Beautiful times: The Broadway smash hit bringing the master of music to Sydney
Published: 19 June 2017 Image credit: Nathan Johnson
Her voice shaped the lives of an entire generation, even though most Millennials don't know that she ever existed.
While John Lennon, who famously declared The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” said his ambition was to one day be “equal to Carole King.”
She was already a song writing legend chased by music’s biggest acts, but it wasn’t until her 1971 solo album Tapestry that the world first heard the sound that would change music forever.
And now, when Millennials pull up their Spotify playlists, they’ll obliviously sing along to hit after hit – from Aretha Franklin’s Natural Woman to Kylie Minogue’s Locomotion – unaware these catchy classics were actually penned by a woman ranked by Rolling Stone Magazine as Number 7 of the Greatest 100 Songwriters of All Time.
Long before Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, and even before Madonna, an ‘ordinary’ teenager from Brooklyn walked into a New York record studio and began creating number one singles for music’s biggest acts, from the Drifters, to the Monkees, to James Taylor.
Carole King, age 17, at RCA Studio in New York in 1959. Photo: Sony Music Entertainment, Carole King Official
As a 17-year-old in 1959, she didn’t have an Instagram following or a YouTube channel, or the ability to reach millions of people instantly with her sound – but what she did have was a piano, a voice, and an unbelievable talent.
Fast forward more than 50 years, six Grammys, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, 100 hit singles and more than 400 compositions recorded by more than a thousand artists – from the Beatles to Adele to Neil Diamond – and you’ve got arguably the most successful female songwriter in history.
New York’s top creatives latched onto King’s incredible story, and in 2014, launched a Broadway musical chronicling her extraordinary life. Woven into the narrative is the breakdown of King’s marriage to song-writing partner Gerry Goffin, and the friendly rivalry between close mates and competing song-writing team Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.
That musical, Beautiful, is now coming to Sydney’s newly revamped Lyric Theatre in September.
Featuring an All-Aussie cast, the show will star multi-award winning actress Esther Hannaford in the feature role of Carole King.
“We have been fortunate enough to find a talented actress who can not only deliver Carole’s hit songs, but also capture her gentle spirit,” Australian producer Michael Cassel said.
“We know that audiences will fall in love with her.”
King herself gave Hannaford the stamp of approval, “glowing in praise” for the leading lady.
Cassel, whose producing credits include the Aussie tours of Les Misérables and Singin’ In the Rain, and the Aussie premiere of Kinky Boots, first saw Beautiful a month after its New York opening.
“I left the theatre on a high and immediately started making plans to bring this show to Australia,” he said.
“It’s an incredibly heartfelt story, charting Carole’s rise from teenage composer to superstar performing artist.”
Carole King’s story started with humble beginnings – growing up in Brooklyn, her mother taught her how to play the piano at age four, and her father, a firefighter, would pack the living room with friends to listen to her play.
She wrote songs throughout her childhood and started aggressively pitching them as a teenager.
Her first number one hit, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, launched the Shirelles to the top of the charts when King was just 17.
But it was hearing the Queen of Soul belt out her song (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman that spelled the peak of her song-writing career.
“It was just the height of all my dreams and expectations,” King told CBS This Morning.
“Aretha Franklin could do things I can’t do. But I hear them in my head. So when it’s actualized – wow.”
After a decade catapulting others’ careers to the top, she finally found her voice as a solo artist – in 1971, her second album Tapestry hit the number one spot on the Billboard charts and stayed there for a record-breaking 15-straight weeks.
I Feel the Earth Move, It’s Too Late, and You’ve Got a Friend became instant classics.
Ironically, Carole King never wanted to be famous, and struggled with her place in the limelight her entire career. And while her young working life brought her enormous successes, her personal life was cracking at the seams.
Becoming a teenage mother, the breakdown of her marriage due to her husband’s infidelity, and the pressure of churning out hit after hit all took their toll – and all were laid bare on the stage.
The memories were so painful, King couldn’t bear to relive them.
While she’d given Beautiful producers permission to use her life story, the notoriously private King was completely uninvolved in the musical’s creation.
Before its Broadway debut, she famously did a “runner” – bolting from the theatre after sitting through the first act of a reading.
