Nine years ago, Douglas McGrath was asked to write “Beautiful,” the story of Carole King’s life. He’d written for stage, television and film before, but nothing quite like this.
He’d collaborated with Woody Allen on the Oscar-nominated “Bullets Over Broadway” screenplay, and wrote and directed feature films “Emma,” “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Infamous.” He directed “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” He still writes political humor columns for The New Yorker.
“Beautiful” was far different. For one thing, he would be choosing a handful of songs from a library of hundreds — an hour-and-a-half’s worth, or more than 20, it turns out — to be included in the show.
King and the other key cast members — her co-writer and ex-husband, Gerry Goffin, plus friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann — were all still alive. It would be a biographical musical of these four lives, over a period of 12 years — a snapshot in time, really, but one that spoke to and defined an entire generation.
He had an hour or so to tell the story around their songs, to make the connections between them. From start to finish, the process took five years.
“Beautiful” opened in 2014 on Broadway. It took home two Tony Awards in 2014 and a Grammy in 2015 for best musical theater album. The touring show opens its new season next week at Bass Hall in Fort Worth. I caught up with McGrath during his lunch break at his office in Manhattan to talk to him about his writing process for this show.
You grew up in Midland, Texas.
The Paris of the Plains. I can’t think of a more wonderful place to grow up. There’s a cliche about West Texas that it’s all about football, but that wasn’t true in Midland at all. Football was a big part of life there but not to the exclusion of other things. And there was genuine support for the arts — I went to my friends’ football games and they came to my plays.
Did you grow up listening to Carole King? Did you know about all of the songs that she and Gerry wrote?
I knew some of them but I didn’t know all of them. Growing up in Midland in those years, my sister, brother and I would play 45s, stacks of them, and we would read everything on the label, and funnily enough, for some reason, Goffin-King jumped out at me then, because I thought it sounded interesting … it sounded like coffin. And I noticed many times they had written a really good song.
Let’s talk about the evolution of the script. Where it started and where it ended up.
When I first met [King, Goffin, Weil and Mann], I told them about my idea for the show. The Brill Building on Broadway is where songwriters would go to sell their songs in the teens, 20s and 30s, and in the 1950s, Carol and Gerry, Cynthia and Barry, Neil Sedaka, and all these great writers were coming into the Brill building to sell the new sound of rock ’n’ roll. The premise was these new young kids coming in to chase out old guard. And Carole reached over and squeezed my hand and said, ‘Doug, that is so wrong. We loved the old guard. We loved George Gershwin, we loved Cole Porter.’ They didn’t reproduce those people, but their admiration explains why their music had melody, sophistication and complexity.
How did you begin the process of researching for this show?
I interviewed them for many hours, for many days. The tapes were turned into pages of transcripts, and I would have music on in the background, and I would look for connection between the emotional stories in the music and the emotion in the stories that they told me. It was a little like detective work. You’re looking for clues and links between events and poetic expressions of those events.
When I heard ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ I knew that Carole and Gerry’s marriage was falling apart. I also learned that Gerry had a troubled childhood and tough father that wasn’t supportive of what he wanted to do. He would go up on the roof and he would breathe. He didn’t feel the world was pushing down on him [there]. And they turned it into a charming and beautiful pop song, “Up on the Roof.”
When you sat down to write, did you know where you were going with it? Did you outline it first?
I didn’t know anything. I knew nothing. At the very beginning, to prove just how completely stupid I am, I thought we didn’t need to include the ‘Tapestry’ songs. Songs like “Up on the Roof,” and “Locomotion” were upbeat and easy to perform. I thought, let’s go up to “Tapestry,” and not do “Tapestry.” It’s contemplative.
Definitely not upbeat. But a window into her life at that time.
It’s a metaphor for her own life. Her marriage to Gerry fell apart and it couldn’t live up to his view of the marriage. And they stayed friends. One of the things I was struck by when I listened to [their] music, they had a lot of trouble in their marriage. She was 17 and he was 19 and possibly 20 when they met, and what’s interesting is she genuinely loved him and he genuinely loved her. It was just too early.
“He was a very handsome guy that a lot of girls liked. He was a successful songwriter, and it was hard for him to be faithful. So they separated. It was heartbreaking because I think he was the love of her life.
