The Broadway Across Canada series of touring musicals makes a stop this week at the Jubilee Auditorium with Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
It can be described as a jukebox musical, a script written to showcase music that’s already familiar to the audience. But it’s not like Back To The 80s: A Most Excellent Musical Adventure, a flimsy framework of time-travelling stoners reminiscing about a decade of popular music while musicians appear in a series of dramatic costumes as tribute to the varied original performers of the era, or even like Mamma Mia, an amusing fictional premise wrapped around ABBA songs that were never intended to tell one coherent story. Instead, the songs in this production are used to advance the true story of the songwriters, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, and Barry Mann (Sarah Bockel, Dylan S Wallach, Alison Whitehurst, and Jacob Heimer). And it’s just a lovely modest story (book by Douglas McGrath, directed by Marc Bruni), watching Carole go from a 16 year old college student living with her mother (Suzanne Grodner) who hopes to sell one of her compositions to a music publisher (James Clow) to a successful composer collaborating with her husband on many hit songs, and then to a self-assured woman making her own way and singing her own songs.
The story starts in 1958 and ends in 1971, and it shows how things changed over that time for women, in the workplace, in music, and in marriage. “Girls don’t write music, they teach it”, Carole’s mother tells her. The costumes were great, gradual subtle changes in hairstyle and everyday clothing for Carole, plaid pleated skirt to loose A-line skirt to blouse and trousers, and fabulous performance outfits for the various singers and groups performing the songs.
Because, oh, the songs. I didn’t really know, before this, how many of the pop songs in the background of my childhood were written by Carole King or by the other writers of 1650 Broadway, but I think I recognized all of them but one or two. In those days, it seems that most pop singers didn’t write their own material, but were matched up with songs by the music publishers/recording studios. The talented ensemble for this production had actors portraying The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva, The Righteous Brothers, and so on, singing the songs written by Carole King and her colleagues. In one scene, the lead singer of The Shirelles complains to Carole about the arrangement of the song she’s written for them being too “country” in style for Black singers who are trying for crossover appeal. The young composer acknowledges the problem and offers to reorchestrate to give them a more elegant orchestral sound. The performing ensembles were great, but what I liked even better was the scenes where the composers and lyricists sing the songs as themselves while trying them out in offices or at home, with hesitancy and passion and what sounded like awkward ordinary voices. And as in the recent Citadel production Once, when they sing it makes sense that they’re singing.
My favourite songs in this production were the ones I was most familiar with beforehand, I think. “It Might As Well Rain Until September”, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and especially “You’ve Got a Friend”.
The set (Derek McLane) shifted between scenes with smoothly sliding furniture and walls to create offices, a busy studio building, apartments, and a nightclub. Walls and backdrops with interesting textural details reminded me of a Trevor Schmidt style.
I left feeling happy and uplifted, with the sense that the story had been significant enough to justify the wonderful music and general production value. Carole King, as portrayed in this production, was a kind, humble, hardworking and compassionate person. I felt glad that she’d persisted through the challenges in her life to find artistic satisfaction and appreciation. And in an interview I heard this afternoon on CBC RadioActive, the performer Sarah Bockel said that she had met the real Carole King and she was just as gracious in person as the woman in the story.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is playing at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium until Sunday November 11th. Tickets are at Ticketmaster.