"Beautiful - The Carole King Musical" tells a "remarkable" life story
In a recent telephone interview he said, "People seem to think Carole Kings was born, learned to walk and then wrote 'Tapestry,' like it was all that simple. Few realize she has a remarkable life story to tell."
He listed off a number of achievements that include being a successful songwriter at age 14. She married her writing partner Gerry Goffin at age 19 and the two became the most successful songwriting team of the 1950 and '60s. They wrote songs for groups like The Drifters, The Chiffons, The Righteous Brothers, as well as for individuals like Neil Sedaka and Aretha Franklin, among many others. It wasn't until her marriage to Goffin collapsed that she started singing her own songs - and the rest is rock and roll history.
McGrath said that with such an impressive catalog of songs there was a danger in creating a basic jukebox musical by just using her music. However, he felt that would simply be an exercise in nostalgia. He was more interested in creating a work that focused on her music in such a way that people will be aware of why the treasured songs she wrote have such a strong emotional resonance to so many people.
He described his process as writing a scene explaining in dramatic fashion what the characters were experiencing in their professional and personal lives. He then took great pains in selecting the proper song from the King catalog that expanded on the emotions expressed in the scene. "My goal was to show that great art is not created in a vacuum," he said.
Calling King's songs "great art" is not hyperbole from the playwright. McGrath genuinely believes King is a brilliant artist. "Uptown" is a masterpiece," he says. "It tells a touching story in such a way that it becomes a societal portrait about class, wealth and being invisible."
In fact, he feels so strongly that her songs are individual pieces of art the decision was made to completely sing every song. There are no medleys of her songs as there are in most jukebox musicals. "Each song tells its own story," he says.
He calls "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" "emotionally insightful." Giving the song the ultimate writer's tribute, he says, "It could perfectly fit into any play Tennessee Williams ever wrote."
Yet, despite his personal fondness for King and his admiration for her skills, McGrath had to be convinced to take on the project.
"Beautiful" tells the story of King's early years when she was writing hit songs with her husband and how that success took a toll on their personal life. Prominent in the story is another successful songwriting team — Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann — who were good friends and rivals of King and Goffin. Three of the four are still living (Goffin died in 2014).
Working on a biography of people still alive gave McGrath pause. Years ago he engaged in a hated project of trying to write a movie biography of a famous man. "He was impossible. If the material showed him as anything less than a Marvel Super Hero, he rejected it," mcGrath said. "I vowed never again write a biography of a living person."
It all changed when the producer convinced him to have a meeting with the subjects. "My pitch was I would show them as the new breed of a modern sound that triumphed and pushed aside the stale sounds of the past.
"When I finished, Carole King looked at me and gave me a smile that could light up a room. She said, `Doug that is so wrong. We loved the old guard.'" They all started naming the gods of pop music and their songs. I said, `So you're really classicists posing as long haired revolutionaries.'
"At that moment I not only knew I could work with these guys, I knew I had to work with them."
What initially surprised MacGrath was the appeal the show has to teenagers who are hearing Carole King's music for the first time. "Young people love this show and embrace the songs, maybe even more than their parents and grandparents. It's one of the most rewarding things about being involved with the show."
When asked to explain the appeal of "Beautiful ." to an entirely new audience, he quoted another female lyricist, Betty Comden, who said, "Good is always new."
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