Carole King: A Natural Woman Makes for Exceptional Drama

MusiCares honoree’s life is laid bare on Broadway, but it wasn’t easy

Carole King
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Behind-the-music tale “Beautiful” is subtitled “The Carole King Musical,” but it could have been something else. Or nothing at all.

“My first two years on the project were held up dealing with everything the life-rights people, the songwriters, wanted from the show,” says producer Paul Blake of the Broadway tuner that focuses on the notoriously private King, who will be honored Jan. 24 as Grammy’s MusiCares Person of the Year, but also weaves in King’s troubled ex Gerry Goffin and friendly songwriting rivals Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. “Each of them wanted a completely different show — one wanted a career retrospective, one wanted a documentary of the period using those songs. One didn’t want to do it at all.”

With “Beautiful,” which opened Jan. 12 at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, Blake has solidified his reputation as a rights-wrangler. After all, he’d already persuaded the previously intransigent estate of Irving Berlin to let him turn “White Christmas” into a stage musical that became a regional staple and played yuletide runs on the Main Stem in 2007 and 2008.

The success of “White Christmas” was largely why Roger Faxon, then the chief exec of EMI Group, approached Blake about turning the song catalog of King, Goffin, Mann and Weil into a musical. But getting the rights to the show’s tunes — including “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” “It’s Too Late” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — was only the first step.

It’s hard enough to compress a true story into a theatrical narrative arc. Now imagine doing it with a peanut gallery of subjects who lived through it.

When Blake approached scribe Douglas McGrath (“Emma,” “Bullets Over Broadway”) to pen “Beautiful,” McGrath remembers asking whether all four principals were, indeed, alive. “Paul said, ‘Yes, great news, they’re all alive,’ ” McGrath recalls, “and I said, ‘That’s not great news at all!’ ”

But it worked out, not only because McGrath earned their trust but, perhaps more importantly, Blake stepped in and asked the four songsmiths to quit calling the writer and overloading him with details. The narrative’s focus shifted to King, the scribe says, because audiences have a real curiosity about the singer-songwriter, who maintains a Garbo-like air of privacy. And besides, the story of Mann and Weil, happily married and enduringly successful, doesn’t have a lot of conflict to fuel a stage show.

By contrast, there’s plenty of drama in the tale of King and Goffin, who made songwriting magic at 1650 Broadway for such groups as the Shirelles and the Drifters until their marriage ended unhappily in 1968, by most accounts a result of Goffin’s restlessness, experimentation with drugs and subsequent bouts of mental illness.

It was King’s final blessing that got the ball really moving on “Beautiful,” according to Blake.

Not that she’s ever seen it all the way through. By multiple accounts, King came to a reading and seemed to truly enjoy the first act, but didn’t return for the second.

She told the creatives that while it may not be the musical she would have written, they were still getting it right — right enough that she didn’t want to have to re-experience the more harrowing moments that would crop up in the second act.

But before the out-of-town tryout in San Francisco in 2013 and the December start of Broadway previews, the money had to be raised.

Thanks to the strong appeal of the familiar music and to King’s loyal fanbase, that part turned out to be easy. “I couldn’t raise money until I had the rights settled,” Blake says. “But once I did, we raised $13 million in six weeks.”