Before we get to what's wrong with Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Stephen Sondheim, let's establish what's so right that it instantly joins the ranks of irresistible jukebox tuners Jersey Boys, Motown The Musical, Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages. In other words, it should have a long and healthy run, if, that is, the producers can either convince Jessie Mueller to remain in the title role forever or, failing that, if they can find replacements as enormously talented as she is and as cannily cast.
Beautiful wouldn't be anywhere, of course, without the songs King started writing when she was 16 with soon-to-be husband Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein). Establishing themselves as staff writers for Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown), known then as "the man with the golden ear," and his partner Al Nevins (not seen or mentioned), they quickly had chart-topping hits for Aldon Music like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" "The Locomotion" and "Up on the Roof," to name only a paltry few.
A good sampling of their huge BMI money-makers get the royal Broadway treatment throughout the show as sung by the leads -- including Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector playing songwriting pals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (some of their hottest songs reprised, too). Also warbling, often to crisply high-stepping choreography by Josh Prince, are E. Clayton Cornelius, Douglas Lyons, Arbender J. Robinson, James Harkness, Ashley Blanchet, Alysha Deslorieux, Carly Hughes and Rashidra Scott, Josh Davis and Kevin Duda.
They represent never-to-be-forgotten -- at least for the foreseeable future -- King-Goffin-Weil-Mann interpreters like The Drifters, The Shirelles, The Righteous Brothers and Little Eva, who Goffin-King devotees know was the couple's baby-sitter.
So, yes, the songs the world knew and danced to, while, for one thing, watching American Bandstand are treated extremely well by orchestrator-arranger Steve Sidwell and conductor-music supervisor-arranger Jason Howland, both paying close attention to the original versions. The pair have to be on top of things if they want to satisfy the '50s-'60s-'70s fans who know the A-sides note for note, chord for chord and will want to beat a happy path to the Stephen Sondheim doors.
As it unfurls, Sidwell and Howland know enough to propel the overture into action with the opening riffs of King's "I Feel the Earth Move," and, take my word, the earth under the theater moves, it moves.
For the record, Beautiful is snappily moved along by Derek McLane's shifting sets, which are often dominated by high panels intended to look like recording-studios' baffled walls. The changing surroundings also suggest shorthand versions of various homes and, perhaps most significantly, the hectic Aldon offices at 1650 Broadway. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting and Brian Ronan's crucial sound add to the propulsive effect. Alejo Vietti's costumes catch the period looks without going satirically overboard.
Most importantly, Mueller is absolutely moving at the center of Beautiful. She's been taking Broadway by leaps during the past few years in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Mystery of Edwin Drood revival and the Public's Into the Woods this past summer. Now she indisputably earns her star stripes. To begin with, she looks a good deal as King looked in those years and is certainly helped by the hairstyles Charles G. LaPointe supplies.
This wouldn't be enough, needless to say, if Mueller weren't able to duplicate the fervor King displayed when she sat down at the piano and played not only the songs she turned out with Goffin but also the pounding hits she came up with on her own when the marriage disintegrated. That's when she turned herself into a singer-songwriter, releasing the Tapestry album in 1971 to something like 25 million sales. (It doesn't matter that Mueller doesn't play the piano. She does a convincing job of looking as if she does.)
But while everything mentioned above contributes to Beautiful, Douglas McGrath's libretto pulls it down several notches. Not so many that it threatens irreversible damage, but still. What he does is take King's life with and without Goffin and turn it into a sitcom where Carole and Gerry are Lucy and Desi and Cynthia and Barry are Ethel and Fred.
It may be that King, Goffin, Weil and Mann were quick with the one-liners, but the way in which the characters deliver them stretches credulity from the get-go. So do some of the plot turns. Is it true, for instance, that King's pushy mom Genie Klein (Liz Larsen, reduced to a two-dimensional portrayal) presented the ultimatum requiring King to give up her aspirations if she didn't sell a song on her announced final try?
Eventually, the strain put on the King-Goffin marriage by Gerry's philandering and a subsequent breakdown darkens the dramatic atmosphere. But liberties are taken at this point, too -- probably for legal reasons. Goffin dallies first with an apparently famous girl-group singer called Janelle Woods. She fronts the foursome that records the Goffin-King "One Fine Day." (The Chiffons were the artists on that cheerful ditty. Is Janelle a substitute name for one of them?) Then there's a philanderee named Marilyn Wald, who's not accounted for in rock annals.
Yes, the latter alterations are standard liberties taken under particular circumstances, but they're also indications of the sketchy treatments common to stage biographies. After a while, an observer begins to doubt many of the developments. Did Donny Kirshner ever harmonize around the piano with his tunesmiths? Did Gerry really show up just before Carole's Carnegie Hall concert to wish her well? Or do these incidents simply bolster theatrical moments?
By the way, an intriguing aspect of Beautiful is its implied commentary on popular songwriting during the time rock was becoming a dominant force. Early in the script, the importance of writing for teenagers is noted. The implied message the proceedings make--for those who want to pay any attention to it--is that prior to the '50s and '60s, lyricists and composers generally aimed their songs at listeners their age or older. When King and Goffin and colleagues came along, the usual target audiences were record buyers their age and younger.
One last comment about the treatment of the King songs. Since there are so many to reprise, some are understandably trimmed. Yet King-Goffin admirers can't be blamed for sorely missing parts of them. For instance, in "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," the following Goffin lyric is dropped: "When my soul was in the lost and found, you came along to claim it."
This is a major loss. In all of pop writing, there may not be a be a greater kitsch sentiment. Beautiful survives it, but gee whiz, folks, how could you?!