BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL — An Oral History
In September 2013, SHN presented the world premiere of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, in San Francisco, and the exhilarating production went on to become a Tony Award®–winning hit on Broadway.
Based on the life of prolific musician Carole King, Beautiful follows her evolution from a 16-year-old composer to the multitalented singer, songwriter, and pianist whose 1971 album, Tapestry, was the must-have soundtrack for a generation. The relationships between King and her lyricist husband, Gerry Goffin, and married songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, frame the musical’s narrative. The foursome, both friends and competitors, were among the most successful writers to emerge from New York’s Brill Building, the iconic hit factory of the ’50s and ’60s. Propelled by King’s unforgettable tunes (including “You’ve Got a Friend,” “It’s Too Late” and “I Feel the Earth Move”), Beautiful unfolds as King’s marriage to Goffin falls apart in the aftermath of his infidelities, freeing her to launch her phenomenally successful solo career.
Produced by Paul Blake, directed by Marc Bruni and with a book by Douglas McGrath, Beautiful is the most recent pre-Broadway engagement to be staged at SHN. (Wicked, Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème, Mamma Mia!, Legally Blonde the Musical and eight others all got their start at SHN in San Francisco.)
SHN asked some of the key creative talents and cast members—as well as the principals upon whom the story is based—to share their thoughts on the making of Beautiful and its game-changing pre-Broadway run in San Francisco.
THE BIRTH OF BEAUTIFUL
Carole King (words and music): I’ve always been a very private person, so initially, I was horrified by the idea of my life being turned into a musical. The period chronicled in Beautiful was exhilarating in so many ways, not the least of which was being stimulated creatively by Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. But it also included some of the most painful moments of my life.
Cynthia Weil (words and music): Barry and I heard from Carole’s former manager, Lorna Guess, that there was interest in a musical about our friendship in the ’60s. This period of our lives wasn’t as tumultuous as it was for Carole. We’re the B-story, the comic relief. Carole and Gerry were Lucy and Desi, and we were Fred and Ethel, and we knew that.
Sherry Kondor (executive producer and Carole King’s daughter and manager): My mother always had a level of discomfort about having her story told by someone else and shrunk down to the scope of a play. Lorna had urged her to try it with this writer and that writer, and each time it was underwhelming. So I went into it thinking it’s not going to work.
Greg Holland (CEO of SHN): When producer Paul Blake told me that he had this idea of creating a musical about Carole King, I said, That’s fascinating: Carole King, her music—it’s a no-brainer. And Paul was the one to do it. He has established himself as a creative developer of new musicals, such as Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, and he is so strong collaboratively. But of course, the big challenge was how to turn all this incredible material into a musical play.
Douglas McGrath (book): It is very hard to write a show about people who are still alive. [Note: Gerry Goffin passed away in 2014.] They all have their own memories. I had to compress their stories, which can be hard for the subjects. I had to look at the spirit of their lives and the events that tell the stories of their lives. I interviewed all four of them individually. I asked them everything. It was a five-year period to develop the show, from inception to its opening in San Francisco.
Kondor: I watched a reading, and I was charmed. I laughed; I cried. I thought, There’s great potential there, and we should let it grow.
King: After Sherry saw an early workshop, she encouraged me to attend a reading. Hearing it aloud in a room full of people left me conflicted. I had to leave after the first act because the excellence of the writing and the actors’ interpretations awakened long-buried emotions. But the artist in me realized how good the show was, and I knew I couldn’t stand in its way. I gave Beautiful its title, which has multiple layers of meaning for me, and now I give Beautiful my blessing.
Kondor: My role was to protect my mother and make sure it was honest. The story is not always accurate: Some things deviate; some songs are written out of order. We were also concerned about how Gerry would feel because he has to play the role of the villain. But when he saw the play in San Francisco, he enjoyed it.
McGrath: Barry and Cynthia would call me frequently, and had lots of ideas and memories. And lots of others gave me input. And of course, there’s the whole great musical catalog to work with. It was like being given two tons of rock and wire, and then you have to build the Brooklyn Bridge.
I was drawn to the idea of a teenage girl succeeding not as a pop star but as a writer. What I found so joyful in my research was that for many years before Tapestry, she was a very successful writer. She was writing for The Drifters, The Shirelles, Aretha Franklin and The Monkees. I hadn’t realized how early she started. She sold her first song when she was 16.
Weil: Carole’s evolution from a writer to an artist is a story that hasn’t been told. And it’s told beautifully in this show.
Marc Bruni (director): A lot of songs come out of her personal experience. In Beautiful, we always acknowledge it’s a song first—we never pretend it’s anything but a song—but we did try to have the songs fit with specific times of her life.
When we started out, I did not know the extent of her catalog. Now, I can’t remember not knowing those songs. It is an embarrassment of riches. It’s just hit after hit.
CASTING THE MUSICAL
Stephen Kopel (casting): Casting real people is an added pressure. I wanted to honor what they have done for the history of music, but I was not looking for carbon copies. In the audition process, many people just did impressions of Carole King. Sure, you want actors who bear a resemblance, but it is more about an intangible spirit or energy. I was looking for people who could capture these characters’ energy and points of view. And we couldn’t have found more perfect actors.
Jake Epstein (original cast, Gerry Goffin): When I first read the script, I was attracted to the part of Gerry. I couldn’t figure out whether he was the villain or a misunderstood hero, an artist or someone with real mental issues. I think he’s all those things.
Jarrod Spector (original cast, Barry Mann): With Barry, there’s a little more leeway because people don’t know him as well. I got to speak with Barry and Cynthia, and the first thing Barry said to me was, “You know, I never knew I was a hypochondriac until they told me that I was.” I thought that was hilarious!
