At Pantages Theatre Hollywood Through July 17th
Abby Mueller as King at the Pantages
There I was, Row B, Seat 102 on my feet, screaming, adoring, with Cheryl Tiegs standing in front of me applauding wildly, my former colleague Karen Sharp from Love Songs On the KOST next to me nearly in tears and BFF Daniel Charleston on his feet joining in the ovation. It was a curtain call steeped in as much emotion from the audience as the stage; it was applause for an ensemble but also for an era; it was the communal sharing of a person's triumph, and a generations.
It was, in fact, Beautiful in so many ways and for so many reasons.
This Los Angeles opening night was the conquering of Hollywood Blvd. and the Pantages Theatre by a musical over six decades in the making: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical now through July 17th at the Hollywood Pantages and then moving on to Denver, San Francisco, Costa Mesa, Seattle and many other North American cities.
And it was a very special night for me. You see, in 1971 I was nine years old and ready to start a record collection. My mom gave me $10 and I bought Tapestry by Carole King and Pearl by Janis Joplin. What a year for music, hey? My first album would become iconic. And I would go on in entertainment and find myself at the table next to Carole King at the BMI Pop Music Awards as she was given her BMI Icon Award. It was at that awards show that I realized how important King, and her ex-husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin, are to Pop music now and over the last six decades. And it was on stage in the form of an incredible cast that that history, and those songs, are brought to life.
"Will it be like 'Jersey Boys' and follow the career as told through the person's eyes, or will it be like 'Mamma Mia' and simply use the songs around another loose plot?" Daniel Charleston asked as we fought traffic to the Pantages. I wanted to ride up on the Victory Octane, but alas, no passenger seat, so, we sat in traffic.
"Does it matter, it's incredible music," I asked back, and he agreed. But at 29, could he possibly know the music?
"I had no idea she wrote so many songs that I know," he would later say as we left the theatre.
Indeed. The play starts with Abby Mueller taking the center stage at a black piano bathed in blue light. She is King. And the beauty of being Carole King is that her hits may be even more famous than she is: to the songwriting community she's a goddess (John Lennon once was quoted as saying he and McCartney wanted to be King-Goffin) her face may not be as familiar in today's world. That works for Mueller because unlike a play where you're playing say, Elvis, the audience quickly accepts Mueller as King, because to many, she could be. She starts the story of how a young (16) Carol Joan Klein from a Jewish family in Manhattan became one of the most prolific songwriters, and a trail blazing female songwriter in Pop and R&B music.
It focuses on key relationships in King's world: her meeting with the man she would marry at 17, Gerry Goffin in college, where she was because she was moved forward two years in school; and the meeting with the other most important man in her life, Don Kirshner, whose Aldon Music at 1650 Broadway was a hit factory in the 1950s, 60s and on.
Curt Bouril, Liam Tobin, Abby Mueller, Ben Fankhauser, Becky Gulsvig
Liam Tobin has the rough job of playing Goffin. I say rough, because the play doesn't really explore his admitted mescaline and LSD usage and the devastation it wrecked on him psychologically. By Goffin's own admission he was plagued by bouts with drugs and then mental illness; often those with mental illness self medicate with street drugs and alcohol. It cost him his marriage; that and his desire to be a "free love" sort of hippie.
But while personally King and Goffin were plagued by trouble, professionally, they were golden. The play opens with "So Far Away" (classic), moves in to Oh, Carol! by Neil Sedaka (King dated him briefly in high school) and then the play's challenge is to fit a smattering of the hundreds of hits the duo penned. "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Up On the Roof," "On Broadway," "The Locomotion," "You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin," on and on and on the hits go.
But it was the personal drama that would lead King to a turning point in her life and career. After divorcing Goffin and moving to California, King began writing the songs that would be iconic "Tapestry" album. So many sprang from her life up until that point, love gained, lost, children, husbands, friends. And everyone knew she had to be the one to sing it, instead of finding the perfect artist for the songs. She was the only artist for the material. She lived it.
Along the way friends she meets songwriting friends Cynthia Weil played brilliantly by Becky Gulsvig and her writing and life partner Barry Mann, Ben Fankhauser (who was a comic delight and really made me want to see a doctor). Curt Bouril plays Kirshner, a stereotype of the record company executive that rings far too true today. Kirshner wasn't making history, he was making Pop music and knew it. But along the way, his "Pop" songs did, in fact, shape history; that of Pop culture and that of the songwriters attached.
By the end of the play's musical journey the audience has also gone on one. Each and every song opening was like a name that tune from my life, the lives of so many in the audience. We all sobbed when Mueller breaks in to "You've Got a Friend," we all danced to "I Feel the Earth Move" and we all felt the longing of "So Far Away."
And we were all reminded of a time when Pop songs actually had substance, had meaning. Yes, King, Goffin, others were just trying to pay bills, quit day jobs and make families and lives with the earnings from their music. It was art and business for them. But for us, it was life, it was the soundtrack to makeups and breakups, to love found and love lost, to trips off to college, first dances at proms or weddings, or dark nights all alone in ones bedroom listening to King spill her soul through headphones as the vinyl popped in the background.
Abby Mueller as King recording the iconic album "Tapestry"
It's hard to review a play that already has one awards and has rave reviews across the board. Sure, it has faults. It's a little long, but who cared. As Dale said to me, "I could sit here all night and listen to this music." Well, me too. I have. For years. But I almost would have like to seen more about how she wrote "Tapestry" in California. What that process was like for her. We know the why, I would have liked to have seen more of the how.
But any fan of Pop music should see the play to be exposed to the importance of the songwriter; the importance of King to females in Pop music and songwriting; and to simply find the stories behind some of the most iconic hits in history. Decades after many were written they are so strong they can hold an entire musical. I'm not sure Taylor Swift, Kanye, Beyoncé or Brittany's music will pass the same test of time. Not to sound like a grumpy old man, but I'll put the songwriters of the 40s, 50s, 60 and 70s up against anything in the new millennium.
Take your mom and dad to see the play. Take your grandparents. Take the kids. Because for once, it is multi-generational because that's what good Pop music is: songs that will stand the test of time and entertain no matter.
The book by Douglas McGrath is witty and with words and music by Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, well, words and music don't come much better. Sony/ATV Music Publishing makes it all possible by a licensing deal on the music (in terms of expenses for entertainment, the royalties on these songs are by far one of the biggest expenses of the production just like the licenses for music were the biggest expenses for "Idol" and "The Voice").
And as you stand applauding at the end, as you will, you'll be under powerful magic, an elixir of the most potent mix: witty theater, well produced stage play, strong ensemble cast, honest, talented lead and music that has helped provide the soundtrack for generations since the 50s.
To see the Official Playbill
To hear Songs from the Musical
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