At the time of this writing it’s been about a week since I saw Beautiful (it’ll be closer to a month when it’s published) and I have just only in the last couple days gotten “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” out of my head (although that may change when I listen to it yet again). However, traditionally for jukebox musicals the music isn’t usually the issue among audiences. It’s the book. However, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me step back a bit and tell why I even went to see Beautiful here and what I expected.
The only reason I went to see Beautiful is because it was a part of my season’s tickets here. And going in I expected it to be the low point of the season. I’m not a huge fan of Carole King’s music when it comes on the radio. Despite this I did enjoy parts of the cast album but obviously the National Tour didn’t have Jessie Mueller so even that I was skeptical on. And then there was the fact that it’s a jukebox musical. And anyone who’s been in ATB or any musical theatre forum knows the reputation that jukebox musicals tend to have. No book. So, while I was going to go because I had the tickets, I honestly wasn’t expecting much.
First of all, my sincerest apologies to Sarah Bockel for thinking this show needed Jessie Mueller singing the songs and otherwise being skeptical because the music isn’t my taste otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, Jessie is a fantastic talent but Sarah Bockel as Carole absolutely killed it. She gave one of the best performances from an actor or actress I’ve seen live everything she did was absolutely flawless. Also, Ben Biggers was on as an understudy for Gerry. You couldn’t tell the difference. He was amazing.
Now let’s get into the actual story. The very first moment that stands out to me is when Carole goes to sell her song. There is a brilliant 4th wall break. She hesitates and when asked what’s wrong she goes “I just didn’t expect there to be so many people.” How Carole sells her first song to Donnie- who would be her eventual boss- is intriguing and the “1650 Broadway Medley” when she first steps into the office shows us what kind of sound is popular at the time. It’s fun, and is good exposition to set the time frame, it also brings out some songs that even the oldest and grumpiest of Broadway fans may have forgotten about. There was some trippy stuff that was popular (“Splish Splash I was Taking a bath” anyone?). Anyways, getting back to Carole her meeting of Gerry and the start of their career together flows seamlessly. From Carole getting pregnant, to Gerry asking her to marry him. These moments lead to an incredibly deep performance of “Some Kind of Wonderful.” The song works incredibly well and is beautiful and perfect for this moment in the show. It also goes on to be given to the Drifters.
Also, it’s worth noting that while throughout the show he isn’t one of the main characters that gets the focus; Donnie is also a great character. The way he’s presented as the tough boss that no one can get to but then just as quickly will also display a soft side to his song writers is also a very good transition and building of a character. He’s tough and wants to be profitable. However, multiple times we see this exterior break and we see just how much he has cares for his song writers. On multiple occasions we see him as dining or conversing with Carole and her friends socially as well as professionally. And eventually when Carole moves, he 100% supports her and connects her to produce Lou Adler to record her solo album.
Possibly one of the most touching moments of the show comes next when Gerry writes “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” this is a tender and beautiful moment and Carole seeing it and singing it is amazing. As it so happens this is around the same time we meet Berry Mann and Cynthia Wilde who are competing with Gerry and Carole for a big opportunity for a song to be sung by the Shirrelles. While Donnie loved both songs “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is the song that Carole and Gerry which got picked by Donnie. What follows after this is a brilliant blend of song and book writing by Douglas McGrath. Carole and Gerry are presented as going head to head with Cynthia and Berry as one writing pair writes a song, gets it produced and the other tries to match them. This is almost presented like some sort of boxing match with music. It’s flawlessly executed. Something like this runs the risk of being too repetitive however, Douglas’ book writing prevents that and shows these two pairs cranking out hit after hit in an effective manner. The other thing that comes out that as fierce rivals and competitors that they are to each other they are also becoming good friends. The show focusses on the song writing, yet we see both pairs humanity coming through equally as much. The exposition in this book is brilliant.
At the end of the second act we see that Gerry is cheating. The second act opens with “Chains” which again is amazing placement of this song given how Gerry is fooling around and playing Carole.
