FINDING HER VOICE
Carole King was deeply torn about Beautiful, a musical based on her troubled first marriage. Writer Douglas McGrath tells Rosemary Neill how the star was won over — eventually
Beautiful — part biography, part jukebox musical — opened in San Francisco in 2013 before transferring to Broadway the following year. The show has netted two Tony awards and a further five nominations. It also won a 2015 Grammy Award for best musical theatre album, and two Laurence Olivier gongs.
Drawing on a song catalogue of extraordinary breadth and depth, the musical opened in London’s West End in 2015. Despite mixed reviews, it is still playing to record-setting houses on Broadway, and will tour the US and Britain into 2018.
This year it’s Sydney’s turn to see this gently funny yet deeply affecting character study of a publicity-shy creative genius growing into her own voice and identity. The Broadway production (featuring a local cast led by Helpmann award-winner Esther Hannaford) will open at the Lyric Theatre in September: tickets went on sale last month, as King celebrated her 75th birthday. A Sony Pictures film version of Beautiful is in the works, with McGrath set to adapt his script for the big screen.
In focusing on King’s difficult first marriage — she and her songwriting partner Goffin wed after she fell pregnant at 17 — McGrath had a clear narrative purpose: the breakdown of this relationship was the catalyst that drew the apprehensive performer towards the spotlight. Although she composed chart-topping hits from the late 1950s, McGrath says “she didn’t really become known to people until she began performing her own work [in the 1970s]’’.
The once-rejected suburban mum became a superstar, one of the most influential singersongwriters of her generation. (Significantly, when Goffin died in 2014, his obituaries intro- King Musical, Beautiful: The Carole duced him as the “ex-husband of King’’, who has had four marriages).
King’s best-known solo album, Tapestry, was released in 1971 and stayed in the US Billboard charts for a remarkable six years. It sold 25 million copies, making it one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. She has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of fame, having written or co-written more than 400 songs. One hundred of these were hit singles, and many of them were recorded by the brightest stars in pop and rock’s firmament: the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, the Drifters, Amy Winehouse, James Taylor, Roberta Flack and Diana Ross.
Yet as McGrath’s script highlights, King was not a born performer. As a 20-something raising children in the New Jersey suburbs, she thought of herself as a “square’’ in a decade (the 1960s) that seemed to belong to the self-consciously hip. Dressed like a prematurely middleaged librarian in Peter Pan collars and calflength skirts, the under-confident Carole character says: “I’m just a normal person. Who wants to hear a normal person sing?’’
In fact, she was a precocious talent — she sold her first No 1 hit, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, when she was 17. Barely out of school and working alongside Goffin in a cramped office cubicle in Midtown Manhattan, King composed scores of other Top 40 songs including One Fine Day, I’m Into Something Good and Take Good Care of My Baby. At one point, the couple talked their African-American babysitter, Little Eva, into singing their creation, The Loco-Motion, and it too became a chartbuster.
Carole King in 1971, top; Esther Hannaford plays King in the Sydney production of