Last weekend was my mom’s birthday, and as part of her present we all went to see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway. While I certainly wasn’t expecting to hate it, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away either; I didn’t know much about the story except what my mom had told me, and I’m not the biggest fan of jukebox musicals (musicals based on pop music). Despite all that, I’m happy to report that it was actually a beautiful and touching show.
Beautiful is based, as the subtitle might suggest, on the life story of Carole King, a singer-songwriter whose work you’ve definitely heard, even if you’ve never heard of her. Carole sold her first song at age 16. She went on to write some of the most famous and recognizable songs of the 20th century, first with her husband Gerry Goffin as lyricist, and after their divorce, by herself. She also first started singing her own songs after her divorce, as opposed to writing them for other performers. The musical covers her life from the sale of that first song all the way to her triumphant performance at Carnegie Hall, and includes the ups and downs of her marriage, her and Gerry’s friendly rivalry with fellow romantic and songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (also responsible for dozens of recognizable hits), and her decision to try recording her own work herself.
I’ve made my opinion about jukebox musicals clear before: they all too often break the bones of an artist’s oeuvre of pop music in order to make a (usually) trite and unmoving story. I’ve eaten those words before as well—see my review of Holla If Ya Hear Me—but I wasn’t sure going in how this show would do. While I stand by my opinion in general, Beautiful‘s use of pop music may actually make the most sense of any jukebox show’s soundtrack, since it’s presented in-story as Carole and Gerry (or Cynthia and Barry) write it. It works incredibly well because the music is not lifted out of the context of ‘generic pop song’ and made to apply to some specific situation. The songs are recognizable, but they’re being performed in-context as pop songs rather than being recontextualized as some character-driven love song or what-have-you.
It seems weird to editorialize too much about Beautiful, given that it’s a biographical story based on a real, living person. I don’t know how many of the details of the show were based on real conversations or situations, and how many were fictionalized for the sake of a structured story arc. However, I thought the writing was excellent—funny, gripping, and heart-wrenching in turns—and a message of female empowerment ran throughout the show. It’s hard to stomach the sexist idea that teenage girls are the most vapid and useless part of society, for example, when you see Carole writing, pitching, and successfully selling her first song to a production company at age sixteen.
Despite the fact that they’re forced to compete with each other professionally, each trying to pitch their songs to the same performers, Carole and Cynthia form a fast and deep friendship that lasts through the years, belying the idea that women in the same field have to pit themselves against each other. Carole and Gerry marry when she’s seventeen because she’s pregnant, so for the bulk of her songwriting career she is balancing work with motherhood—in spite of the prevailing culture at the time, which would have rather she became a stay-at-home mom. And when Gerry’s philandering ways prove too much for her, Carole makes the hard decision to end their marriage, standing up for herself rather than trying to smooth things over by catering to Gerry’s feelings. And the album she wrote and recorded after their divorce, Tapestry? It turned out to be one of the bestselling albums of all time.
The show even takes a potshot at the idea of mansplaining and gatekeeping early on: when Carole meets Gerry for the first time in college, he’s trying to get into playwriting, and she’s looking for lyrical help. When she suggests they collaborate, he scoffs at her because she writes simple, fluffy pop music, telling her to come back when she’s listened to some Bach. As he goes to leave, she sits down at the piano and pounds out a Bach piece perfectly, and he returns, shamefaced, having realized that he was a total asshole, and agrees to give her a shot.
The show is a year and a half into an open-ended run on Broadway, and it’s hitting the road with a touring cast this year as well. If you have a chance to, I definitely recommend you check it out; it has so much heart and was incredibly moving—far more so than I expected it would be. It’s definitely worth seeing.