I started adding some “Barry-isms” into my portrayal of the guy. He’s neurotic, funny, kind and talented. He’s head over heels in love with Cynthia. Their partnership is wonderful to portray.
Barry Mann (words and music): When I saw the show for the first time in San Francisco, I was over the moon over the casting of Jarrod as me. He just blew me away.
Kopel: The relationship between Barry and Cynthia onstage is their real dynamic; they complete each other. They are a team, and they approach everything with humor.
Weil: The casting has been amazing. I feel that most of the women who have played my character are more me than me!
Jessie Mueller (original cast, Carole King): When I first got the role, I was excited and honored, but a little freaked out. I knew I had quite a task ahead of me. I didn’t know that much about her prior to working on Beautiful.
Kondor: We had to convince Jessie to take the role; she did not feel she could do it justice. But I wrote her a heartfelt letter saying she had to do it! She reminds me so much of my mother. And now her sister, Abby Mueller, is playing Carole on the national tour.
Kopel: Carole is not only an icon, but she has warmth, vulnerability, accessibility— all of which Jessie has in spades. Neither one ever has a phony or false moment, and they share a certain self-effacing quality. For them, it’s not about being a star; it’s about the work.
THE ARTISTIC JOURNEY
Holland: At SHN, we try to be judicious and careful about world premieres. We want to be sure that San Francisco is the right place to serve the piece, and of course, it is a great music town. You want an audience to help you refine the piece, and we have audiences that are smart and open to the experience of development. They also understand why music moves us so much when it comes from a real place.
Mueller: San Francisco has a different energy. We had the time and space to really explore our new show, and find what worked and what we needed to change and make better.
Paul Blake (producer): I love San Francisco: It’s an extraordinary city for theater. I love the audiences, but the other reason I go is SHN. They are so supportive and knowledgeable, and they know their market. It’s beyond being partners; it’s like we are family. It’s a happy, terrific, gemütlich situation.
Holland: We have had a great relationship with Paul ever since we hosted the premiere of his Irving Berlin’s White Christmas in 2005, so it made sense for us to host the world premiere of Beautiful, too.
McGrath: We were in San Francisco for four weeks, and we learned so much. I sat in the theater every night, fiendishly taking notes during the shows. Then, I’d go to a nearby bar with director Marc Bruni, music director Jason Howland and set designer Derek McLane—and we’d talk about what worked and what didn’t. And then, I’d go back to my hotel and order eggs and potatoes and toast, and do my rewrites.
Derek McLane (set designer): Doug McGrath was quite honest about how things were still unresolved when we got to San Francisco. It was clear that certain things were inherently difficult about telling that story. For the design, I started with one of Doug’s lines in the show. When Carole talks her mother into letting her go to the Brill Building, she says, “Mom, it’s just like a factory, but they make songs.” That was a great image for the set. Some of my design was based on real images, but I based it less on biographical accuracy and more on what Doug had created.
Blake: When Beautiful played in San Francisco, the audience was ecstatic at the end of the first act, but at the end of the second act, they were just pleased. And I said, What’s missing? We realized there was not enough of Tapestry, and “You’ve Got A Friend” wasn’t in the right place.
Bruni: Act 1 worked. Audiences loved discovering all the songs. The part we learned a lot about is Act 2. People wanted more about Tapestry and what inspired those songs. We realized we had to delve into the California portion of her life, because she wrote many of the songs on Tapestry, like “It’s Too Late,” while she lived there.
McGrath: Early on, when we had “You’ve Got a Friend” at the end of the show, after “I Feel the Earth Move,” it was like napalm had been sprayed on the audience. The song is too mellow and lists a lot of bad things. It’s not how you want to walk out of the theater. So we took it out, and then audiences said, “Where’s that song?”
We realized we had to create a whole new scene for it. So I wrote a scene in which Carole was moving to California, and the song was a way of saying good-bye to Barry and Cynthia.
Kondor: I was against them putting “You’ve Got a Friend” in a friendship context; I thought it would be corny. But it worked out wonderfully, and I cry every time I hear it.
Blake: Now that song is a showstopper. And we learned how to make it work in San Francisco.
Bruni: We made quite a few other changes in San Francisco, too. We made cuts to the book, and we added the character of Lou Adler [the producer of Tapestry]. Adler was always known for his big beard, but our actor was clean-shaven. I remember putting in a rush order for a beard to be overnighted from New York to San Francisco!
McLane: And I made some changes to the set during our run in San Francisco. For example, we had these doors from Home Depot that drove me crazy: They were modern and cheap looking, and I kept complaining about them. So our carpenter, Fred Gallo, set up a makeshift workshop in the alley behind the SHN theater and built me brand-new doors, just to shut me up.
Holland: We believe all our SHN members and partners were part of Beautiful’s development. That’s why we want our audiences to see it again—it is part of the 2016 subscription series—because it is a cool opportunity for them to see how they were part of the process. We want them to see their investment realized onstage.
McGrath: The first audience is always Carole King fans. Sometimes, they come back with their kids and grandkids, who, it turns out, can relate to the show. Because it opens with Carole at age 16, trying to break into the music business. And her mom says no, which is a classic dynamic.
The show sends a great message for young people, that you can fall in love with the dreamiest boy and have a successful partnership, and then get your heart broken. You think your life is ruined, but then something even better comes along. It’s an inspiring and joyful message for young people to hear.
And it’s wonderful when kids are exposed to a phenomenal talent. All the years between now and then simply vanish because a great melody is timeless.
Weil: It’s as if this show was blessed, because even though sometimes in development it zigged when it should have zagged, everything always worked out for the best.
BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL plays at the SHN Orpheum Theatre from August 9 through September 18. Buy your tickets today at shnsf.com.