How did this heartbreak, this breakup, play itself out in her music, and why do you think these songs resonated with audiences back then — and still do today?
When you look at the songs on “Tapestry,” even in the breakup songs, I think this is a particular reason for her popularity; there is no anger. It’s all about forgiveness. You listen to “You’ve Got a Friend” or “It’s Too Late.” The relationship couldn’t work, but we both tried, it’s nobody’s fault. … Gerry kept trying to get it to work. He’d say “Take me back” . . . and “It’s too late” is a little bit of what she had to say. It’s too late.
So then what did you do with the story?
After coming to my senses and figuring out we had to put “Tapestry” into the show, it was kind of natural. She’s going to start out as a young songwriter and end up as a singer.
Once you knew the basic story structure, were there challenges in putting the biographies and songs together?
One of the hard things to figure out was we could not find a place for “You’ve Got a Friend,” and for some reason, “Natural Woman” wasn’t working. I always wrote the scene to the song.
In a lot of jukebox musicals, the music is just put in for maximum nostalgic effect. I wanted them to sing full songs because I thought the songs had integrity and I wanted them to have maximum emotional impact. I wanted the audience to see where the song was coming from.
“You’ve Got a Friend” is such a great song. Why was it tricky to position in the show?
The original idea was to put it at curtain call. But curtain calls are joyful and cheerful, and this song was like napalm sprayed over the audience. Then I tried it another way. Carole had a famous concert at Carnegie Hall, so we put it in there.
It didn’t work. So we took it out. That song is packed with emotion, and I wasn’t giving it a scene that exploited the emotion or led up to the emotion. So I wrote a scene that led up to that, and it stopped the show. It allowed the audience to appreciate it.
What was the scene that you added that worked so well with the song?
When she decides she’s going to record her second album, before she moves to California, she comes to (producer) Donny Kershner’s office and she comes to say goodbye to him, and Barry, and Cynthia. They’ve stood by her breakup with Gerry. She essentially says, “I can’t say goodbye to you and I can’t leave without saying goodbye,” and she goes to the piano and sings that song. People have a strong reaction to that song and it’s a deeply moving moment.
“Beautiful” is opening Sept. 23 in Australia and I can either fly through Los Angeles or through Dallas. My sister lives in Dallas, so I’ll go through Texas and stop and see her.
What will you do when you’re in the Dallas/Fort Worth area?
I love museums, and go to them all the time, and the Kimbell is one of the top two or three museums in the world. Louis Kahn’s designs with all those windows and air. There’s nothing like it.
Five things you may not know about Carole King
1. Carole King, nee Carol Klein, started writing songs as a teenager at James Madison High School, and made demo records with her friend Paul Simon.
2. She met Gerry Goffin at Queens College, and he became her songwriting partner before they got married. Their hits included:
“Take Good Care of My Baby,” written for Bobby Vee; “Chains” covered by the Beatles; “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” for the Monkees; “The Loco-Motion,” for Little Eva; and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin.
3. She collaborated with James Taylor on “You’ve Got a Friend.”
4. Her 1971 solo album, “Tapestry,” was No. 1 on the Billboard charts for 15 weeks and remained on the list for more than six years.
5. She’s a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
- Broadway at the Bass series
- Tuesday-Sept. 17
- Bass Hall, Fort Worth
- 817-212-4280; www.basshall.com
King’s fellow writers take a look back
“We were all signed to Aldon music and we were best friends and fierce competitors — and you’ll see that in the show,” says Cynthia Weil, who wrote songs with her partner (now husband) Barry Mann at the same time Carole King and Gerry Goffin did.
“We were all writing for the same singers, and if they got the record, we were jealous and angry,” Weil said. “We were both very competitive, yet we really love each other, and to this day, we’re friends. We’re like family.”
Both songwriting teams wrote similar types of songs. Weil and Mann wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ”; Goffin-King wrote “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” They both wrote songs for the Monkees, the Animals, and the Drifters. “We’re both very melodic, but the slight difference was Carole had a bit of R&B in her melodies,” Mann says. “We were both raised on melodic show songs and pop songs.”
Wel and Mann, married since 1961, say that the strength of the show is twofold. “The show’s message — a woman finding her voice after everything she goes through and emerging victorious,” Weil says, “and the songs are definitely a part of why it’s a hit.”
“You walk out after the show and you just feel good,” Mann adds.