More than once during Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, the character of Gerry Goffin laments the restrictions of three-minute pop songs.
How much can you really say in such a short time, he asks, bemoaning the strictures of the radio format and how it robs artists of the ability to say anything meaningful.
The line provides insight into Goffin’s driven mind set, but also functions as a sly critique of jukebox musicals, one of Broadway’s most reliable genres. If you’re amassing previously written material into something new, how much fresh ground can really be covered?
As Beautiful proves over its 2 1/2 -hour run time, quite a lot.
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The songs Carole King authored with Goffin, together in New York’s iconic Brill Building and later, on her own, in the glow of Laurel Canyon out west, are given astonishing new dimensions in Beautiful, a glossy jukebox musical that nevertheless plumbs fascinating psychological depths and paints King as a trailblazer through several decades of pop music.
Abby Mueller stars as King, convincingly charting the evolution of her voice from wide-eyed teenager to resigned, wounded lover, while Liam Tobin ably conveys Goffin’s trajectory from confident, erudite lothario to raw, broken-down poet. (Mueller’s sister, Jessie, who currently stars in the Tony-nominated Waitress, originated the King role — and won a Tony for her work — on Broadway.)
The storm-tossed Goffin-King relationship is balanced by Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig), whose tentative, feisty pairing provides a bittersweet counterpoint.
The core of Beautiful, however — Douglas McGrath wrote the book, which features scads of Goffin-King and Mann-Weil classics — is the indelible songs, many popularized by artists like the Drifters, the Shirelles, Little Eva and the Righteous Brothers.
Most movingly, King’s own solo material takes on an added dimension, framed by her personal struggles and giving the creation and release of her solo breakthrough, Tapestry, an uplift it might otherwise lack. (The musical’s shattering emotional through line is using Will You Love Me Tomorrow as a recurrent theme for Goffin-King’s creative and romantic partnership.)
In a deft bit of showmanship, the stage undergoes blink-and-miss-it shifts to allow those performers a moment to render the songs before returning to the behind-the-scenes action — it’s a particularly effective device early on, when Neil Sedaka (John Michael Dias) appears on American Bandstand.
As a pocket history of pop music, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical sparkles, but the Tony-winning musical truly shines when it showcases the women and men behind the music, proving that even familiar songs can take on new meaning in the right hands.