She also missed the opening.
It wasn’t until three months into the musical’s run she summoned the courage to watch the whole production – and even then, she was painfully aware of others watching her as she watched her own story unfold.
So she turned up incognito, wearing sunglasses and a wig.
But her anxiety was ill-founded. And after the show, in a heartfelt surprise, she joined the cast on stage and officially sung the production’s praises.
“A few years ago, I went to a reading of a new musical about my life called Beautiful,” King told the crowd at the 2014 Tony awards.
“My professional side thought, this is going to be good. But I found some of the most emotional moments of my young life really hard to watch. So I left. I didn’t even go to the opening. But when I finally got up the courage to see it, I loved it.”
Producer Michael Cassel is certain Sydney crowds will share her enthusiasm.
“I think audiences will just love this show,” he said.
“Having seen how audiences react to this show on Broadway, in the West End and on tour in the UK, I know Australian audiences are going to embrace this incredible show with its amazing music and wonderfully told story about an iconic artist.”
“It’s the best of so many worlds,” actress Jessie Mueller, who played the role of Carole King in Beautiful’s initial Broadway run, and then went on to win a Tony award for her performance, said.
“It’s the best of a great play, it’s the best of a great, big, flashy Broadway musical, it’s the best of a concert. So I think there’s really something for everybody.”
The Broadway production went on to break every box office record at New York’s Stephen Sondheim theatre, and win two Tony Awards and a Grammy. The show finishes up at London’s West End in August, and is now on tour in the US.
Most reviewers agree the show is a feel-good, heartfelt, uplifting production with loads of familiar music and 60s and 70s nostalgia, showcasing an ‘ordinary’ girl, whose personal trials are quite universal, and who rises above them to stand in the spotlight and own her own voice.
“It’s about how in the face of a lot of trouble and adversity and these tests that she went through, how she found something bigger in herself,” Book writer Douglas McGrath said.
However, the story isn’t “exhilaratingly dramatic,” according to the London Review.
“Those who like their entertainment edgy may regard Beautiful as polite to the point of being tame. But this gently enjoyable show deserves to find an audience – and will surely enchant Baby Boomers nostalgic for the sound of the Sixties.”
The producers certainly had toe-tapping in mind, working in an ingenious way to double the feel-good hits.
“While the story focuses on Carole’s journey, it cleverly weaves in the relationship with [rival song-writing duo] Cynthia and Barry and incorporates their hit songs as well – everything from You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling [the most-played song of the 20th century] to We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” Cassel said.
While Beautiful undoubtedly delivers a huge dose of nostalgia, for Cassel, what hooked him was its ability to surprise.
“Audiences come into the production with a lot of familiarity – be it the story or the songs, but what’s important, I think, is that these musicals provide some revelations, or a new interpretation along the way,” he said.
One such surprise was learning King’s hit Locomotion – which launched our own Kylie Minogue’s singing career in 1988 – was originally written for and performed by Carole King’s babysitter, Little Eva.
No changes to the show when it comes down under – the Sydney production will be “just as it appears on Broadway and currently, in London’s West End,” according to Cassel.
“The original Broadway creative team will be flying to Sydney and overseeing rehearsals with this sensational cast,” he said.
“Excitingly, we are building all of the set and costumes in Australia – the scale of this production, in terms of set and costumes is just massive.”
And the team hopes Carole King herself will witness all their hard work pay off live, possibly joining them for the Sydney premiere.
“It’s certainly my hope,” Cassel said.
“We’re seeing if the dates all line up. Whether it’s for the opening, or at some stage throughout our run, it would be wonderful for Carole to join us in Sydney to enjoy our spectacular Australian cast and to witness the reaction to her great music and story.”
He says for the cast to perform in front the musical’s namesake, the legend herself, would be the best kind of challenge and deliver the richest kind of reward.
“It would certainly up the ante for all of us to make sure that we are representing Carole’s story, and music, on stage each night when she is in the theatre, but I already know that our cast will do Carole proud.”
A new wave of tickets for the Sydney production of Beautiful will be released today, and the show opens September 17, at the newly refurbished Sydney Lyric Theatre.