She took an unconventional route to superstardom, but it was a soulful road that Carole King traveled.
Born Carol Klein in Brooklyn in 1942, she did not set out to become a performer. In “Beautiful,” the new musical about King that opens this Sunday on Broadway, King’s career as a budding songwriter comes to the fore. Starring Jessie Mueller (“On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”) as King, the musical opens a window on a pivotal 1960s era in pop music in which a group of mostly Jewish composers and lyricists wrote for mostly black performers, changing the face of American culture in the process.
Directed by Marc Bruni (“Old Jews Telling Jokes”), the new show traces King’s trajectory from the first tunes that she wrote while attending James Madison High School in Brooklyn. At Queens College, she met her future husband, Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), who turned out to be a perfect lyricist for her melodies; their big break came in 1960 with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?,” recorded by The Shirelles, which was the first No. 1 hit by a black girl group, and which led to recordings of King’s songs by The Drifters, The Chiffons, and many others.
While King and Goffin’s marriage ultimately foundered, King went on to work with many of the other artists, including Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector) and Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen), at 1650 Broadway, the companion building to the more famous Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, the pop music factory run by impresario Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown); it was Kirshner who first had the idea to hire teenagers to write songs for other teenagers. The musical follows King through her crowning success with her solo album “Tapestry” — including such hits as “You’ve Got a Friend,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — which she performed in a legendary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1971.
Douglas McGrath, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1994 for his screenplay for Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” wrote the book for “Beautiful.” In an interview, he told The Jewish Week that the show is a “jukebox” musical in the same vein as “Jersey Boys,” in which the songs are used to tell the true story of the creators of the music, rather than the “Mama Mia” or “Movin’ Out” approach, in which the songs are used in the service of a fictional narrative, and the characters sing about their feelings.
“The audience gets caught up in her personal story,” McGrath said, “and realizes where a song like ‘Natural Woman’ came from.” He called the musical a “story of female empowerment, about a woman who conquers her world through diligence and hard work.” While King started out wanting to be a Jewish wife and mother playing mah jongg and canasta in the New Jersey suburbs, she ultimately found that she was the best person to sing many of her own songs.
The tunes written by King and her collaborators are tailor-made for a musical, McGrath added. “Her songs have such emotional complexity. They have the intelligence and vulnerability of great theater songs.” He pointed out that the four songwriters in the show — King, Goffin, Mann and Weill — broke with the Tin Pan Alley style of American music exemplified by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and George Gershwin. “The melodies in their songs have the formal structure and melodic appeal that Great American Songbook tunes do, but are orchestrated differently to be recorded by black performers.”
As Sheila Weller pointed out in her 2008 book “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation” (Atria Books, 2008), this sympathy with black America was a major part of King’s appeal. While the Jewish songwriters of Tin Pan Alley had “romanticized high-society top hatters and New England white Christmases,” Weller wrote, “Carole and her peers — with their opposite sense of romance — would soon be extolling the humanity found within the very kinds of tenements those earlier songwriters had struggled to escape.”
Jonathan Karp, who teaches history and Judaic studies at Binghamton University, said in an interview that King’s importance cannot be underestimated. “She was probably the most successful female popular songwriter in American history,” he said. “She exquisitely conveyed the sensibility of a young generation increasingly comfortable with the idea of America as an integrated society.” The Brill hit-makers, he explained, “showed a recognition that black artists and musicians should be recording these songs, that the songs had to be plausibly black in orientation, outlook, and performance — in order to appeal to a mostly white teen audience.”
Bruni, the director, compared “Beautiful” to “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” He dubbed “Old Jews” a “jokebox” musical that, like “Beautiful,” tapped into people’s memories in a way that was “unpredictable to the creative team, who wouldn’t know that Uncle Morty told that joke at a seder six years ago.” Similarly, “Beautiful” taps into people’s relationships to their own youth. “People remember where they were when they first heard these songs,” he said. “Baby boomers had them on in their dorm rooms. The show brings back that era in people’s lives.” When the audience hears the first notes of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” and realizes what song it is, he said, a kind of collective moan goes up from the auditorium.
Sherry Goffin Kondor, the second of King and Goffin’s two daughters, is now her mother’s manager. She said that while Mueller’s voice is “not so much like Carole’s, her energy felt the most like hers. She melds perfectly into the role. My mother is so pleased with having Jessie play her.”
What is King’s response to the musical as a whole? As the New York Post reported, the 71-year-old star came to a workshop performance of the show last year, but left at the intermission. She has, she has said, no intention of sitting through an entire performance. “It’s too painful for her,” Bruni said. “She doesn’t want to be there and have to endure people watching her watch it. She lived it once. She doesn’t need to live it again.”
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“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” opens this Sunday at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St. Beginning next Tuesday, performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $75-$142, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com