Sunday, November 30, 2014

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Beautiful is one of those shows I meant to see when it first opened, and then right before Tony time, and then right after Tony time, and then over the summer. . .  and then I just sort of moved on once I realized that (a) getting cheap tickets to the show wouldn't be easy as long as the Tony Award-winning Jessie Mueller was heading up the cast as Carole King, and that (b) I did not want to cough up a lot of cash to see a musical that was roundly received as sweet and diverting, if hardly brilliant.

But then, fellow-blogger and longtime friend Sandra got a special offer, and we leapt upon discount tickets to Beautiful like--well, honestly, like two middle-aged women who grew up listening to Tapestry and who are exactly the target audience for this particular musical would. The upshot? Beautiful is indeed sweet and diverting, if hardly brilliant. That doesn't mean I didn't tear up a couple of times, and chuckle genuinely at other times. An added bonus: Jessie Mueller remains in the show, as does a vast majority of the original cast. They remain fresh and committed and sharp, and I was glad to see them. Mueller is as strong in the title role as everyone in the universe has already said she is; I'd like to add that Anika Larsen, as Cynthia Weil, and Jarrod Spector (no relation) as Barry Mann, are particularly appealing and well-suited, too.
Like most jukebox musicals, Beautiful relies primarily on recognizable tunes, while plot and dialogue are treated more like connecting material. In some musicals, the connections can be strained to the point of ludicrousness. Have you seen Rock of Ages? At the very least, Beautiful has a much stronger justification for existing: Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann were actual colleagues who worked in an actual place where their actual job was to churn out actual pop songs that were then recorded by actual people. So there's little need, throughout Beautiful, to force songs into particular situations. Like their actual counterparts once did, Beautiful's characters frequently stay up all night working on songs, or play them for the other occupants of the Brill Building, or drop by local nightclubs to try them out on live audiences, or sit in recording studios while the finished product is being mixed.

While there are no strained scenarios in Beautiful, there's some pretty stilted dialogue. I don't have the script and thus cannot provide any direct quotes, but lines throughout the show are packed with exposition and, as a result, can come off as pretty wooden. Characters say things like, "Carole, as you know, you are so smart that you skipped two grades! Stay at Queens College and become a teacher! Stop writing and trying to sell all that pop music, and go back to playing Mozart like you used to before your father and I went through our bitter, painful divorce!" Or "The music scene is changing so fast that it has become very hard for us to keep up with the times, especially now that all of the bands have begun writing their own songs!" Or "Phil Spector thinks that the new song we just spent all night writing, 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin',' is going to be a huge hit when the Righteous Brothers record it!" Yes, I exaggerate a bit, but you get the drill: there's lots of exposition crammed into lots of forced dialogue. I suppose it can't be helped--not every audience member has read extensively about the history of the Brill Building sound before showing up for a performance of Beautiful.

It also can't be helped that some of that history has been sanitized, or simplified: Beautiful, after all, condenses more than a decade of history into two-and-a-half hours. And usually, in this case, the boiling down is not a problem, though a few of the choices bugged me a little. In the first place, while I understand that this is just not the platform for a more rigorous, honest investigation of the ways in which talented Black people were exploited during the early rock and roll years (if not ever since), I was nonetheless a little bugged by the show's complete disregard of the racial issues that pervaded the Brill Building.

Early rock and roll carries with it a myth that goes something like this: "For a few sweet, wonderful moments in history, Black kids and White kids were all listening to the same music, which was being performed by both Black and White performers! It was beautiful and harmonious, man!" That's all well and good, until you realize that this was happening mainly because White America had once again picked up on Black music styles, which were once again rapidly being absorbed into the (White) mainstream. Sure, the Brill Building recorded plenty of Black artists. But then, many of them were teenagers, paid poorly, screwed out of royalties, treated interchangeably. The producers and songwriters? Almost all White; hardly as exploited.

