Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

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There may be no better soundtrack to my youth than Carole King’s Tapestry album. I heard that album day and night for years through the wall that separated me from my two older sisters’ room. Say Carole King and my mom will immediately start singing “I feel the earth move under my feet,” almost Pavlov-like before even knowing why Carole King was mentioned. It was only fitting then that my mom, sister, Toby, and I attended Beautiful: the Carole King Musical together. As the lights dimmed and the opening bars of “I feel the earth move” wafted throughout the great Academy of Music, I knew we were in for a treat.

The story recounts Carole King’s early years and how she came into being, well, Carole King. It covers the history of the Brill Building and the period when singer and songwriter teams were churning out hit after hit for groups of the day. It was all about being part of a hit songwriting team with her husband Gerry Goffin, to her relationship with fellow writers and best friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, to becoming one of the most successful solo acts in popular music history. Interestingly enough, most of the teams were Jewish writing for African American groups. And while the racial tension of this arrangement was not fully explored, there was a scene when The Shirelles were criticizing “Will you still love me tomorrow,” as being too country western, i.e. too white. It would be interesting to see the Brill Building story told from the viewpoint of the singers. In any case, the story was interspersed with her greatest hits and how they came to be.

Initially, I was surprised at the seniority of the audience, ie I thought I was the demographic but actually was skewing the group younger. Throughout the show, it started to make sense that the early years of Carole King’s career were all about the hits of the 50s and 60s. And, in fact, when I was listening to these songs for the first time, it was actually their second reincarnation. I never heard the Shirelle’s version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and only know James Taylor’s “Up on a Roof,” not The Drifters’ version. What happened is Carole King created the singer songwriter genre that dominated the 70s, produced some of my most adored artists and is probably my favorite genre of music.

The show was just wonderful. And part of it was because I got to hear the soundtrack of my youth with the people of my youth, my mom and sister, next to me. When she started singing “You’ve Got a Friend,” there seemed to be a collective sense of memory reverberating throughout the Academy. I wonder what other audience members were thinking during that song. I would guess the same things as I- the first time I heard that song, how it made me feel, the friends I shared the song with, simpler times that seemed so complicated at the time.

The show ended with Carole King’s triumphant Carnegie Hall solo concert the year she won all the Grammys for Tapestry. When she came out on stage it really felt like a Carole King concert and not just a Broadway show. She really brought us along her journey and we all rejoiced in her triumphant solo performance. Most importantly, after the cast members took their bows, she grabbed the mike and insisted it was our turn. We ended the evening singing and dancing to a song I had danced and sung to a million times before. And I felt the Academy move under my feet…

11 shows to go, 78 days left…

Post script: When writing about Carole King, I feel like I can’t not include this spectacular link to Aretha Franklin’s tribute at the recent Kennedy Center Honors event. There is just so much going on here. From Aretha strolling on stage with pocketbook in hand (I guess you can’t trust the security at the Kennedy Center’s green room) to her shrugging off her fabulous fur during the performance, to our President and First Lady totally grooving to the audience singing along and not sure whether to watch Aretha or Carole during it to Carole King’s sheer joy, humility and emotion at the performance. There is just so much to love about this clip.  Aretha Sings Carole


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