PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: It's Good to Be the King of Beautiful
By Harry Haun
Playbill.com offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, starring Jessie Mueller, Jake Epstein, Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector.
Opening night of Beautiful played a little like the last scenes of Motown where people try to get a bitter Berry Gordy, abandoned by the stars he started off, to attend a party for the 25th anniversary of his record label. The big question Jan. 12 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre was whether Carole King would show up for the story of her life, and, because no one would say for sure she wouldn’t magically materialize in the wings, hope was held.
It didn’t happen. Some people just won’t take "No" for a definitive answer.
From the beginning, La King wanted no part of musicalizing her saga and, all things being equal, would just rather not, but she did grudgingly green-light the project and got so far as the intermission of the second reading before she bolted for the exit, throwing her approval and blessings to the creatives on her way out and vowing, unequivocally, never to return. It was bad enough to live it once. Why, she reasoned rather sanely, relive the pain of hammering your way into the male-dominated world of '60s pop music while holding together a floundering marriage, caring for two daughters and writing an all-time hit parade of songs?
In lieu of King, we were left with the next best thing — an honest, earnest, flaw-free facsimile of her from Jessie Mueller, giving a full-hearted account of King's life and tunes — all that, plus a near-perfect approximation of her sound as she leafs lovingly through King evergreens like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "It Might As Well Rain Until September," "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Some Kind of Wonderful," "It's Too Late," et al.
The point of the show, and the triumphant example of King's life, is that pain often informs art, and this is superbly summed up in the first-act curtain number, "One Fine Day," delivered center-stage by The Shirelles, flanked on the left by King and on the very far right by her then husband and lyricist, Gerry Goffin, who has just told her he wants to be with the Shirelles' lead singer, Janelle. Gradually, the loud sounds fade, King takes over the song and you suddenly hear the hurt that went into the writing of it.
Making the event however, was Gerry Goffin, now a graybeard 50 years down the road from the day he showed up in duck tails and a black leather jacket and met the easily dazzled teen named Carole King.
Also present were Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the couple in the next cubicle who were constantly racing them to the top of the Billboard charts. So another county — or cubicle — is heard from: "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "Walking in the Rain." "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," "On Broadway," "Uptown" and "He's Sure the Boy I Love."
The Weil-Mann subplot — her putting career over marriage, him a chronic skirt-chaser and hypochondriac — comes off as comic relief compared to the angst that King goes through with the philandering and flaky Goffin before she gives him the gate.
What the curtain call lacked in a King-sized miracle, it made up for in plentiful tears. Then, first-nighters hiked or cabbed it across 42nd Street and soon filled to capacity the cavernous Cipriani. We're talking gridlock. "Looks like the whole theatre showed up," groused an investor, drinking in the overflow. Glasses of champagne and a fleet of coat-checkers greeted arrivals at the door. A sumptuous spread had been laid out.
Last to arrive, making a fashionably late Star entrance which she had definitely earned, was Mueller, who didn't hesitate a beat about going into a full complement of print and radio-TV interviews, seeming none the worse for wear. Ah, the price of stardom!
First of all, King's absence didn't bother her a whit. If anything, she was sympathetic about it. "We got to meet her, and she explained to us that the story covers some very painful points in her life and is so personal, it's impossible for her to watch. I completely respect that. If and when she ever wants to show up, we'll be thrilled.
"She is such an icon in the business, and, at the same time, she is such an un-starlike star. I find that fascinating in people who are in the public eye. She's really someone to look up to now. And the music is so good — you just can't argue with that."
Mueller is hard-pressed to find a favorite moment (she has a rather overstuffed selection). "It changes from night to night," she confessed, "but it's always very satisfying to get to the end and sit down at that piano and sing 'Beautiful' and think about everything that happened prior. On that lyric, it's a very moving experience."
She also likes the way the first few bars of a familiar song trigger sounds in the audience. "We hear sighs and 'ohs' and sometimes even the name of the song. People have such a relationship with this music, deeper than they know, and that makes it very special for us because the music means something to people when they come in, and then, once they have seen the play, it means something different to them after that."
She also senses the whole audience shifting to her corner at the end of Act I as her husband announces his infidelity. "It feels like everybody's stomach just dropped."
At that particular moment when Mueller is getting a love overload from the audience, Jake Epstein, who plays the sad and hapless Goffin, is on the receiving end of an Arctic air blast from them. "You can feel the daggers," he shivered. "When I apologize to her in the hospital room, I feel them with me. When Gerry cheats again, I'm the enemy. I'm a roller-coaster ride for the audience. I can feel them with me, hating me, understanding me. The audiences have been great and really different."
He and Goffin met during the play's tryout in San Francisco and crossed paths again at the party. Epstein said he tried to put the character in as sympathetic light as possible, giving hints and foreshadowing here and there at what a slippery slope he was on.
"Gerry was bipolar, and there was a lot of drugs going on. He had so many thoughts in his head he just couldn't get the words out. This was a guy in the age of Bob Dylan who was such a good pop writer and wanted to be writing more artistic music — that's a struggle. In many ways, the difficulties in his marriage ended up helping him and Carole write all of these unbelievable songs."
