Midway through the first act of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Carole (Abby Mueller) and her husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), argue over whether their most recent collaborations are merely fun songs that lack layered complexities. At this stage in their young lives writing songs for '60s girl and R&B groups like the Shirelles and the Drifters, she is fine with fun, while he wants more complexity.
The whole argument seems a bit like running meta commentary from Douglas McGrath, who wrote the Beautiful book, and director Marc Bruni about this musical itself. While attempting to chronicle the early loves and songwriting years of the real life music icon, Beautiful searches for, and usually finds, a balance of fun and complexity.
The show begins and ends with King’s triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall several months after the debut of her monumental album, Tapestry. From this glimpse into the future we move back to her beginnings, as she sells her first song at age 16 and soon meets Goffin. The first act immerses the audience and King in the factory-like world of hit record production in the 1960s, where songwriters didn’t sing their own material and singing groups many times didn’t write their own music.
Much of the fun of the show comes from these little bits of musical history and many “aha” moments as we learn how those classic '60s songs we all know — even those born decades later, like “On Broadway,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” — were first created. Most of the music and lyrics of Beautiful come from King and Goffin, along with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
Some of that complexity arrives as we watch King’s relationship with her husband wither even as they create beautiful music together. Mueller makes King’s self-depreciation and lack of confidence ring true even while we might think: You’re Carole “It’s Too Late” King, kick his two-timing ass. Yet Tobin manages to bring sympathy to the cheating Goffin, whose artistic ambitions, at least, are admirable. If only he didn’t try to get in touch with the music of the times by searching for that new sound in other women’s beds.
The multitude of scenes in the first act with Goffin wanting something more but never being satisfied with his own achievements, while King buys into dreams of some suburban ideal, could get tedious fast, and writer Bruni and director McGrath appear to know this. Almost every marital strife scene is countered with the comic, yet genuine and loving, relationship between Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig).
Fankhauser and Gulsvig are delightful as the friends and songwriting rivals to King and Goffin, but they also serve as a kind of functional and illuminating relationship mirror to the King/Goffin angst. In fact, I became so invested in the Mann and Weil team, after the show I immediately checked online hoping they had stayed together. They have. Curt Bouril as super producer Don Kirshner is another performance that adds lots of lightness to Beautiful.
One issue in the show that does disturb that fun/complexity balance is the length and breadth of the first act. Everyone and everything, including the radio-inspired set designed by Derek McLane, speeds through those early years and many songs of King’s life. (Furniture, pianos, and whole columns of retro speakers are remotely whisked on and off stage with every new scene change.) This keeps the fun level high throughout the show, but at times mutes some of that complexity.
There are so many King and Goffin and Mann and Weil songs to introduce that when we finally get to King’s weaving of her Tapestry album in act two, there’s little time left for Mueller to depict the pain and joy that leads to its creation. Mueller is certainly up to the task, but she often needs to rush though her emotional epiphanies. Many times, director McGrath seems to leave it up to the music to bring that complexity to the story. As King tentatively debuts “It’s Too Late” in a near-empty night club, Mueller puts all the pain of the breakup into each note and word.
In the end, it’s definitely a fun journey as King gets us to Carnegie Hall, but Beautiful might have been all the richer if we could have seen a little more of her later practice, practice, practice — without Goffin.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical runs through June 19 at the Winspear Opera House.