When I agreed to review Beautiful — The Carole King Musical, I was mostly excited, but a bit uncertain that I was the right person for the task. I was not alive during King’s songwriting heyday with Gerry Goffin, when their compositions climbed the Billboard charts throughout the better part of the 1960s. I was not alive in the ‘70s when King came into her own as a solo artist with breakout albums like Tapestry and Music (both 1971). I was only barely beginning to express any interest of my own in music the last time King released a proper album, Love Makes the World (2001).
Is all this to say that I, as a (proud) millennial, don’t have the right to claim King’s music as my own; or that the music popularized by “girl groups” and “boy groups” from the 1960s is so beyond my scope of experience as to be completely foreign on stage? After spending two and a half hours in Minneapolis’s Orpheum Theatre surrounded by baby boomers, immersed in the world and work of Carole King, I’m here to tell you that my generational anxiety proved to be all for naught.
Though this musical will especially appeal to those interested in the life of Carole King (expertly channeled by Abby Mueller in this touring Broadway production), it definitely caters to a wider audience. King’s rise to fame, marriage to longtime writing partner Gerry Goffin (portrayed by Liam Tobin), entrance into motherhood, and eventual divorce are all tetrised tightly into the first act of the show. Biographical details from King’s life with Goffin are lightly sprinkled between scores of hits from the early 1950s and 1960s and the plotline largely focuses on the creation of American pop music during this time period.
Songs written and composed by famed songwriting duos like King/Goffin and Cynthia Weil/Barry Mann (comically brought to life by Becky Gulsvig and Ben Fankhauser) consistently spread across the charts during the 1960s and were made popular by the likes of the Shirelles and the Drifters. These groups, along with the Righteous Brothers and Little Eva, are embodied by an incredibly adept ensemble cast in Beautiful. Musical numbers include renditions of songs that are easily recognizable to anyone remotely familiar with the canon of American pop music: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” (King/Goffin) “On Broadway,” (Weil/Mann), “The Locomotion” (King/Goffin), and many others.
It goes without saying that the music industry looks incredibly different today than it did a few decades ago. We’re living and listening in a time in which it is often stigmatized for performers to gain notoriety for songs they did not write and compose. Discussion of “bands” and “artists” has eclipsed that of “groups” and “singers.” The dream of getting that one lucky break with a label and shooting to the top of the charts is becoming more and more obscured every day. The music, however, holds up. “Beautiful” does a fantastic job of harnessing the fizzy energy of such songs and using it to and contextualize fragments of the history of the American music industry.
Will you love Beautiful if you grew up alongside Carole King? Absolutely. I was also relieved to find that, just like the music it highlights, the show is meant for the masses.
Beautiful — The Carole King Musical is at the Orpheum Theatre through Nov. 29.