A good show makes you forget where you are. An even better show will make you forget you are watching a show but are instead in the midst of the world you have entered and believe is happening right now.
The rare times this has happened to me I am stunned at what I am seeing and then when I come to I have an OVERWHELMING NEED to write. Write everything and anything as fast as I can. Now you know what I was busy doing during the intermission of this play.
Carole King and I have something in common; we are both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York. I know, lucky us. (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2014_10_01_archive.html) Brooklyn is infamous for the famous stars that it has bore and set out into the world. This is especially true for those of us who attended James Madison High School just like Carole King, Justice Ginsburg, and I did. Law, art, music, acting, are just some of the fields that have benefited from us Broolynites. I would also like to add myself to this category in which case the field of the written word is transformed.
Growing up the only thing I knew about Carole King, besides that she was a famous singer from Brooklyn, was that she sang what I call the Herbal Essence song. That would be “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman”. I knew my mother was a fan but this was the complete list of facts I had. When I think about how much I now know and how fast I learned it, I just sit back and marvel at it. She had so many highs and lows within both her personal and professional lives. Keeping in mind this play only focused on the first half of her life.
I came to see this play as a Christmas present to my mother. I knew it won Tony Awards last year for best sound design of a musical and for best actress in a leading role in a musical. It was the latter that made me curious about the other young woman I would get to know, the incredibly talented Jessie Mueller. At the 2015 Grammy’s Mueller and King won the award for Best Musical Theater Album.
Originally I had no interest in seeing this show. I felt like I had been there done that. I have seen similar plays that tell the tales of famous groups and quite frankly I think this genre is a bit overdone. I have seen plays depicting Baby It’s You- The Shirelles (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2011/09/for-story-of-shirelles.html), Jersey Boys- Frank Valli and The Four Seasons, and Million Dollar Quartet about a shared jamming session with Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2011/03/for-love-of-theater-and-what-it-means.html). While each had their positive attributes they didn’t quite do it for me. There always something missing or that could have been different. The single exception is Million Dollar Quartet. These actors were multi-talented. Not only did they accurately portray the infamous singers they were playing, they also were flawless on their instruments. There was no orchestra. I repeat, there was no orchestra! This will also set the bar higher for other shows like this I see. Case in point, I was not so eager to see Beautiful.
My initial hesitation to see this play went out the window within the first few seconds of the performance. For the first five minutes I was looking around like a mad woman because I would have bet my life that the soundtrack was playing instead of the orchestra in the pit below the stage. The sound was that clear, crisp, and perfect.
As we delve into the story and history of Carole King I am wowed by what I learn. She graduated two years ahead of her class and by sixteen had meant the most influential love of her life Gerry Goffin. Together they married and started a family young all the while writing some of the best songs of all time, songs we all know from all different generations. During this period of time the songs they wrote made stars out of those lucky enough to sing them. Even their babysitter, Little Eva, became a household name when she sang the tune their wrote for her “The Locomotion”. I know this song as Kylie Minogue sang it in the 1980s. I had the cassette single for goodness sake.
Besides watching “Carole” the other artists portrayed in this story are countless. It is amazing to see how influential this young couple was in changing their lives and the culture of music. Jessie Mueller was my favorite but no doubt was not the only talented person on stage. My particular favorites were members of the ensemble cast portraying The Drifters. Every time they danced on set and began singing I was on the edge of my seat. They are for sure the ones to watch because their careers are only just beginning. I could have watched just the four of them all night long.
Fellow songwriters and friends to King and Goffin were Barry Mann and his writing partner/love Cynthia Weil who are also important characters in this story. They appear like the foils of King and Goffin both professionally and personally. My favorite line from “Barry” was during a vacation the four of them took and he says “Vermont is too quiet. I feel like I had a stroke”.
