Douglas McGrath, Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil
Theatre Royal Bath Productions, Mayflower Theatre, Curve Leicester
Palace Theatre Manchester
October 11-15; 2hr 30min
(also at Blackpool Grand Theatre October 18-22; Liverpool Empire November 15-19)
There is much to be celebrated about this joyous show, which tells the story of Carole King’s early career
from the late 1950s to the early 1970s in the New York hit factory, Broadway's Brill Building, working under producer Donnie Kirshner.
King’s prodigious childhood with her single mother, Genie, is swiftly skipped over, but Carole’s enormous
intellect and talent is acknowledged, as are her knowledge of, but resistance to, the classics, her drive to be where the action is, and to write music. We also get a sense of her homeliness, resistance to the
spotlight, and insecurity about lyric writing. Carole’s story is told selectively, and it’s worth noting the show is not shaped by King herself.
Having established her talent, good nature and drive, she falls pregnant as a late teen by her lyricist
partner, Gerry Goffin, promptly marries him and continues to create a string of hits with him,
despite his mental health issues and various infidelities. Carole continues to write, continues to parent,
and continues to forgive – until such time as she has had enough, and moves herself and her daughters to Los Angeles (in 1968), creates her acclaimed album Tapestry, wins a string of awards, and performs an iconic solo concert back in New York’s Carnegie Hall (1971), which is where our story ends.
King’s real life story is necessarily reduced, excerpted and accelerated, but this is really a show about
music, set against a sanitised picture of the last bastion of the Tin Pan Alley songwriting tradition in the
Like so many other shows it hints at important social moments and processes, perhaps too
subtly, but it does give us a sense of the world in which these songs were created, the struggles of the
protagonists (segregation, gender roles) while putting music in the foreground – including orchestration, performance, and industry.
There are some wonderful moments. At the piano, Carole pitches an early number It Might as Well Rain Until September to Kirshner, describing the orchestration as she sings the raw version. Magically on stage the instruments enter as she announces them. Such theatrical depictions of the songwriting process are a true lift to the narrative.
Similarly in this reimagined version of King’s world, created by actor-musicians on stage (there is no pit orchestra), we are invited into an alternative reality where her friends and family make up an ad-hoc on-stage horn section whenever required, with lyricist Cynthia Weil on muted trumpet and Carole’s
mum on sax. In Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, we get the angst of slow vocals and piano in the song’s
imagined construction, before the layers are added for full scale performance.
Rival songwriting couple Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann introduce their own groovy 1960s classics, such as On Broadway, with the sparkling Drifters showing the song off in its performance-enhanced form.
The finale is slightly off-centre, in that Carole’s performance of Natural Woman seems to be the
ultimate achievement and musical moment. And yet what should be the Act II finisher is followed by the
title song Beautiful (frankly not as memorable, or good), then a post-bow encore I Feel the Earth Move –
it's a good’un, but not a clincher.
Billing in the programme is alphabetical, which acknowledges the contribution of all the actor-musicians
on stage for this true ensemble piece, so it bears a mention that Molly-Grace Cutler has incredible skill
and star quality as a very convincing Carole King as actor, pianist and singer (with guitar skills in the mix too).
Perhaps the couples lack chemistry, the story lacks nuance, and most importantly the social struggles of
women in the workplace, and the racial tensions of showbiz in the 1960s, are way underplayed.
But the songs are central, epic and incredibly performed by an awesome musical cast.
Dramatically it's simple. Musically, it really is some kind of wonderful.
More info and tickets here