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                           Muses on The Music

Musically, It Was ‘Beautiful’

June 21, 2017

        Does the Carole King Musical live up to its name?

        “Beautiful,” or at least the national touring version of the Broadway show, was for the most part beautiful, at least musically. Jeanne and I celebrated our 30th anniversary Sunday by taking in the musical, at the Overture Center in Madison.

        The musical, which debuted four years ago in San Francisco and has been staged on Broadway since 2014, is the story of the early career of the singer-songwriter King. But it more than that — it’s also the story of her ex-husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin, and their friends and fellow songwriters, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

        But it’s also the story of the music that foursome made, which seems at times to be the soundtrack of the 1960s and early ’70s, and sounded Sunday like the soundtrack to my teenhood. Goffin-King and Mann-Weil penned some of the greatest hits of the greatest era of rock and roll.

        Goffin and King collaborated — almost exclusively, she wrote the music, and he the lyrics — on 70-plus singles that charted on the Billboard Top 100. Those included four No. 1s: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (the Shirelles), “Take Good Care of My Baby” (Bobby Vee), “The Loco-Motion” (Little Eva) and “Go Away Little Girl” (Steve Lawrence).

        The duo also co-wrote Top 10 hits recorded by the likes of the Chiffons, the Cookies, Skeeter Davis, Aretha Franklin, the Monkees and the Righteous Brothers. Plus, Goffin teamed with several other songwriters, and King went on to write the music and lyrics on her own compositions, and record one of the most successful albums of all time, “Tapestry.”

        Mann and Weil actually had more charting hits than their friends and rivals — the musical’s storyline highlights their friendly competition in the hit-making business — although their partnership lasted longer than Goffin and King’s. They didn’t score as many No. 1s or Top 10s, but did pen two chart-toppers for the Righteous Brothers, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” and “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration,” plus big hits for the Animals, the Drifters and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

        The musical’s score includes upwards of a dozen and a half of those charting singles, a few of them performed by ensembles portraying the groups that made them hits, the Drifters and Shirelles. Those and the others are reasonably well-performed and presented, and the music took me back to the time when they were hits (and judging from the audience reaction and the appearance of those in the seats, I wasn’t the only one transported back to teenhood).

        The musical’s title tune (and concluding number) is from “Tapestry,” one of a half-dozen songs from the album performed during the show. But that includes three that were popularized by other artists, including the Shirelles’ No. 1, and ones covered by Franklin and Taylor.

        “Tapestry” was King’s second solo album (the first was a commercial failure) and consummated the transitions highlighted in the musical: from her writing songs for others to writing for herself, from behind-the-scenes to out front, from the New York City music biz to the Los Angeles scene. In the show, King tells Don Kirchner — the rock music impresario who helped make her music into hits — that her new songs can’t be sung by others, but only by herself.

        That worked out pretty well, as it turns out. Since its release in 1971, “Tapestry” has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, making it one of best-selling LPs of all time. It was No. 1 on the Billboard album charts for 15 weeks — a record for female artists that stood for 20 years (until Whitney Houston broke it) —  and was listed on those charts for 300 weeks between 1971 and 2011.

        “Tapestry” won the Album of the Year Grammy in 1972, and ranks as No. 36 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. But more importantly, it embodies the philosophy underlying what King says (perhaps apocryphally) to Kirchner; the songs are for the most part intensely personal, speaking directly from the writer to the listener.

        I own the album, the only one of King’s I have (she released dozens of records after it, mostly successful but much less so than “Tapestry”). There’s hardly a weak song on it, in my opinion — “Smackwater Jack” is about the only one I don’t particularly like — and including another tune or two from the album in the musical would have been fine with me.

        Overall, the musical was pretty good. The show we saw had a stand-in taking the part of King, perhaps because there was a matinee earlier in the day, and the vocal chords can only take so much. She tended to belt out the songs, whereas King’s vocals are generally more subdued and plaintive.

        I didn’t think the actor who played Goffin was very convincing, particularly during the mental-health and substance-abuse episodes that helped end the couple’s marriage. The names of the women with whom Goffin had affairs didn’t sound familiar to me; I wondered if they weren’t composite characters, and that seems to have been the case.

        The choreography of the imitation Drifters and Shirelles didn’t seem as tight as what the ’60s Motown/R&B/soul groups practiced. And the musical’s dialogue at times seems strained and contrived, a framework to hang the songs on — but that is often my opinion of musicals.

        Bottom line, it was good to hear some of the important music-making of the rock era dramatized live on stage, and good that one of the significant Makers of The Music has been recognized in that fashion. All things considered, it was an entertaining evening. 

 

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