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January 15, 2014 5:53 pm
When the aspiring pop lyricist Cynthia Weil showed up to audition for the influential pop producer Don Kirshner in about 1960, he pronounced her ambitions “too Broadway” for his Hit Parade artists. As depicted in Beautiful, an entertaining, never-quite-enthralling new musical centred around Weil’s rival songwriter, Carole King, the scene is ironic for at least two reasons. First, the audition and the women’s subsequent labours take place in Manhattan at 1650 Broadway, where writers toiled to create radio hits. Second, because we are watching the slightly fictitious scene in a new musical on Broadway.
Doug McGrath, writer of the book for Beautiful, sprinkles his story with more irony than Broadway has been accustomed to lately. To Barry Mann, Weil’s songwriting partner, portrayed amusingly by Jarrod Spector, McGrath assigns a string of hypochondriacal one-liners. (Not for nothing has McGrath co-written a movie, Bullets over Broadway, with that king kvetch Woody Allen.)
These jokes help pepper a story that begins as a story of two teams – Weil/Mann and King with her husband, Gerry Goffin – vying to write pop hits but descends by Act Two into a King-Goffin marital soap opera. We witness the rise of King from ambitious Brooklyn girl to songwriting star, who at age 18 with Goffin turned out her first number one: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”.
The musical, directed with a sure hand by Marc Bruni, uses a formula almost as predictable as the hook-laden method of its songwriting subjects: it depicts Weil/Mann or King/Goffin coming up with bits of their tunes, then cuts to them being performed by the bouncy, spangle-laden performers who made them popular: The Shirelles, The Drifters.
This modus moves the first act along efficiently enough, providing plenty of nostalgic moments for baby boomers. But the need to tell the tale of the couples – and, with the exception of “One Fine Day”, the musical numbers stand apart from the storytelling – keeps Beautiful from delivering the kinetic excitement of the best of the boomer musicals, Jersey Boys.
What Beautiful does showcase is a brilliantly cast Jessie Mueller as King. Her singing voice has the necessary plaintive ache to convey her subject without overt impersonation. It is especially well suited to deliver the songs from the 1971 album Tapestry, in which King moved from songwriter to songwriter/performer and found her voice fully both as an artist and a human being.
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