“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opens at the Fox Theater on May 20, almost didn’t happen. The show, which chronicles the spectacular success of the legendary singer and songwriter during the 1950s and ’60s was conceived after her own book about her life was published in 2012.
Two previous attempts to tell her story on Broadway had gone nowhere and, according to the producer of the Broadway musical, Paul Blake, King had little interest in a third attempt.
“She was very much against any show about her life. She just didn’t want it. She’s a very private person and she just didn’t want it on the stage. She wrote a book and that’s it. The publishers who owned the songs she wrote felt there was a show there, and they wanted me to just go ahead and make the show. I said, ‘but, you know, she’s not in favor of it,’ but they said, ‘just go ahead.’”
Blake credits a strong storyline by Doug McGrath for much of the success of the show. In his narrative, McGrath weaves together 25 of King’s best known and highly infectious melodies. The production follows the young King — born Carol Joan Klein, to Jewish parents — who leaves her home in Brooklyn at the age of 16.
She goes off to Manhattan, determined, against her mother’s wishes, to be a successful songwriter. She meets a young lyricist with similar ambitions, Gerry Goffin, and they soon click romantically and professionally. Although they marry and have a family, their relationship is a troubled one.
In reality, Goffin and King were married in 1959 and wrote a string of hits, but his relentless womanizing, combined with his serious psychological problems and substance abuse issues, doomed the marriage.
In the mid-1960s, Goffin fathered a child with a member of one of the singing groups they wrote for, but it was not until 1968 that the couple ultimately divorced. Goffin and King reunited briefly in 1990 when both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In “Beautiful,” their relationship forms the backdrop to King’s early career, when she wrote a string of iconic tunes for a wide range of artists, from African American doo-wop groups to singers that made up the so-called British Invasion of the 1960s. Blake said King attended a run-through of the new show before it debuted, but left after watching only the first half.
“We thought when she left without saying anything that, well, we’re dead now. Another show about her that she’s going to turn down. It turned out she didn’t come back because, at the end of the first act, something very dramatic happens in her life and she didn’t want to sit there and relive it again.”
“Beautiful” eventually got King’s ok, and she even suggested the title, named after one of her more delicate melodies. It was a simple title and, as it turned out, a great way to characterize the way audiences around the world have described the show.
It ran for over 2,400 performances on Broadway and a London production played for over two years in the West End before touring the UK. There were successful performances in Australia and Japan, two Tony awards and a Grammy for best musical theater album. But the most important accolade came from the subject of the show herself.
King was a no-show on opening night and, because of the memories the show stirred in her, resisted going to see it for three months. Then, she finally showed up, alone and in disguise, wearing glasses and a wig and speaking to no one. The producer, Paul Blake, was there as well.
“She just fell in love with it. I mean, nobody knew she was there. But she went onstage at the end, and everyone went nuts. The cast started crying. We had a photographer there and when that went out in the world, it became a huge, huge hit. And she’s been a great ambassador for the show ever since.”
She even made peace with the scenes in the show that initially caused her so much personal discomfort. King, who has been married four times and divorced four times, has developed a certain perspective on her life during the years since “Beautiful” first debuted in 2014. Shortly before the show closed its five-year run on Broadway, she told Gayle King of CBS News that all of the personal drama recounted in “Beautiful” is, for her, now in the past.
“I have so much love in my life that I don’t need a man to have love in my life. I have love in my life for many men and many women, friends and family. And I now feel that I belong to the world and to myself and to what people refer to as how they understand God.”