It's hard to tell a truthful story about real people, especially if you need to secure intellectual property rights to do so. At its worst, a bio-musical (a show that uses the song catalogue of an artist to tell the story of his or her life) can feel like a self-serving memoir attempting to whitewash the human failings of its subject. At its best, it explores those human failings and attempts to show how they informed the music. Beautiful — The Carole King Musical, now playing at Broadway's Stephen Sondheim Theatre, undeniably falls into the latter group.
Its attraction can be largely attributed to a compelling book by Douglas McGrath and top-notch performances from the show's four leads, particularly Jessie Mueller, who plays King. Mueller made her Broadway debut opposite Harry Connick Jr. in the 2011 revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. If anyone doubted she was a star after that Tony-nominated performance, they can safely put those doubts to rest after witnessing this thrilling portrayal of a living legend of American pop music.
Taking place largely in the offices of Aldon Music at 1650 Broadway (stunningly reimagined by Derek McLane), Beautiful shows us a 16-year-old King selling her song "It Might As Well Rain Until September" to producer Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown) during her first visit to that magical building. It's a music factory, the spiritual heir to Tin Pan Alley, where Jewish writers compose songs for black performers to create the sound of America. An overlapping medley of classic pop songs like "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" and "Love Potion No. 9" establishes this world with electric flair.
King goes on to meet her best friends and artistic competitors, Cynthia Weil (an unfailingly funny Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector, playing the sexiest nebbish to ever grace the Broadway stage). She also meets Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), the man who becomes her collaborator and husband. Together they author classic songs like "Take Good Care of My Baby" (for Bobby Vee) and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" (Aretha Franklin). As her husband's behavior becomes increasingly erratic, King wonders if she's good enough to go it alone. (She is.)
As Goffin, Epstein plays a role that fans of Degrassi: The Next Generation might recognize: the angsty and talented heartthrob with a substance-abuse problem. When Goffin informs King that he wants to have relationships with other women while remaining married to King (this is naturally wrapped in the "free love" rhetoric of the 1960s), her embarrassment is palpable. Doubtlessly, some members of the audience will also wonder where to sign up to be that other woman.
All this adds shade and depth to Mueller's already spot-on impersonation of the instantly recognizable King. It's easy to understand how a smart girl like King falls for a handsome and brooding mess like Goffin, and we sympathize. Even if we can see from a mile away the train wreck that is coming, we do the Loco-Motion irresistibly toward it, drawn forward by McGrath's engrossing tale, which accents the drama of the story with the already emotionally supercharged music of its subjects.
Director Marc Bruni has taken the gift of a smart and economical script and run with it. Amid lightning-quick transitions, this show only decelerates when it wants to. Split-second costume changes (designer Alejo Vietti must be a witch) add to the magic and fun of the evening.
There's much to like about Beautiful — The Carole King Musical. That's why it's so disappointing that the element that should be the easiest sell — the timeless music of King, Goffin, Weil, and Mann — is often the hardest to swallow. While it's always nice to hear great songs you already know performed by first-rate singers, many of the arrangements follow the same haphazard trajectory: An adequate-yet-bland rendition of "One Fine Day" trudges along for one minute until the arrangements try to make up for lost time. A key change here, a glory note there, and voilà: instant showstopper. There's none of the earthy imperfection and driving soul of the original songs, just tiresome American Idol-esque vocal pyrotechnics. This pattern is repeated with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and "The Loco-Motion." Is the show trying to apologize for some of the greatest pop music ever written by pepping it up for an easily distracted modern audience? No apology necessary.
Luckily, none of Mueller's songs, which tend to be more down-tempo and moody, suffer such a fate. This gives the performer plenty of room to spread her wings and fly, which she does at every turn. Her voice is rich and soulful, overflowing with a pain and yearning that is tempered with a gentle good humor. Mueller's performance is destined to become one of the year's most memorable. As the first Broadway show of 2014, Beautiful sets a high bar for all of this year's forthcoming leading ladies.