There’s no denying that Carole King was the ultimate rock ’n’ roll songstress of her generation. The wild-haired musician became a household name in the ’70s after the release of her 1971 classic Tapestry — an album that not only won four Grammys (including Record of the Year) but also carved out a permanent spot for the artist in contemporary pop culture and musical history. It is no surprise the iconic songbird has caught the eyes and ears of Broadway.
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is making its world premiere at San Francisco’s SHN Curran Theatre through Oct. 20 before transferring to the Broadway stage in November. The highly anticipated musical traces the roots of King’s success — a story that began more than a decade prior to the release of her groundbreaking album. What most people don’t know is that the musical icon first found her way into the music scene as Carol Klein, composing songs for black vocal groups in the songwriting room of legendary record producer Don Kirshner.
We are introduced to Jessie Mueller playing a frizzy-haired King in a peasant dress, seated at a grand piano in Carnegie Hall and performing songs from her chart-topping album. Sporting a thick Brooklyn accent, Mueller immediately charms while echoing King’s humbling personality and soulful vocals.
The stage then transforms into the quaint home of a young Klein, a 16-year-old college student (she skipped two grade levels) who is writing a song that she is eager to sell to music producers in Manhattan. Although she is ill-advised by her mother to abandon her musical dreams and simply become a teacher, the naive songwriter is not discouraged and eventually ends up on the doorstep of Kirshner’s (Jeb Brown) Aldon Music at 1650 Broadway.
As the show goes on, we meet bad boy Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), who becomes King’s lyrical counterpart and husband, and the competing songwriting duo of Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector). Despite writing hit after hit for famed singing groups of the day among the likes of the Drifters and the Shirelles, the marriage between King and Goffin slowly deteriorates as their success increases. Considering the two married so young due to King’s unexpected pregnancy, Goffin quickly grows restless and transforms into a tantrum-throwing, adulterous mess while King continuously cleans up his wreckage. It is through these personal struggles that King ultimately finds or, in a sense, reclaims her voice.
Mueller is already a Tony Award nominee, and with this performance, she is well on her way to earning a second. The actress portrays 10 years of King’s life superbly — from the sweet and naive Brooklyn teenager with rockstar dreams to the the earthy musical goddess that King is today. Mueller’s vocals capture the essence of King’s distinct raw and bluesy voice, all while adding a lingering Broadway touch.
Derek McLane is the savvy mastermind behind the dynamic sets, which shift flawlessly from the two-story building of 1650 Broadway, gridded with spunky recording studios and songwriting rooms of the ’60s, to the greater New York City area.
Despite originally being opposed to having her life story told onstage in such a public manner, King herself has since given the musical biopic her blessing after attending an early reading.
The backbone of “Beautiful,” like most jukebox musicals (such as “Jersey Boys” or “Mamma Mia!”), lies in the timeless musical score, which contains not only Goffin and King classics from throughout the decades but also the famed works of Weil and Mann, including “On Broadway” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” In any case, the nostalgia that is brought about when Mueller delivers King’s legendary songs, such as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “Beautiful,” is one so beautifully vivid and wonderfully wistful that it outshines all the other aspects of the production.
Michelle Lin covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jessie Mueller is a two-time Tony Award nominee. In fact, Mueller has only been nominated once.