The earth doesn’t quite move during Beautiful despite every attempt to turn Carol King’s life into the next great biopic musical.
Like other works of the genre, King’s music is presented in an order than best represents a world in transition. Book writer Douglas McGrath does his best to add drama to the story of a hard-working songwriter who was accepted into the world of rock and roll with relative ease. King jumped on the runaway train that was the rock music industry at just the right time, and much of the action relates to the frantic pace with which King needed to produce hits while knowing that hot new songwriters were less than a step behind.
When King (Abby Mueller) steps into Aldon studios, she maneuvers around a montage of ensemble members performing 1960’s standards. These musical numbers—including “Yakkety Yak,” “Splish Splash,” and “Love Potion #9”—were carefully selected to prove that rock music had lost its edge. Songs that sold records gave teens a reason to dance with no pretense of deeper meanings. Enter King and her lyrics-writer/husband Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) and their breakout hit “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Granted, by modern standards that song still fits in the world of teen-bopper music, but its emotional backstory implying the morning after a sexual encounter separates it from songs like “Who Put the Bomp.”
King’s best work explores the highs and lows of relationships, and many are presented in tandem to her dissolving marriage to Goffin. Highlights include “So Far Away” and the powerhouse “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” “I Feel the Earth Move” is saved for the curtain call.
All told, Beautiful is informative more than suspenseful. McGrath tried to use the collapse of the King/Goffin marriage as the show’s backbone, but his efforts cannot overcome the lack of attachment felt for Goffin’s character. From his entrance as a smoking, bad-boy poet to his bipolar anger over his increasingly bland marriage to his infidelities with women performing his songs—the audience decides early on that King is better without him. At the end of Goffin’s plot line, he shows up backstage prior to King’s performance at Carnegie Hall. This scene is reminiscent of the similar ending to the biopic movie What’s Love Got to Do With It, but Goffin’s proud congratulations for his ex-wife’s success highlights that his story line lacks the emotional impact of King’s best songs.
This commendable traveling show led me to consider other staples from the musical biopic genre. Here is a ranking of the five that I found most memorable:
- Jersey Boys—In additional to the exhilarating music, the script experiments with shifting points of view to explore the egos involved with rock music success. As Nick Massi (J. Robert Spencer) said, “You sell 100 million records, and see how you handle it.”
- The Buddy Holly Story—This script follows the standard line of the ahead-of-his-time musician, but it keeps the action moving with three separate scenes (first recording session with Norman Petty; concert at the Apollo Theater; last concert in Clear Lake, Iowa) that showcase the range of the catalog that Holly created in a few short years.
- On Your Feet—When Gloria Estefan’s songs are presented back to back, one realizes that they fit into two categories: “believe in yourself” and “get up and dance.” Despite the lack of range, the dance numbers explode with energy, particularly “Conga” and “Get On Your Feet” which close act 1 and act 2, respectively.
- Beautiful—This musical has been a tremendous Broadway hit based on the respect that many feel for King’s music. Her greatest hits still shine, but too much time is devoted to the stories behind each of her most recognizable songs. Does the fact that “Locomotion” was written for her nanny mean that we need to sit through an rendition of it?
- Motown the Musical—First and foremost, ending the first act with the one-two punch of “War, What is It Good For” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is brilliant. However, the rest of the musical suffers as Berry Gordon (who produced this musical about his own life) paints the picture that his greatest conflicts in the music industry derived from being too good to his many recording artists.