So Far Away: Why Carole King Won't See the Beautiful Musical About Her Life
By Robert Simonson
Playbill.com chats with Sherry Kondor, Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann and Gerry Goffin, some of the people behind the story of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, currently in previews on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
At an early preview of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, many King fans were in attendance, gasping or nodding their heads in recognition as the opening strains of one classic composition after another filled the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. In the weeks to come, one is likely to find many more Carole King devotees in the audience of the new show. One face you won't find in the crowd, however, is Carole King.
Frankie Valli may have taken in his share of performances of Jersey Boys, and Berry Gordy, Jr., seems perfectly happy to see his career enacted in Motown — he wrote the libretto, after all — but a musical about the life of Carole King is apparently not Carole King's idea of a fun night out. As of this publishing, the famed singer-songwriter has absorbed exactly one half of a reading of the show, which has a book by Douglas McGrath.
"She came to a reading and lasted halfway through," said Sherry Kondor, the daughter of King and her 1960s writing partner and then husband Gerry Goffin. "She said 'I have to go.' I said, 'You're just going? What do I tell all these people?' She said, 'Tell them it's great. I can tell it's great. But I can't watch my life played out before me.'"
One can't blame King. The time period depicted in Beautiful — the late 1950s to the early '70s — were fecund years for King, an era when she and Goffin became one of the leading songwriting teams in the music business, the authors of iconic pop tunes like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Up on the Roof," "One Fine Day" and "The Loco-Motion." But they were also years of emotional turmoil, exacerbated by King's marrying at the tender age of 17 and quickly having two children, not to mention spouse Goffin's wandering eye and mental unmooring. The two divorced in 1968.
"I support Carole's feelings," said Cynthia Weil, King's longtime friend and half of the equally successful Brill Building tune-making team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. "This show is very revealing and painful. There are moments she doesn't want to live again."
Weil and Mann, meanwhile — who are also characters in the musical — are not so shy. "I find it fantastic," said Mann of the show. "I enjoy the characters." Weil added, "I feel the same way Barry does." Goffin, too, has seen it. And though his doppelganger doesn't necessarily behave handsomely in the story, he was pleased with how the production came out. "It's not exactly the way it happened," he said, "but I think it works very well for the show."
A musical using King's music has been in the works for years, but it didn't always tell the songwriter's story. Goffin and King were interested in seeing their work used as the score of a fictional tale. The resultant project was given a 2005 reading in Los Angeles, directed by John Rando. A second reading, in New York in 2006, had a book by Rita Rudner and others and was directed by Michael Blakemore. "It just didn't work," recalled Christine Russell, who has represented Goffin for nearly 20 years. "At that time, it was very clear we needed to tell their story. We knew that deep down, but it was a matter of getting Gerry and Carole — but mostly Carole — on board."
When Roger Faxon of EMI took the reins of the project, the conviction to tell King's story solidified. Then, producer Paul Blake and writer McGrath were brought in, and Mann and Weil's lives were weaved into the plotline. "They were an integral part of those early years," explained Russell. "And it made Gerry and Carole more comfortable. The focus wasn't all on them." Both Kondor, who is also King's manager, and Russell are executive producers of the show.
Bookwriter McGrath actually spent time with King. "Douglas interviewed all the principals before he started to write," explained Weil. "As the drafts went on, we contributed ideas and they sometimes took them and sometimes didn't."
Since then, however, King has kept her distance. "My role has been to represent Carole and her wishes insofar as I can guess them," said Kondor. "But I bring her stories of how it's going and she makes suggestions and I bring them to the producers."
Cast in the role of the tunesmith is Jessie Mueller, who has made a quick name for herself on Broadway in recent seasons with praised performances in revivals of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, receiving a Tony nod for the former. At the time she auditioned, the Chicago native wasn't overly familiar with King's oeuvre. "I knew the music, but not terribly well," said Mueller. "I feel I knew her music more through James Taylor." Taylor, a friend of King's, had a hit with King's song "You've Got a Friend." "My father loved James Taylor. I knew her music through him, not knowing what it was. I think it's the same experience that the audience goes through in the first part of the show. 'Oh, she wrote that? She wrote that? She wrote that?'"
Mueller was lucky enough to meet with King once and found the singer very true to her earth-mother public persona. "She has one of the most open, warm energies of any person I've ever experienced," said the actress. "Everybody felt it. When you get to meet her, you feel you know her, because she's so open."
If King ever does decide to catch a performance of Beautiful, however, the audience may not know it. "She isn't planning on coming to opening night," said Kondor. "She really isn't planning on coming at all. But you never know if she'll break down and sneak in, in a hat and sunglasses."
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