1. Jukebox musicals don't automatically have to be atrocious
2. Pandering to baby boomers isn't necessarily a bad thing
3. Jessie Mueller can do no wrong
Regarding the first two of these, we've certainly seen our share of jukebox tuners taking a stab at the Great White Way over the past 15 years or so. And, essentially, what we've learned is that they can occasionally be done well (Jersey Boys and...well, that's about it), but far more often they wind up being execrable, at least artistically (Mamma Mia, Good Vibrations, The Times They Are a-'Changin', Lennon, Baby It's You, Motown - the Musical).
Well, I can thankfully report that Beautiful: The Carole King Musical has joined the heretofore lonely ranks of Jersey Boys as a songbook show that actually demonstrates both solid storytelling and genuine stagecraft. Oh, and don't think I've forgotten about Jessie Mueller. Mueller would make this show worth attending even it weren't as genuinely enjoyable as it is.
Not surprisingly, Beautiful tells the story of Carole King and her journey from a songwriter in the famed Brill Building, working for record producer Don Kirshner, to her eventual rise as a solo recording artist. Here's what A Night With Janis Joplin could have been with some real talent behind it: a story that digs deeper into the conflict that made these artists who they are.
Why does Beautiful succeed where so many others have failed? Well, you really have to start with the woman herself, as Carole King was responsible for some of the best songs to come out of the sixties and seventies. First there are the songs that King wrote on her own and with her prodigal husband, Gerry Goffin, including "So Far Away," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?," "A Natural Woman," and "It's Too Late." Also, the creators have made the rather canny choice of weaving in the story of songwriters, and eventually married couple, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, with whom Carole and Gerry shared a friendly rivalry in writing for Kirshner. This also means that the creators got to dip into the Mann/Weil songbook, which includes such hits as "On Broadway," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."
On the production side, Beautiful is slick and fast-paced, thanks to the ministrations of director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince. But what really makes a jukebox show rise or fall is the book. I've read a lot of sniping about Douglas McGrath's supposedly superficial libretto, but for me it worked splendidly. No, it's not an especially original story, but the characters feel real, the dialogue sounds authentic, and McGrath really succeeded in making me care. Again, the inclusion of Mann and Weil gives the book some dimension, and the story a good deal of humor. Yeah, there are some really cheesy touches, like when Carole's erstwhile husband, Gerry, visits her backstage right before her Carnegie Hall debut. Cheesy, yes, but every now and then I love me some cheese.
Plus, McGrath actually goes through the effort of making the mostly diegetic songs contextual, or at least provide some personal resonance in the lives of the characters. At the start of act 2, Goffin sings "Locked Up in Chains," as he chafes at the ties of marriage. Once the marriage is clearly on the rocks, we get Carole singing "It's Too Late, Baby," a stunningly simple but effective choice, and I, for one, was eating it up.
OK, now back to Jessie Mueller as Carole King. God, I love this woman. She makes me want to gush like one of my freshmen musical-theater majors. ("Oh...my...God! Have you seen Beautiful? Jessie Mueller is, like, totally fierce!") I've seen Jessie shore up productions that were unworthy of her prodigious talent (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and the Central Park Into the Woods). I've seen her take on the thankless task of replacing Kelli O'Hara in Nice Work If You Can Get It (Her costar, Matthew Broderick, wasn't doing her any favors, as a year into the run he was totally phoning it in.) And I've seen her disappear into an astonishingly sharp and vivid characterization as Helena Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. If the woman has a flaw, I have yet to discover it.
Mueller is ably abetted by her cast mates, including the wiry but sympathetic Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Anika Larsen as a spitfire Cynthia Weil, and the always adorable Jarrod Spector giving every last bit of nebbishy neurosis to Barry Mann.
Beautiful has so far been grossing around $750,000 a week, which is solid, especially since we're in the cold grey months of winter, during which Broadway shows all tend to feel an economic chill. I'm thinking that, given the boomer appeal, and a bit of warm weather, Broadway may very well have another hit on its hands. And, in this particular case, I'm just fine with that.