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Road to the Tonys: ‘Beautiful’ Sits Pretty with Carole King’s Seal of Approval

Carole King is nobody’s shill. And that may be why she’s so good at hawking “Beautiful.”

A Tony-nominated Broadway musical based on King’s life, “Beautiful” has looked like the season’s sleeper hit since it began previews in November. But sales didn’t really take off until King saw the show for the first time April 3, in an unannounced visit that made headlines in large part because it was organized on the downlow.

Soon thereafter the tuner began logging million-plus weeks, and seven Tony noms have kept that momentum strong.

“You can’t discount the power of Carole’s visit,” said Douglas McGrath, the director-scribe (“Emma,” “Infamous”) who penned the book for “Beautiful.” “It took the show, which was a local news story, and for the first time people across the country heard about it in a way they hadn’t before.”

“It was way bigger than the opening night,” chimed in producer Paul Blake.

King has always been the ticket-selling star of “Beautiful,” with audience affection for the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and her work driving sales the same way boomer fondness for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons helped turned “Jersey Boys” into a hit.

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But it wasn’t until that evening in early April that King had seen the full production. The press-shy music icon hadn’t attended a single performance during its fall 2013 tryout in San Francisco, nor since it had started the Broadway run. She didn’t even turn up for the Jan. 12 opening.

King, who’s long been reserved with the media, had already publicly given the project her blessing. But it was also well known that, after sitting through the first act of a reading of the show, she decided she didn’t want to see any more because she wasn’t interested in reliving the painful memories “Beautiful” brings to life onstage.

There was, ultimately, a lingering hint of reticence to King’s support during the musical’s first months on Broadway. Producers said that, in deference to her wishes, they never asked her to promote the production in any way.

But that cool reserve shattered when she decided to see “Beautiful” after all.

In a surprise conference call, King, prodded by critical and audience response, announced she’d like to attend “Beautiful,” but asked that they not to make a press event out of it. She was eventually convinced to allow a photographer in to record the visit — not that anyone noticed she was there during the performance, because she sat in the audience incognito.

“I met her in front of the theater, and even I didn’t recognize her,” said producer Mike Bosner. “She had a wig on, and glasses. I walked her right in. No one noticed.”

The audience finally got the memo when King appeared onstage at the curtain call to perform “You’ve Got a Friend.” The head-turning story of her visit and the photos of her singing with the cast grabbed attention around the country, and she’s since made no secret of the fact that, as Bosner said, “she legitimately loved the show.”

Because of her prior restraint, and of her rep as someone who won’t do anything she doesn’t want to do, King’s sudden and enthusiastic embrace of “Beautiful” felt more genuine than perhaps it would have otherwise. Fans responded: The box office effects were essentially immediate, as two big week-to-week jumps drove weekly sales above the $1 million mark, where they’ve remained ever since.

The tuner looks to get another publicity boost from King’s upcoming performance on the Tony telecast, however the awards themselves pan out. Meanwhile, road presenters are already clamoring for a title poised to be a big regional draw when the show launches a tour during the 2015-16 season. A potential London staging is also in the works.

That’s pretty good for a boomer-era musical that Blake said he initially imagined might only appeal to “blue-haired older ladies.” The demographic of the “Beautiful” audience, he said, has only grown broader since the show started performances, and he anticipates the production — the story of a woman finding success through talent, hard work and determination — will strike a strong chord with younger crowds as well as older ones. “Somewhere in year three, I think, girls and young women are going to become big part of our audience too,” he said.

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