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.
Did you know Carole King before you wrote the musical?
I never met her until I came to meet everyone in New York, because they had to approve me writing the script. I met Gerry in California. Once I was approved [to write the script], she spent a long time graciously letting me ask her any questions I had about anything in her life.
What surprised you about meeting her and working with her?
I don't think she had talked a lot about this part of her life to other people; the part of her life thta the show is about. It’s when she's 15 or 16, and she falls in love with this handsome, super-talented guy Gerry Goffin, then she gets pregnant when she's 16 and has a baby when she's 17 and the same time they have a No. 1 hit. So there's all this stuff going in her life, and since they were so young, he just couldn't be faithful. He loved her, he really loved her, but he was 19 and she was 17 and he couldn't do it.
It was heartbreaking to her, and ultimately their marriage came apart and their writing partnership came apart. After the trauma of their break up, they became great friends for the rest of his life, and she spoke and sang at his memorial. Not many ex-wives do that, but what surprised me in that talking to her — I wasn't surprised that she had emotional stories; her music tells us that. But I was surprised that — and I could be wrong — I don't think she talked to anyone else about these events for a long, long time. It was quite poignant how close to the surface they still were. [When I interviewed her] she was writing her autobiography and I remember thinking, “Oh, it's going to be so interesting to read her autobiography.” And what was interesting was there was a lot she wasn't telling me about the later part of her life, but in the early chapters of her life, she told me many more things than she put in the book. That was a great surprise to me, and it was a great gift to the show because it has a great perspective and information on her life that doesn't exist in her own book.
So what is your favorite part of the show?
It’s at the very end of the show, when she's been through it all — heartbreak, everything, and she's recorded Tapestry and it's a great success. She’s at Carnegie Hall and she's giving a concert. In the penultimate scene, Gerry comes back and he tells her how sorry he is for everything he did. That part was true — it just did not happen at Carnegie — but she forgives him. And there's a wonderful moment backstage that's so beautiful and poignant and relieving — because it’s a show about two human beings who made different types of mistakes and loved each other dearly but couldn't make it work. They were both big enough to try and keep what they loved about each other alive in themselves, and that could only be done through forgiveness. And then she comes out all by herself — and this is a journey about someone who is comfortable about being by herself, and she comes out and sits at the piano and looks at the audience, there's a pause before she plays and she lifts up her hands and plays “Beautiful,” which is one of the least known songs from the Tapestry album, but it sums up the show. And each of the actresses who plays Carole, at that point in the long journey. they just make the audience feel so much joy. So that's my favorite.
I read somewhere that Carole King didn’t even want to see it when it first came out.
She was very hesitant to see it; she saw half of it at a reading, and Act 1 ends with Gerry telling her he's going to have an affair with another woman, and after Act 1 she just left because she thought, “Yeah, I know how that's coming out, I don't want to watch it again.” It's very painful to watch, and she also said very weird. “There's people who sort of look like my mother and sort of look like Gerry” — but Carole lived the real version of it, and it's all being put up as entertainment for other people. She was very self-conscious about people turning around at certain dramatic parts onstage and looking at her, thinking, “How's she reacting to all this?”
But she kept hearing from other people that they loved the show, so when she finally came to see it, she came in disguise. She wore a wig, a coat with a high collar and dark glasses … she came with her daughter Sherry, who is one of the producers of the show. The cast had not been told, but I knew the stage manager was going to bring her out during the curtain call. At the end of that particular show, I saw two middle-aged women get up before the curtain call to beat the rush. I couldn't help myself; when they went by me, I said, “I wouldn't leave if I were you — just take my word for it.”
So they turned around, and all of a sudden from stage right Carole comes out, and no one expected her to come out. There’s a gasp, and it took Carole getting all the way to the center of the stage for the whole cast to see her, so by the time she came to the center, you'd never heard such screaming and crying and cheering from the audience. She sang “You've Got a Friend,” and raised $30,000 for an AIDS charity, and by the time she left the stage, the two women [I prevented from leaving] were tugging on my sleeve and saying, “Thank you, thank you thank you!”
Tickets to Beautiful – The Carole King Musical are available at SCFTA.org, by calling (714) 556-2787 and at the Box Office at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For dates and times, go to www.beautifulonbroadway.com/tour.