A few cross-stitches short of a tapestry

Beautiful 2A review of the touring production of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical

With the passing of the analogue age it is unlikely that songs will ever dominate the combined consciousness as numerously as they did in the latter part of the twentieth century.  Although audiences are much larger now, they not as universally imposed across demographic, social and cultural boundaries as they were when transistor technology conquered the planet.  Music artists today can reach masses of interested followers but their work is much less frequently indiscriminately imposed upon the indifferent, the potentially appreciative, and the infatuated fan as they were when there were far fewer performance platforms. The first peak decade in this respect was the 1960s and one of many scores of British and American singers to meme their way into shared cultural soundscape was Carole King.

Carole King contemp

King scored her breakthrough with the album Tapestry, which topped the U.S. album chart for 15 weeks in 1971 and remained on the charts for more than six years. She became the most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the twentieth century in the USA, having written or co-written one hundred and eighteen hits on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1955 and 1999. King also wrote sixty-one hits that charted in the UK, making her the most successful female songwriter on the UK singles charts between 1952 and 2005. You’ve Got a Friend, You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman, Up on the Roof and Locomotion were daydreamed and danced to by millions.  It Might As Well Rain Until September with its summer-dismissing heart-ache was a perennial favourite of the Sunday lunchtime UK radio stalwart Two-Way Family Favourites, a request programme that linked parents, siblings and fiancés with serving soldiers, sailors and airmen based overseas.

Beautiful posterIronically for someone so skilled at penning ear-catching songs, the title of this show, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, isn’t the most memorable phrase and smacks of self-appreciation, and while the title track explains that affirmation, King’s great skill lay in weaving the threads of deprecation, frustration, affection, longing, forgiveness, chameleon love and bitter truth. One Fine Day would be a better title.

This is not a beautiful production, but it is superlatively stylish at times and features very many gorgeous moments in particular the recreation of sixties show business performances.  The choreography for the Shirelles, the Drifters et al, is archaeological in its recreation of their mechanical lyricism, and supremely executed by the ensemble.

Beautiful 5The setting makes slick use of trucks and sliding structures designed to within an inch of accuracy of the post-modern abstraction that wallpapered our TV screens. The understated triumph though, is the faux teak and tea-chest soundproofing backdrop of the music publishing house and studio. The costumes evolve evocatively through the swinging decade from Mondrian influenced minis to the floral storm trooping of the Laura Ashley look.

The main flaw in the show is a structural one.  It documents the early years of King’s career – the decade up to her move to California.  Hence it stops short of her recording of the Tapestry album which was the pinnacle of her impact, and the height of her creative contribution.  King and her collaborators’ sixties output is wonderfully reminiscent – but the greatest thrills are in the first act and hence the second pales a little in comparison.

Beautiful 3The book is sweetly witty and moves at a pleasing pace, but the main device for including the musical numbers hinges on the day job of churning out hits for the vinyl factory and hence songs are repeatedly presented on the basis of here’s one I wrote earlier.  Sometimes it’s even: here’s one I’ve just written but you can join in and you’ll instantly know the words, the melody, the harmonies and the guitar parts.  All that is fair enough – this is staged reality and we all buy into that – but perhaps it falls a little short of what Carole King deserves.  She is a maestro weaver of lyric, music and mood; and this tribute to her sometimes comes across as less of a tapestry and more of a cross-stitch sampler.

Beautiful 4It is a feel-good format, and that is not unfitting, for her lyrics often skilfully weave heartening sentiments among the threads of despair, but the narrative is a little thin on that mainstay of drama: conflict.  The arguments are there, the breakdown of her first marriage to her collaborator Gerry Goffin has its shouts, but pulls its punches, while the rivalry with the Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil partnership is entirely amicable.   Hence the complexities of the themes of the compositions are dealt with almost entirely within the songs themselves and a chance to dovetail them into the biography in a way that provides added insight is largely missed.  The songs sit on the top of the weave when they could have been woven in, and there just one or two too many fine days.

Beautiful 1It is the songs, then, that provide the punch of this production, but they are so iconic that, what is much more of a showcase than a musical, is a true hit parade.  And the Mann and Weil inclusion adds extra fizz with classics such as Walking in the Rain, On Broadway, We’ve Gotta Get Out of this Place, and You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.

Beautiful resets on excellent central performances but it is equally buoyed by the impeccable ensemble and nifty design.  This touring production provides a highly enjoyable excursion, especially for those with an affection for the sixties classics that were plaited into the musical embroidery of that most colourful of decades.


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