Pop Origami

| 17 Feb 2015 | 05:07

Doug McGrath Reimagines Broadway's Jukebox Musical

One of the best aspects of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (at the Stephen Sondheim Theater) is seeing book writer Doug McGrath's origami treatment of American pop music history. McGrath, who has directed the excellent films Infamous and Nicholas Nickleby) starts with bio-pic basics about singer-songwriter Carole King's life in the 1960s. (Prodigy Carole Klein from Queens, N.Y., began writing and selling songs at age 16.)

There are at least five sides to Beautiful's story: King's rise among songwriting peers; the turning point when early rock-n-roll shifted from an interpretive performer's medium to a musician-composer-singer's art form; the social confluence of ethnic, racial, feminist consciousness; the expansion/explosion of the entertainment styles; and the launch of King's solo career with the success of her semi-autobiographical 1970 album Tapestry that brought female singer-songwriters to national prominence.

McGrath unfolds these sides through clever dramatic placement of emblematic songs that, under Marc Bruni's brisk direction, transforms oldies nostalgia into something more. King's songs (co-written with Gerry Goffin, alongside compositions by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann) come across as more than a series of greatest hits and also as reflections of the writers' personal lives. "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" is enriched when presented as Goffin's masculine lyrical view of his seduction of King yet sung publically as a girl's confession of romantic bliss and insecurity.

Through such complexity-and originality--McGrath captures that special thrill when a musical's songs artfully express its characters' feelings, but he also looks back with sociological hindsight at rock-n-roll's cross-gender innovation-the emotional richness that made those records produced for teenagers ("a girl singing girl's songs" as Don Kirshner says) yet expresses the deepest feelings of men and women around the world. When reprised, some of the songs turn into showbiz simplicity. Bruni's staging recalls the sparkle of other jukebox musicals, an enjoyable if superficial quality even when a bit anachronistic: Josh Prince's choreography turns East Coast R&B groups The Shirelles and The Drifters (both the epitome of mid-century Negro social advancement) into the stylized, quicksilver toughness of Motown's later, differently energetic acts). This never offends because it is all in the spirit of cultural transformation that Beautiful prances through. This ungritty show doesn't cover King's personal rollercoaster travails as described in her autobiography A Natural Woman or Sheila Weller's Girls Like Us. But the feeling for pop-music history and what it says about the emotional life of American youth who embarked upon the songwriting tradition of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway and made it their own is something better than a spinoff of Glee or a 21st century version of vaudeville.

McGrath understands the way King, Goffin, Weil and Mann (among other pop composers of their era) articulated intimate experience with sharp observation ("On Broadway," "Walking in the Rain," "Pleasant Valley Sunday") in fresh idioms that became universal. There have been many shows about this pop revolution-from Leader of the Pack: The Songs of Ellie Greenwich to Jersey Boys, An Evening with Janis Joplin and Motown: The Musical-and given the range of Beautiful's score, it isn't merely the Carole King story, even when it resorts to backstage cliches. Still, it makes entertaining an aspect of our cultural history usually better served by journalism (as in Janet Maslin's classic essay on the Singer-Songwriter phenomenon in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll) or that might otherwise be as dry and predictable as a PBS documentary.

The performers do right by the songs: the early Ensemble medley "It Might as Well Rain Until September" is rousingly harmonized and Jake Epstein, Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector respectively turn Goffin, Weil and Mann into pop-group combos. As King, Jessie Mueller gets the uncanny plaintive vocal quality of the Tapestry years and conveys the modest, girlish, non-star quality that King maintained even while writing songs that conquered the world.

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