It seems I was not the only one who didn’t initially sign up to see this show. The answer might surprise you, it was Carole King herself. Apparently Mr. Goffin and his current wife went to the opening night on Broadway (he has since passed away). Ms. King didn’t go until April of 2014 (opening night was in January of that year) although she did find it wonderful once there but she left after the first act. She has said that it was too hard to watch something she already lived. It was also the reason she didn’t want the play to happen in the first place. It was the Goffin’s second daughter Sherry, who convinced her mother this had to happen. She had become Carole’s manager in 2011 and saw this play when it was the workshop stage. Carole has said “But the artist in me realized how good the show was, and I knew I couldn't stand in its way. I gave 'Beautiful' its title, which has multiple layers of meaning for me, and now I give 'Beautiful' my blessing." Well put.
I am still overwhelmed by this play and how it broke the mold of the true story genre that seems to be popular now. Jessie’s ability to get her voice to sing and speak with Carole’s diction was a marvel. It seems so natural that I bet most people wouldn’t know the difference. She had the ability to share Carole’s music with the audience who was dying to get up and dance. The tension, passion, sorrow, and joy were palpable throughout. The intermission couldn’t even break that stride.
What I have learned since leaving the play is numerous to detail. But I will share my favorite Carole King factoids. For starters she has been married a total of four times and besides the daughters mentioned in the play she went on to have an additional daughter and a son. She has won countless awards and honors among them: being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and in 2012 she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I also learned that she penned three random songs that I just so happen to love: “Care-A-Lot” from the Care Bears and “Now and Forever” from A League of Their Own. Finally it was Carole and her first-born daughter Louise who sings “Where You Lead” that was the opening song for the series Gilmore Girls.
I believe I will let Ben Brantley, the theater critic for the New York Times, have the last words on the talent in this show. They are the most appropriate I have yet to read on the subject.
“But when Ms. Mueller sings……..she delivers something you don’t expect from a jukebox musical. That’s a complex, revitalizing portrait of how a very familiar song came into existence, and of the real, conflicted person within the reluctant star.”
While I’m now officially on record as promoting this play there is one warning you will need to heed before you get your tickets. The star Jessie Mueller is playing her last performance on March 6, 2015. She will be replaced by another Broadway star Chilina Kennedy. I have no point of reference for her and after seeing Jessie I don’t know how anyone can compare although I wish her the best of luck. I feel it’s a story that needs to go on being told.
I realized some where along this evening that I had in fact been in this lovely theater before. It really is lovely, you walk into the theater and there is the mezzanine seating. The orchestra is actually downstairs. Everything is sparklingly in their glory. Even the bathrooms could not be outdone. The last time I was here, here being the Stephen Sondheim Theater, was in 2009 when I saw Bye Bye Birdie staring John Stamos. It was my memory of that night that allowed me to know that the stage door for this show was in the alley around the corner. After seeing Jessie I really wanted to meet her. The major problem was that it was literally below zero on this New York City evening. I tried to wait but even standing there for five minutes became unbearable.
As I turned to leave I witnessed one of the most incredible things I have ever seen, in this city or any other. There were only a few of us in this crowd at that stage door and as I was about to turn and leave the door opened but it was not a cast member that exited. It was two men, one holding a camera and the other two playbills. It was this man with the playbills who walked over and handed them to a woman standing behind the rope. The reason I noticed this was because as soon as this woman looked down at the playbills she let out a blood-curdling scream and dropped to her knees so fast it was like watching a movie. No matter what he said or her mother next to her she wouldn’t get up or stop crying. Finally after a few minutes the man got down on one knee and opened a jewelry box. Apparently on the playbills it said, “Will you marry me”? Once the crying stopped the newly engaged couple got up and were hugging and kissing. It was such an amazing experience to see. If I am being honest it’s one of the few ways that I could see myself getting proposed to if I had a say. But now knowing it wasn’t an original idea sort of dampers it. Good thing this is not a problem I have to worry about soon.
As the happy couple embraced my mother and I ran across the street to the Heartland Brewery to get warm and have a snack. I had never been in this location before and it was nice. As we sat there thawing out the happy couple entered to a surprise gathering of friends who were screaming and showing a cake made for the occasion. It was warm and made me smile. The look on that girls face as her life changed was of pure joy. A typical Thursday night this was not. I went home happy, entertained, surprised, and more motivated to write that I have been in a while.
Some people just have amazing life stories; I just hope I am in the middle of one right now.
It turns out that the night was even more “Beautiful” than I had planned.
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