Shortly after he reveals he’s been cheating Gerry has a massive breakdown. He is hospitalized and says he wants to come home. However, it isn’t soon after this that he is revealed to have been cheating again and Carole finally leaves him for good.
Gerry is just a phenomenal character in this show. Not in a morale sense, obviously cheating in a marriage or relationship is not okay. However, I like the writing in that Gerry doesn’t cheat for seemingly no reason. There is clearly something ticking about him and he is most likely mentally ill and what he is experiencing is the result of some sort of inner turmoil. Possibly mania, but regardless it’s clear he’s suffering. When I saw the show, my heart can’t help but hurt for him a little bit. There is no excusing his actions let me make that perfectly clear; however, Gerry appears to have been mentally ill in a time when we knew very little about what being mentally ill meant. He had moments when he wanted to be there for Carole and his daughter, he had moments when he tried, but unfortunately, he went down the wrong path and hurt a lot of people. As we see later in the show, he had a lot of regrets.
Going back to Carole, the other moment I love in this instance is Carole’s mother when Carole tells her it’s over. Throughout the show Carole’s mother is presented as a hard ass who doesn’t at all care about her past or her husband. She’s over him and doesn’t think of him and is harsh towards Carole whenever he is mentioned. However, when Carole tells her, we see the true hurt that her mother has also been masking for years now. Not a day passes when she doesn’t hurt for her lost marriage and lover, and she reveals to Carole just how much hurt is there. Not only does she disclose her hurt to Carole, but she then reminds Carole how much she has done in her career. As Carole was thinking all her song writing and music had been done with Gerry and that she needed him. However, her mother reminded her how young she was when she sold her first song, she shows her that she can carry on without Gerry. In this instance we see who Carole’s mother really is and how strong she has been. She goes from being a necessary but not a large role, to being the parent that Carole once again really needed. In a sense it’s a character reveal how tender and loving she comes across to Carole in this instance as opposed to just being the well-meaning but harsh mother. It’s an incredible flip that is so well written.
From here we see Carole meet Barry and Cynthia in a bar. Barry and Cynthia convince her to sing and she sings what was then a new song “It’s Too Late” this is another brilliant song placement and weaving the already existing song into the score. It reveals the pain that Carole has felt and how she’s trying to move on.
From here we see Carole reveal she’s moving to LA to get a fresh start. Not only is she moving to LA but she tells Donnie she has some songs she wants someone to record and that someone she thinks should be herself. Donnie hugs her and thinks it would be a fantastic idea. She then says goodbye to Donnie, Berry, and Cynthia to start out in LA.
Carole records her album Tapestry and is on the last song. She doesn’t want to record it because it’s one of the songs she wrote with Gerry. Lou Adler convinces her to sing the song because despite all the pain she’s been through which is prominent in a lot of her songs people also need to be reminded of the hope and happiness there can be in love as well. Thus “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” is recorded.
This is yet another fantastic song placement. It would have been easy to place this song towards the beginning of the show when Gerry and Carole are falling in love. But instead it gets placed at the end, which would be the least logical place in the story for such a song. However, after so much hurt, and so much pain, it flips that hurt on its head as a subtle but powerful reminder that even in the darkest times there is hope. The album and Carole go on to win many awards
Finally, Carole is about to play on Radio City, we see Gerry appear backstage. He comes to make amends and apologize for everything. For reasons I discussed earlier about Gerry I like how he’s presented here and how friendly this exchange is without excusing everything Gerry did.
In short, this show was fantastic. I think the reason it worked so well is that Carole wrote a lot of these songs to tell her story. And the writers recognized that and Douglas Mcgrath wrote a near flawless book to weave Carole’s story together with her own songs. From Carole’s own heartbreak and triumph, to her and Gerry’s competition and friendship with both Barry and Cynthia, to her starting over. This show flows near flawlessly and there are no moments where the music takes over to stop the story. The book and the score work together, with neither one taking over or fading away for the sake of the other. It’s a fantastic book and it has 100% deserved to do as well as it has done.