Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

In the 1950’s, Carole King began recording demo records for $25 per session with her friend Paul Simon while attending high school.  Shortly after, she met her song-writing partner Gerry Goffin at Queens College & they wed in 1959 after King became pregnant at age 17.  They left college to take daytime jobs & began writing songs at night in the office of Don Kirshner’s Aldon Music located at 1650 Broadway, opposite the prestigious Brill Building which was the haven for music business professionals during the 50’s & 60’s.  In 1962, the Brill Building housed 165 music businesses.  A musician could find a publisher, printer, make a demo, promote the record and make deals with radio promoters all in the same building.  During this time period, the independent music companies in the Brill Building & nearby 1650 Broadway defined the trend of songwriting & recording as the “Brill Building Sound.”  In The Sociology of Rock by Simon Frith, Carole King described the atmosphere: “Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky.  You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours.  The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific, because Donny (Kirschner) would play one songwriter against another.  He’d say: ‘We need a new smash hit’ and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition for Bobby Vee’s producer.”  The composers in the cubby hole next door were Cynthia Weil & Barry Mann, King & Goffin’s main competition but also their good friends.  The Brill Building approach, which extended to other publishers not based in the Brill Building, was a way the music businessmen took control of things during rock & roll’s second wave.

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A view of the cramped cubby holes that housed songwriters during the 1950’s at Aldon Music. Image source: caroleking.com

The bio-musical highlights the first 25 years of Carole King’s musical career beginning at age 16.  It follows her story starting as a shy, insecure girl writing songs for bigger performers to coming into her own as a solo artist & writing her own music that she performs.  This jukebox musical is packed with songs that defined a generation, with a soundtrack that won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.  The original Broadway production won Tony Awards for Best Featured Actress in a Musical & Best Sound Design and was nominated for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical & Best Orchestration.  Jessie Mueller won the Tony for playing the role of Carole King in the original production of Beautiful on Broadway, but her older sister Abby takes the reigns for the touring production by playing the lead role.  Mueller takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride of King’s life, with ups, downs & songs written for each mood.  The problems that King & Goffin faced are still common in today’s world & the show’s message is relatable to all.  Whatever happens in your life, you need to keep going, like the title song says, “You got to get up every morning with a smile on your face.”

What makes this musical unique is that it shows the process of songwriters composing the song, not just performing the final product.  The audience gets a look into the emotion, blood & sweat that King’s lyrics originate from.  With her album Tapestry, there’s a reason it’s revered as one of the best records of all time.  Tapestry spent an unprecedented 313 weeks on the Billboard charts, more than 6 years, second to only one other album, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.  King had gone through so much in her life up to that point, the lyrics just came pouring out.  It is one of the most influential records of our time, several of the songs have been recorded by other artists and have become hit singles, even while Tapestry was still on the charts.  The album sold over 25 million copies, and has won 4 Grammy Awards in 1972, Album of the Year, Record of the Year for “It’s Too Late”, Song of the Year in “You’ve Got a Friend” and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.  Rolling Stone magazine ranked Tapestry number 36 on their top 500 chart of the greatest albums of all time in 2003.  Several hit songs from Tapestry can be heard in Beautiful, and some may surprise you that Carole King wrote them since they were made famous by other artists.  Beautiful: The Carole King Musical begins its run in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre starting December 1 & ends on February 21.  Tickets for all dates are available for purchase here.

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Cover of Carole King’s Tapestry, one of the most influential albums of all time. Image source: nme.com

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