Carole King Musical is Really About a Young Girl Finding Her Voice — in Love and in Art
Julia Knitel as Carole King in "Beautiful – The Carole King Musical"
Tomorrow, “Beautiful, The Carole King Musical” opens at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts at Segerstrom Hall.
Tomorrow, “Beautiful, The Carole King Musical” opens at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts at Segerstrom Hall.The show, based on Carole King’s early life as a singer-songwriter, runs through Oct. 16, and has won both Tony and Grammy Awards. In the telling of King’s journey from a teenaged songwriter who made her way into the record business at 16, to a veritable hitmaker who ushered in the age of the singer-songwriter, the show also features characters portraying King’s ex-husband and writing partner, Gerry Goffin, as well as songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. That means the show is replete with songs written by four legendary songwriters. (The production won two 2014 Tony Awards and a 2014 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.) The Weekly spoke to Tony and Academy Award-nominee Douglas McGrath, who wrote the script and the book, about how he turned those hit songs into a compelling narrative that stayed true to Carole King’s life. “Ultimately, it's about a young girl striving to find her voice in love and in her work,” he says. OC Weekly (Lilledeshan Bose): How did you come to write the musical? Douglas McGrath: Paul Blake, our producer, worked for EMI at the time. EMI wanted to develop Carole King and Gerry Goffin's catalog as well as the catalogs of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, so they asked me to [write the musical]. I'd always been admirers of those writers, and fascinated by their style of work. They worked in an office building with loads of other songwriters, singers, orchestrators — everything — so I said I would do it. I interviewed all four songwriters at length over many hours, over many days, and got them to just tell me their stories. After I got the transcripts of those stories, I sat in my office for weeks and weeks, trying to sort through their whole lives and try to figure out what would be the best arc for our story. What made you choose Carole King’s teenage years? I chose the early days because I found them the most interesting. It's always interesting to me to see an artist at the point when they’re becoming that artist, in the discovery period. Where they have the thrill of learning something new and creating something brilliant for the first — or even fifth — time, but not the 55th time. I felt in Carole's case her early life was so interesting. And it's not what people know of her. When most people think of Carole, they think: She was born, she learned to walk, and she recorded Tapestry. Most people think her life started at Tapestry, but in fact, she had a long and very successful career — almost 12 years — of writing for people other than herself. I thought that it would be interesting for people to know, as well as the difficult and romantic struggles she had with Gerry, her lyricist and husband. I thought learning about the things they went through as a young couple would help the audience see them as not only great artists but real people with real difficulties. Did you really write 68 drafts of the musical? Fifty-eight. My wife gave me a t-shirt on opening night that said 58 on it. That's so cute! What did you end up rewriting a lot? A lot of my early drafts did not include Tapestry because I was really interested in the early period of her life. The recording of Tapestry was uneventful; it wasn't troubled, it was quick and successful and there was no drama, so it didn't seem like there was much to dramatize within it. I was also worried at first that the Tapestry songs might not work as well in a theater setting as the early songs did; [the early songs] were designed to be performed, whereas the Tapestry songs were more contemplative, almost like interior monologue. So I had to figure out how to make that work. And they weren't 58 complete rewrites. But it's a strange alchemy, a musical. And you just keep trying and thinking, what will help us tell this story with the most emotional effect? I thought it was central that it be emotional; that's the feeling audiences have with Carole and her music. So I felt the show had to reflect that. It must’ve been hard to choose the songs to include; these four songwriters have a huge catalog. I spent several weeks re-reading the transcripts and thinking about what Carole King and Gerry Goffin told me, and the whole time I had their music on. And sometimes I just picked songs that I loved, but there were a lot that I couldn't use. Ultimately I chose songs that helped tell their personal stories and helped give the show the depth of emotional feeling that it had. There were 40 other songs that we didn't use that didn't help tell the story. And — unlike many silly pop songs of that period — Carole and Gerry's songs all tell stories. Their songs weren’t about the eensie weensie yellow polka dot bikini. They were really stories that people were telling. Like in “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” you can tell who that girl is, singing that song. You can tell who that guy is. So I wanted the story to have the same level of emotional specificity. Even if I liked a song, if it didn't fit the story I was trying to tell, the story of a transformation from an insecure young girl to a confident young woman, then I didn't use it. Did you match the chronology of the songs to the narrative? For the chronology, it's largely correct. The audience doesn't know when the songs were written, and I kept it in the chronology when it was important. For instance, early in the show she sings a song called “It Might as Well Rain Until September.” It 's not one of their famous songs, but it's a charming song, and it seemed like a perfect song to use as her audition song, when she was introducing herself to Don Kirshner, who was going to be an important figure in her life. So you'd think that song was written in 1959, but in fact it was written by both Carole and Jerry a few years later. But it just fit that emotional moment. It was the right song for that scene, and it was of the era. A friend of mine read the script at an early stage and told me one of the things he loved about the musical was that in telling the story of Carole, Gerry, Barry and Cynthia, what we're really giving the audience is an informal history of pop music from that era. And it's true; the show takes you from an era of songwriters writing in cubicles in a building for glamorous, dressed up stars, and it takes you through the 60s when the Beatles and Bob Dylan came in and changed everything. It ends in the 70s which was the result of the influence of Dylan and the Beatles, and ushered in the era of the singer-songwriter, of which Carole herself was one of the great emblems. So you think of 1959 and the girl singers of the time — Connie Francis, or Peggy Lee — or even in the early 60s when you had Diana Ross, and how glamorous and made up they were. Beautiful, but they didn't seem like they would come out of the apartment next door to bring out the milk bottles. And then you think of Carole, in her sweater and jeans, with her cat on the seat next to her on her album cover for Tapestry, and it really shows you what a journey it was and what a change in style.
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