Theatre: Music, insight and humour: just Beautiful

Carole King 

Picture: Getty
Carole King Picture: Getty

THE claim that Beautiful, the Carole King story, is a jukebox musical has been made even more times than Boris Johnson has likened himself to Roman statesman Cincinnatus.

Neither comment should be given the time of day. Beautiful is not simply a collection of King hits, it manages to achieve that most delicate balance of music, biographical insight – and humour.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical tells of the time in the early 1960s when chart hits were coming out of cubicles in places like the Brill Building in New York, the factory space where young hopefuls such as Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond would craft day and night in the hope of achieving a chart topper.

We learn of the young Carole Klein, a Brooklyn girl who was obsessed with piano music from the age of four and grew up dreaming of becoming a songwriter.

We learn of her relationship with Gerry Goffin, her college boyfriend and how King (she changed her name) became pregnant at 17 and soon married. Now, the pair had to take ordinary jobs to pay the rent and feed a child.

Yes, the potential drama in this play is sometimes sidelined for comedic effect, and the production often adopts a sitcom-like style of delivery, but that’s not to the detriment of the story.

We gain enough understanding of Gerry Goffin’s mental health issues, and of the relationship with music mogul Don Kirshner, and certainly the show does not rely upon a serving up of the hits of Carole King (118 of which made the US Top 100), such as classics Natural Woman and Up on The Roof.

Beautiful also features the works of the other major songwriting partnership operating next door in the hits factor, King and Goffin’s best friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, who created the likes of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.

True, Beautiful doesn’t overly expand on King’s career beyond the success of her 1971 album Tapestry, but it doesn’t suffer from that: it’s about the making of the woman.

And there is certainly enough space given to considering the life of a young songwriter, beleaguered wife and mother.

This musical also represents a wonderful opportunity to wallow in nostalgia, of more simple times. It traces the change in the pop music movement from yakety-yak and splish-splash songs to whimsy such as The Locomotion, to the deeper Pleasant Valley Sunday and the sublime You’ve Got a Friend.

This is a show that will leave you in wonder of the talents of an incredible woman, of some very clever direction and stagecraft, and Douglas McGrath’s script offers up just the right number of gags.

A jukebox musical it ain’t.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, The King’s Theatre, Glasgow, September 13-17

MUSICALS? You crave a really good one, featuring the songs of your idols – and two come along in Glasgow in the same week. Half a mile away from Carole King, Bob Dylan is showcased in the form of Girl from the North Country, a musical by Irish playwright Conor McPherson. The play, which combines McPherson’s “sublime storytelling” and Bob Dylan’s back-catalogue, has had seven Emmy nominations.

Dylan himself instigated the writing of the play, having approached Dublin playwright McPherson, the man behind The Weir and This Lime Tree Bower, after seeing his work onstage. Dylan says being associated with McPherson is “one of the highlights of my professional life. My songs couldn’t be in better hands”.

The New York Times certainly loved the result, arguing that “McPherson has pulled off a significant theatrical feat, an immersive story complemented by the careful cherry-picking of 19 tunes from Dylan’s more than a half century of songs”.

What of the story? Set in 1934, with America in the grip of the Great Depression, the tale is narrated by Dr Walker, a physician to the Laine family who are on the point of collapse. Not only is the bank threatening to foreclose on their rundown guesthouse, but Elizabeth Laine is suffering from dementia and her daughter is pregnant by an unknown father. To compound matters, the son is an alcoholic dreamer who wants to become a writer, the boarders are enduring chaos of their own and the father is having an affair with one of the guests.

Yes, you can see this is a storyline screaming out to be attached to some of Dylan’s more poignant, searching songs such as Make You Feel My Love and Like a Rolling Stone. For those, like myself, who thought The Weir was duller than a night spent doing the yearly accounts, don’t be put off. Emmy voters and the world’s critics can’t all be wrong.

Girl From the North Country, Theatre Royal, September 13-17