The story behind Carole King musical
Donna Isbell Walker , [email protected] 12:10 p.m. ET Feb. 14, 2017
Songs like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Up on the Roof” are such landmarks of the 20th-century pop-culture landscape that it’s easy to forget they were written by a teenage girl and her husband.
That teenager was Carole King, the songwriter who, with her husband Gerry Goffin and their pals Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, helped transform the early days of rock ’n’ roll. King’s story is told in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opens Feb. 21 at the Peace Center.
In writing the musical, Douglas McGrath, whose credits include “Bullets Over Broadway” and the screenplay for the Gwyneth Paltrow film “Emma,” initially planned to focus on all four songwriters equally. But as he delved into their lives and work, he found King’s life made for a particularly compelling story.
The musical uses familiar songs like “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “One Fine Day” to re-create the excitement of being part of the storied Brill Building songwriting stable, and the ups and downs of the songwriters’ lives.
Because all four of the songwriters were still alive at the time — Goffin died in 2014 — McGrath was initially reluctant to tackle the story, in part because he feared that each would have a particular vision for the work.
“There was a question about how to balance the show at the beginning. Because when I came on board, it was presented to me that it was going to be sort of the equal stories of the four songwriters,” McGrath said in a phone interview. “But over time, it just became clear that we had to tilt the story more in favor of Carole, because in keeping it equal, it didn’t give us enough time to get in the parts of Carole’s story and catalog that people really wanted to know more about.”
He had extensive interviews with all four songwriters, and discovered they understood the need for McGrath to use a bit of creative license.
What surprised McGrath most was that all four songwriters remembered events in essentially the same way; even King and Goffin agreed on some of the more painful moments of their breakup.
Mann and Weil, whose songwriting credits include the Righteous Brothers’ hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” said in an exclusive interview with The Greenville News that they didn’t realize at the time the cultural impact their music would have.
“We never really thought about it,” Weil said, though Mann added that they “felt the impact within the industry.”
After King’s 1971 solo album “Tapestry” became a monster hit, they realized their music had made an impression on the culture, but Mann and Weil, songwriters but not singers, remained in the background.
“Songwriters are the names in the parentheses,” Weil said. “And even now, they call ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,’ the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.’ So you kind of accept that as a writer, that’s where you’re going to be. And that’s what you’ve signed up for.’
The songwriters are associated with New York City’s Brill Building, although they mostly worked down the street in its sister building. But the Brill, located at 1650 Broadway, is an important place in American music history. It was home to early 20th-century Tin Pan Alley songwriters, whose ranks included Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Gershwins.
“I had this idea that Carole and Gerry and Barry and Cynthia represented this vanguard of a new generation of these kids who were essentially overthrowing the old guard to create this new sound of rock ’n’ roll,” McGrath said. “And when I told that to Carole and Gerry and Barry and Cynthia, kind of what my idea for the show was, Carole’s face lit up … and she reached across the table and took my hand and squeezed it and said, ‘Oh Doug, that is so wrong. … We worshipped Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and George Gershwin and Jerome Kern. We adored Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein. We grew up with that music, we admired that music, we studied that music, we wanted to emulate that music.’”
What he eventually realized, McGrath said, was that the four young songwriters were putting their own stamp on the Great American Songbook tradition. The songs were melodic and sophisticated, telling very specific, emotionally complex stories.
And, McGrath said, they possessed a theatrical quality.
Mann and Weil said they came to songwriting with a very distinctive theatrical influence.
“I’m a child of Broadway,” Weil said. “I always believed in characters expressing themselves in songs and telling the world what they were about. Also, I went to a very progressive high school in New York. … Everyone there was singing Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, so I thought songs should be about more than ‘I love you, you love me.’”
Mann grew up listening to songwriters like Richard Rodgers, then moved on to doo-wop and rock ’n’ roll.
“When I was younger, I would always hear show music in my house, and I wasn’t even aware of who wrote it, but I just knew it was very melodic,” he said. “And a lot of it was Richard Rodgers. He was a wonderfully melodic songwriter. And then with rock ’n’ roll, it took me a while to adjust. … I ended up being attracted to doo-wop at first, and then it just spread.”
In shaping the story, McGrath was guided by King’s life, which included a teenage pregnancy and marriage and a blockbuster solo career, and the songs that reflected those important moments.
“It dictated that the scenes in the show would have to support the songs,” McGrath said. “It wouldn’t be worth it to do sort of montages of songs just so that it’s a nostalgic experience for the older people in the audience. I wanted the scenes always to lead up to and support the emotional content of the songs.”
Mann and Weil have seen “Beautiful” about five times now, and they’re impressed by how McGrath found the core of each personality.
“I do love the way he wrote for each character,” Mann said. “I think he really captured the essence of all four of us. That was really great.”
And sitting in a theater, watching his life play out on stage, was exciting, Mann said.
“I was sitting in the audience watching the show for the first time, or the second time really, and they’re doing it on Broadway, and I realized that here I was on Broadway, watching a show singing my song ‘On Broadway,’ on Broadway, and it really hit me.”
YOU CAN GO
What: “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21-23; 8 p.m. Feb. 24; 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 25; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Feb. 26
Where: Peace Center
How much: $35-$95
For more: www.peacecenter.org