Although the critical reception for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical wasn’t exactly what you’d call ecstatic, the public has fairly well ignored the critical carping. Now so have the Tony nominators with seven nominations in hand, including Best Musical, Leading Actress in a Musical for Jessie Mueller’s star turn as the Brooklyn singer-songwriter, Featured Actor and Actress in a Musical for Jarod Spector and Anika Larson. There is even a nomination for Douglas McGrath’s book which had many critics tossing brickbats like “derivative” and “formulaic.” But it is really the music and the performance that the Tony Awards are honoring. As far as that is concerned the critics, except perhaps for a snarky comment or two from Ben Brantley, were very much in agreement.
Now, in time to make the most of the auspicious news, comes the original cast recording. The good thing, if you agree with the critics, is that you get all the wheat and none of the chaff. You get some of the finest pop music of the last half of the previous century. For some there will be the pleasure of a nostalgic look back on the days of their youth. For others there will simply be the pleasure of “One Fine Day,” pleasure enough for anyone.
Although the show concentrates on the songs of King, both in collaboration with her husband Gerry Goffin and her solo work with the material on her Tapestry album, it also includes songs from the friendly competitor team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.
Opening with “So Far Away,” as sung by King in her 1971 appearance at Carnegie Hall, the show goes back in time to the teenage girl with an ambition to write songs. After a medley of pop hits of the period—including snippets from “Splish Splash,” “Poison Ivy,” and “Stupid Cupid,” among others—sung by members of the ensemble, Mueller sings King’s first tune, “It Might as Well Rain Until September.” Mueller and Jake Epstein (as Goffin) have a duet introducing “Some Kind of Wonderful,” before it is taken over by members of the ensemble channeling The Drifters.
Anika Larsen introduces herself as Cynthia Weil with reworked lyrics to “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which appears to be the closest thing to something new on the album. Frankly, it doesn’t measure up to the older material. Whether we’re talking about tunes like “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” or even “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” these are the songs of youth in what seemed a much less complex lifetime.
It is not necessary to list all of the 25 tracks on the album, but certainly the show ends with some of the best: “You’ve Got a Friend,” “A Natural Woman,” “Beautiful,” and “I Feel the Earth Move.” There may be a favorite missing, but there is no question that the show’s creators have packed it with fine music performed with excellence.
Jessie Mueller is a star. Without trying to imitate King, she manages to capture her tone and spirit. Critics praised her work on stage, and you can hear why on the album.
The CD, due for street release May 13, includes a booklet with notes by McGrath, a synopsis of the book, lyrics for all the songs, and production photos.
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