Jarrod Spector and Anika Larsen, who steal a fair share of focus playing the young Manns in the musical, were among the curtain-call weepers. "We were all a little bit emotional," Spector admitted. "The overwhelming support from the audience really got to us — plus, we all love Jessie very much — so watching her get the reception that she deserves and being on stage and helping her was such a thrill for everybody."
It was apparent the two actors had thoroughly bonded with their real-life counterparts. "Barry has been so kind and warm and generous with us in real life that to get to try to do him justice on stage has been an honor," said Spector.
Larsen seconded that: "Cynthia's an extraordinary woman. Those are big shoes to fill, but she has been so loving and supporting it's been a joyful, joyful thing. She's sassy, stylish, tremendously good at what she does and writes beautiful music."
Costume designer Alejo Vietti had a hand in shaping Larsen's character and making her stand out, especially in stark contrast to the more drably dressed King (an authentic touch, Weil confirmed). Another fanciful fashion moment takes place when the Goffin's babysetter, in a transforming turn, becomes Little Eva, rock star, selling "The Locomotion." William Ivey Long, who worked the same magic for Cinderella's ballgown last year and won a Tony for it, muttered, "The kids are learning."
As if there wasn't enough love in the massive Cipriani, the real Mann and Weil saw fit to return the serve. Clearly, a mutual admiration society had gripped the group.
Tony-winning set designer Derek McLane created the music-writing world of the '60s out of a single line of dialogue in the script. "In the beginning," he recalled, "when Carole King describes going to Times Square, she says, 'It's like a factory, but they make songs.' And that's what I tried to do on stage. I thought, 'What does a factory where they make songs look like?'"
It turns out to look like a multi-leveled warehouse, with sliding panels that helps the rapid-fire change of scenes and allows for a variety of dazzling color lights. "Peter [Kaczorowski, the lighting designer] did a gorgeous job," he beamed. "There are a lot of scene transitions in the show. We go to a lot of different places during the evening. I lost count, there were so many."
Having assisted Walter Bobbie and others on Main Stem enterprises, Marc Bruni took his first giant step as a Broadway director with Beautiful. "It's been like a — not like, but actually — a dream for me," he said. "Watching the show tonight was an incredible experience. I didn't sit. I stood in the back. To see the culmination of so many people's talents coming together — that's what I love about musicals. They're such a collaborative effort. They require the talents of everybody coming together. To have this extraordinary design team and this incredible cast is just amazing."
Beautiful gives the pop songs of the period a lavish airing and still makes a creditable pass at portraying the harsh realities of the record world — the best since Jersey Boys.
Douglas McGrath is the writer who has provided the human stick-em that holds the production numbers in place, allowing authentic glimpses into real (and still living) people. "When I got on the project," said director Bruni, "I started with Draft #11, and last night we were up to Draft #57. Constantly, there are new things. New lines were going in up until just a few days ago. Hopefully, we tell a story that touches people, but it's a populist entertainment that's intended to reach a mass audience. I feel we're in an era where there's an attention span that's fairly short, and so to make sure the rate of new ideas is happening at a high rate is very, very important."
McGrath, who is now getting around to his Broadway debut after scads of plays and screenplays, based his musical books on interviews he personally conducted with the principals. "The heart is the linking feature of all four, so I knew the story had to have that," he said. "My struggle for a long time was how to tell the story in a way that honored the truth of it and still brought the feelings out in it. Two really big things I had to figure out: What the story was actually going to be — because there were a lot of events in their lives that I couldn't include — and where the songs would fit in them. I tried always to put them in, according to the context of their lives at that particular moment."
The writer sprang from some unexpected West Texas roots. He made his acting debut as a seventh grader in a Midland Community Theatre production of Life With Father and has led a pretty unchartered professional life. The top celebs at the opening were friends of his — Woody Allen, with whom he wrote the original Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Bullets Over Broadway" (which begins previews March 11) and Nathan Lane, whom he directed in the 2002 film "Nicholas Nickleby".
Other first nighters included Peter Asher; Her Curliness, Bernadette Peters; Kinky Boots Tony winner Billy Porter, in regular attire (and shoes); Sheila Kirshner, widow of the boss of the songwriting Fab Four; Sara Bareilles; Next to Normal Tony winner Alice Ripley; MSNBC's beefcake broadcaster, Thomas Roberts; a bespectacled Jerry Seinfeld; Oscar-winning Grammy winner Phil (Tarzan) Collins, with a familiar Jane on his arm (Channel 2's Dana Tyler, who stood demurely off to the side while the paparazzi had their way with him); Katie Couric, flashing that killer smile to a fraction of the photographers before rushing into the theatre with her date; Darlene Love; a smartly befurred record mogul Clive Davis, who observed the rise of King from a distance, darn it!; Rob Shuter; and Hoda Kotb, stunningly red-coated, fanning herself with her hand as she left the theatre, mummering "More, more, more!"
The most incredulous red-carpet spectacle of the evening was the sight of Bill Bratton, our brand-new police commish, being escorted into the theatre by The Post's Michael Riedel. That one I'm sending to Mr. Ripley.
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