The private lives of most of the musical legends profiled in biographical jukebox musicals are torn apart by tragedy, substance abuse, illness and struggles against great adversity.
But that’s not really the case for Carole King, the legendary singer-songwriter whose early career is traced in this simple but sophisticated 2014 Broadway musical now open in Sydney.
Beautiful is ultimately the story of a young woman — born Carole Klein — finding her voice, both in a literal and figurative sense.
The audience first meets King in 1971, when she made her headlining concert debut at Carnegie Hall, playing a set of hits from her best-selling, Grammy Award-winning album Tapestry, and a few songs written for other artists. King, played in the Australian production by the luminous Esther Hannaford, is absolutely on top of the world, singing with confidence and sensitivity.
The action then shifts quickly back to 1958 when the precocious 16-year-old musical talent set off on a train from Brooklyn to sell her first pop song at 1650 Broadway, New York’s mecca for pop songwriters. We learn how she impressed music industry bigwig Don Kirshner (Mike McLeish) and came to be in a songwriting and romantic relationship with Gerry Goffin (Josh Piterman).
Goffin and King became parents when King was just 17 and the pair were soon after among the most successful pop songwriters in the country, crafting hits for acts such as The Shirelles (Will You Love Me Tomorrow?) and The Drifters (Up on the Roof). But they had stiff competition, in the form of their best friends and fellow song-writers and hit-makers Cynthia Weil (Amy Lehpamer) and Barry Mann (Mat Verevis), who had the office next to King and Goffin.
Eventually, King and Goffin’s marriage came under enormous pressure as the pair realised their different ambitions: King’s desire for suburban domesticity didn’t sit too comfortably with Goffin. But the breakup gave King — who never had a great desire to perform her own material — the necessary push to make it on her own and discover the strengths of her own voice.
Unlike the majority of biographical stories of top-selling artists, the Carole King story ends happily, with the songwriter able to find artistic and commercial success and define her personal life on her own terms.
That’s not to say she doesn’t face some difficulties — her relationship broke down due to her husband’s infidelity, substance abuse and mental health problems — but neither her story, nor this musical, is defined by tragedy.
“A musical like Beautiful ultimately lives or dies on the strength of those musical performances and the strength of the musical catalogue.”
Douglas McGrath’s book skips lithely through the hits by Goffin and King, and Mann and Weil, while telling the stories behind the songs with gentle humour, and touching on how King was initially underestimated due to her gender.
The audience even learns that Little Eva, the singer who had a hit with Goffin and King’s teeny-bopper hit The Locomotion, was the songwriting pair’s babysitter. In the musical, an anonymous babysitter is asked who might be the right artist for the song, and Goffin implores her: “Come on Little Eva, think!” Cue knowing laughter from a significant portion of the audience before Eva immediately leaps into a performance of the song.
McGrath’s book sticks closely to the efficient storytelling template laid down in Jersey Boys and, although it’s frequently written in broad brushstrokes, it has enough character detail and hits the right marks to be a satisfying emotional journey.
Director Marc Bruni’s production is extraordinarily slick and beautiful to look at, but manages to find touches of humanity among all the production numbers — choreographed with precision and a great sense of era by Josh Prince — as set pieces constantly slide in and out of the stage.
But nothing in the musical would land without a compelling actor and singer in the central role. The great challenge for any actor playing King is that she’s a rather introverted individual for most of the musical, and even her blossoming is largely a quiet, modest thing.
Hannaford succeeds in every way imaginable, and I can’t think of a performer better suited to this material. She’s the kind of actor who can make small gestures translate for large audiences, and always seems to invite the audience to lean forward rather than explicitly projecting out. On top of that, her singing is absolutely gorgeous — delicate and melancholy one moment (It’s Too Late) and brightly coloured, powerful and joyous the next (Beautiful).
This is also very much a story about King’s three closest companions in her early professional years, and the actors in those roles are wonderful.
Josh Piterman is appropriately swoon-worthy as Goffin, until things start to take a turn for the worst, and Verevis puts his magnificent pop tenor to great use in We Gotta Get Out of This Place. Amy Lehpamer, very much a leading lady in her own right, is luxury casting as Weil, and finds plenty of depth and humour in the wryly funny character.
Mike McLeish and Anne Wood complete the principal cast with warmly textured performances, while the ensemble members all reveal great versatility and singing voices — which is an absolute necessity as most have significant solos as leading musical acts of the ’60s.
A musical like Beautiful ultimately lives or dies on the strength of those musical performances and the strength of the musical catalogue. In both these respects, Beautiful is a resounding hit, able to move an audience deeply with a number like Natural Woman and pick them up out of their seats for the triumphant finale of I Feel the Earth Move.
Featured image: Esther Hannaford. Photo by Joan Marcus