journey from conventional and superficial to personal and authentic mirrors that of a good part of her generation. With a few exceptions (Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder and a few others), most of her fellow early-’60s hitmakers couldn’t complete that journey. It’s a great story, and a dramatically compelling portrait of her life would explore what gave her the courage and ability to make that transition. But Beautiful spends so much time trying to tell the whole story of her rise to fame that it rushes through most of the really dramatic part of her life in the last few minutes, and by then it’s too late, baby.

Why? The problem for a jukebox musical is that King’s transformation happened after many of her greatest hits that attract boomer ticket buyers. (Among Beautiful’s 26 musical numbers, only four were written during or after the couple’s split.) The ‘70s still contain a wealth of King music, from the Tapestry songs through the wistful “Only Love is Real,” not used in the show, which would have been a much more appropriate closer than the postcard sentiments of “Beautiful.” The former looks back on a youthful relationship with fondness and regret, while the latter makes the musical suddenly a story about a dowdy girl who realizes that her real beauty lies in her talent, not in her looks.

That’s great for the bookstore self-help section, and it certainly seemed to appeal to the bevy of 60-something boomer women surrounding me, but it’s way too simplistic a frame to capture the significance of King’s story. The musical’s belated attempt to make her achievement of self confidence its theme and her motivation rings false.

Teenage King.

Teenage King.

In fact, her memoir reveals that King
was pretty much who she was from the get-go: musically gifted, determined, and (thanks to her parents rough relationship and divorce) someone who wanted everyone to be happy. While she may have harbored the usual adolescent doubts about her looks compared to other, faster maturing girls (she skipped a couple of grades in school, making her relative hormonal deficiencies worse), King never lacked self-confidence in her songs or her talents. As a teen, she marched straight to the biggest music publishers and record labels with her first songs in hand. (“Someone had to write hit songs,” she told herself at age 15 when she showed up at Atlantic Records. “Why not me?”)

During her first recording session, despite entirely lacking experience with orchestras or conducting, she boldly and uninvited grabbed the baton when the actual hired conductor stepped out. Even before that, when, like so many other Jewish performers of the century (including Bob Zimmerman/Dylan), the teen-aged Carol Klein changed her “ethnic” surname, she chose one that announced her anticipated supremacy. In that respect at least, Carole King never really changed. And that’s a problem for a character drama.

A really dramatic Carole King story would sharply reduce the roles of Weil, Mann, and Kirshner (and the Jewish mom shtick delivered by Suzanne Grodner as King’s mom Genie) and focus mostly on the 1967-71 period when her and Goffin’s relationship unraveled, through her self-reinvention, tracing her move — and by extension, much of her generation’s —  from the artificiality of postwar American culture to something more personal, more real.

Un-Natural Woman

Along with short-shrifting King’s major life drama, Beautiful also misses what made her music so distinctive amid the pop music of its time. Songs like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “It’s Too Late” helped set the template for personal expression in pop, and the best of the original performers, from the Shirelles’ Shirley Alston to King herself, captured that sense of intimacy and realness. As King wrote in her memoir: “I had found the key to success when I was performing. It was to be authentically myself.”

But the authentic power of the kind of rock music that King and Goffin represented is entirely antithetical to the sheen of so much modern Broadway. It’s all about getting the fans in the back row to stand up and cheer. In formulaic hits like “The Locomotion,” where (as Goffin complained when he wrote it) personal expression doesn’t matter so much, it’s fine.

But in Goffin and King’s more personal material, the music that made them immortal, it does. That authenticity is one of the qualities that the best boomer rock, especially the music Goffin and King pioneered, bestowed upon pop music. And it’s entirely lost in Steve Sidwell’s soulless, glossy arrangements. The singers’ big, brassy voices, over-amplified by sound designer Brian Ronan in the Keller Auditorium’s sound system, certainly shake the rafters. But they lack any trace of realness. It’s so Broadway: a slick, showy portrayal of reality, whereas King and the other great singers who originally sang her songs convinced us that they were really feeling what they were singing about. That’s why we cherish them, and bought so many of their records.

King in the early 1970s.

King in the early 1970s.

A telling moment occurs near the end, when King is recording the breakthrough Tapestry and producer Lou Adler tells her they need one more song to complete the album. He wants “Natural Woman,” which of course had been a huge hit a few years earlier for Aretha Franklin. King resists, because those were Goffin’s words, maybe inspired by the affair he was having during their marriage. They bring back bad memories. “I’m scared,” she says.

She was probably just as scared to be following a spectacular performance as iconic as Franklin’s, which no one should have to do. In A Natural Woman, King rhapsodizes about Aretha’s astonishing performance of that song. No way she, or anyone, could match Franklin’s chops. But displaying the same courage she summoned in hawking her teenage songs, King reclaimed “Natural Woman” as an intimate ballad about a woman’s erotic transformation, utterly different from Franklin’s equally powerful declaration. Check King’s steamy live performances recorded just months after she’d recorded Tapestry and married her second husband, bassist Charlie Larkey.

The words are Goffin’s, but they also express King’s own revitalization in her relationship with a new lover, free

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