Beautiful - The Carole King Musical brings the music of one of the most gifted singer/songwriters of her generation to The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh this week (Tue 28 Nov – Sat 2 Dec) and for anyone with even the slightest passing interest in popular music over the last 60 years or so, this show is a musical treat.
Carole King is an outstanding songwriter in her own right and with other songwriting partners, but it is her early work with her first husband Gerry Goffin providing the lyrics that many people still most associate with her, and this musical is the story of not only Carole King’s personal life up until the release of her phenomenally successful 1971 album Tapestry (from which many of the songs here come), but also the story behind the creation of many of those early Goffin/King songs –and what songs –“Take Good Care of My Baby”, “Up On The Roof”, “One Fine Day” and of course “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”.
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, also known from one of the lines in the song as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is always to me one of the most beautiful songs of all time with immortal words by Gerry Goffin and wonderful music by Carole King, providing the Shirelles with not only a number 1 hit song, but the first black female group “R & B” No 1 in USA mainstream "Billboard 100" chart history. I have always loved this song, but stripped of the string orchestrations Carole King’s simpler and back to the original source material has over the years become my favourite version of this song. Odd to think now that at the time of its release many radio stations in the USA would not play this song because of its subject matter.
Bronté Barbé as Carole King is outstanding in this production and although the show format of a reflective look back on her life from her first solo Carnegie Hall concert (after the success of Tapestry) provides us with the earlier hits, it is the solo material after the end of her marriage to Gerry Goffin that Bronté Barbé excels with – songs like “You’ve Got A Friend” and “It’s Too Late”.
“Beautiful” is an apt title for this show – the song itself it a great song, but it also describes the music of Carole King perfectly and with the album “Tapestry” not only letting the world hear for the first time Carole King singing some of her most famous songs to date herself that had up to then been recorded by other people, but representing the “Tapestry” of her own life. It is through the very strong performances of a solid cast that includes Kane Oliver Parry (Gerry Goffin), Amy Ellen Richardson and Matthew Gonsalves as songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann that some of the major threads of this tapestry of her life are explored.
For some people in the audience, it may seem a little odd that Beautiful – The Carole King musical gives so much time over to the songs of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, but what great songs – “You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin’” and “On Broadway” to name only two. Not only were they another great songwriting team, but also a large part of the Carole King “Tapestry” in those early years. The inclusion of their songs also highlights perfectly not only the environment in which these songwriters were working on an almost production line of songs for recording artists who did not write their own material (about to change with groups like The Beatles and The Beach Boys writing their own material), but also the competitiveness between songwriters to be the best and come up with that new sound. Amy Ellen Richardson and Matthew Gonsalves are very good in their respective roles here and do justice to the songs.
Threading these two great songwriting partnerships together is Adam Howden as music publisher/impresario Donnie Kirshner who bought Carole King’s own self written first song “It Might As Well Rain until September” and of course the other classics “under contract”. What the terms of that contract were and how much of the royalties from the music the writers retained we are never told, but it is worth noting that despite early chart success Gerry Goffin could not give up his day job at a pharmacy until “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” became a hit.
Absolutely classic songs in this show, some of the very best music and the very best lyrics ever written for what was so often a disposable product for a “chart hit system”. It is odd that a little of this magic is lost at times on the re-creations of some of the groups performing these songs. Some of the “re-creations” are just not hitting the mark for me and it is one of those elusive just can’t place my finger on it things. I think part of the problem for me is that there is a different style of delivery in so much of contemporary music today that sadly favours volume over the emotions behind the words of a song, and for me this style is in sharp contrast at times to some of those originals that I so fondly remember. I would have been happier with original archive footage somehow being incorporated into this production in parts to remind us all just how great the original recording artists of some of these songs were. For myself, I far preferred the versions of these classic songs by our core four cast members tonight.
Magical songs and a wonderful story that wisely focuses on the music more than the private life of Carole King and taking us up to a landmark in her life and work with Tapestry. By any standard that you use to judge success as a songwriter/performer, Carole King is one of the great songwriters of her generation. This quote from Wikipedia pretty much says it all.
“having written or co-written 118 pop hits on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1955 and 1999 King also wrote 61 hits that charted in the UK, making her the most successful female songwriter on the UK singles charts between 1952 and 2005”
Review by Tom King