In Beautiful, the few scenes that depict Black artists weighing in on particular recordings are apparently true. In act I, for example, the Shirelles express unwillingness when asked to record "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" because it sounded too much to them like country music and, they helpfully pointed out, they were Black. In desperation, King promises to fix the song by orchestrating it for strings, which she doesn't know how to do. This apparently actually happened, but in Beautiful, the exchange is presented without further commentary on the Brill Building's racial dynamics. As a result, the musical inadvertently implies that recording groups like the Shirelles, the Dixie Cups, and the Crystals were well-paid grownups with power, when in fact they were groups of local kids with no agency, who didn't get much for the iconic recordings they made. And yeah, I know that examining the racial dynamics of the Brill Building even a teeny bit results in a musical that is no longer entirely about Carole King, so I'll move on to the other thing that bugged me about Beautiful: its title character.

Don't get me wrong, here: Jessie Mueller is truly terrific. She sounds uncannily like King, and yet doesn't just present her in straightforward caricature. She has clearly met, developed a real affection for, and created a nuanced and likable version of the famous songwriter and recording artist. But here's the thing: the real King is still alive, had input into the development of the musical, and presumably has an understandable desire for privacy. As a result, King's character is just not all that illuminating. At least as she has been drawn for Beautiful, she walks through her early life, but we don't really learn a whole lot about who she is. As the musical progresses, she meets Goffin, sells songs, gets pregnant, gets married, builds a career, deals an increasingly mentally ill and philandering husband, has second child, gets divorced, records one of the top-selling pop records of all time, and debuts at Carnegie Hall. In various scenes, she is appropriately happy or sad, depending on the situation. But mostly, she is plucky and upbeat, utterly faultless, and kind of passive (if nearly stereotypically neurotic). The result is the portrait of a woman who always seems just a little too flawless, appropriate, two dimensional....and dull. While I marveled at Mueller's remarkable ability to breathe life and nuance into a public persona, all the while delivering a lot of unnaturally expository dialogue in a thick Brooklyn accent, I nonetheless wish I'd gotten more of a sense of King as a real, honest person, and not just as a Wikipedia entry.  

Considering this central weak link, though, it's pretty astounding how well the show works overall. This is not only because of Mueller--the rest of the cast, too, has infused their characters with charm and warmth. But it's also due in large part to the fact that, holy mother, the songs in Beautiful are all just so unbelievably good, and solid, and timeless, and thrilling to hear. For all my gripes about Beautiful's problems, I nevertheless found myself surreptitiously wiping tears from my eyes during the opening chords of "It's Too Late," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman"--and, yes, even during some of the stilted dialogue.  

The Brill Building was, structurally and stylistically, a late extension of Tin Pan Alley at a time when TPA was supposedly dead: Young people worked hard all day (and, often, all night) to churn out songs, which were assigned to groups and recorded almost as quickly as they were composed. The competition was intense, but the resultant songs are gems--and many happen to be as show-tuney as post-1950s pop songs get. As a result, they transfer very nicely to the stage, sending audiences into paroxysms of nostalgia in the process. The regular murmurs and sighs of recognition during the opening bars of every damn song featured in the musical spoke volumes about the lasting power of King's (and Goffin's, Weil's, and Mann's) music. I could have done without listening, on occasion, to some random audience member quietly singing along to snatches of "Up on the Roof," "One Fine Day," or "You've Got a Friend." Then again, I understood the impulse: It was pretty hard not to join in when you hear songs that have shaped so many Americans' lives.

They've certainly helped shape mine. And you can put money down on what I've been listening to as I've been writing this entry. In case you need a hint: It's one of the top-selling albums in the history of American pop music and it's got a dungarees-wearing King and her cat, Telemachus, on the cover. And every single song on it is beautiful.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I bought Anika Larsen's CD, SING YOU TO SLEEP on Amazon after I saw her in the show///it is truly AMAZING. Her Musicality and Interpretation is refreshing. I highly reccomend this CD. And there is a duet with Jessie Mueller!

Steven Miles