“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” opens Tuesday, Jan. 24 and runs through Jan. 29 at the Hippodrome Theatre. (Courtesy video)
Back in an era that now feels so far away, every college dorm room seemed to have a well-used LP of Carole King's "Tapestry." That 1971 album, made in Los Angeles by the Brooklyn-born singer/songwriter, quickly expanded its reach far beyond the campus crowd, selling more than 25 million copies and held onto the Billboard charts for 313 weeks.
Although the explosive success of "Tapestry," containing such gems as "It's Too Late" and "You've Got a Friend," brought household-name status to King, she was no newcomer. Her pivotal early years provide the focus for "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," the hit Broadway show that reaches Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre this week.
"People think Carole's story begins on the West Coast with 'Tapestry.' That's where our story ends," says Julia Knitel, who portrays King in the national touring production.
In standard jukebox musical fashion, "Beautiful" threads lots of greatest hits through the plot.
We are introduced to a shy 16-year-old King, who dares to venture into Manhattan and sell a song. She succeeds. King's talent, mixed with self-doubt and charm, attract the attention of Gerry Goffin, who becomes her lyricist and her partner. The two churn out dozens of songs, among them "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," for other artists to perform.
Darker turns of events — a marriage to the volatile Goffin in 1959 that ends painfully nine years later — provide the show an opportunity to fill in more details about King's personality and stamina.
And throughout "Beautiful," there's a parallel couple of native New Yorkers who write great songs — Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (they wed in 1961 and stayed married). Although not otherwise personally involved with the musical, Mann and Weil share in the words-and-music credits.
"The original idea was to have a musical about the four of us and our relationship of love and competition," Weil says. "When they did a reading of the show, [people in the audience] asked, 'But what happened to 'Tapestry'? Suddenly, the focus changed, as it should have. And we became supporting characters, which is how it should be. This is how 'Beautiful' was meant to be."
There's still room, though, in the musical for reminders of the substantial musical legacy Mann and Weil created (collaborating, in some cases, with Phil Spector and others), including "On Broadway," "Walking in the Rain" and, of course, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."
Before writing the book for "Beautiful," Douglas McGrath "spent time with us," Mann says, "and I think he captured us." Adds Weil, with a well-honed deadpan: "We left it up to him to [create our characters], but if Barry had been turned into a pedophile, we would have objected."
Mann and Weill, now in their mid-70s, were in New York for the Broadway opening two years ago.
"I was a Broadway kid," Weil says, "so it was a thrill beyond words, a thrill to be portrayed on the stage."
They witnessed first-hand King's struggles with Goffin, who was unfaithful and troubled by mental health issues (he died in 2014 at 75).
"We were friendlier with Carole than Gerry," Mann says. "It was a little harder with Gerry. He did have problems his whole life." Adds Weil: "When he called, you never knew who would be on the other end."
After King decided to move to California, she began writing her own words to her songs, and reluctantly started on a new career as a performer.
"This show takes you through all of that," Weil says. "When Carole and Gerry split up, that's when she really found her voice [as a person] and as a recording artist. That accounts for everything. Carole always could make lemonade out of lemons."
The lemonade of "Tapestry" impressed Mann and Weil as much as everyone else.
"Who knew the kid could write lyrics?" Weil says.
"One time when she came back from L.A to visit, she called us to ask us to come over," Mann says. "When we got there, she sang 'You've Got a Friend.' We were blown away."
(King was not made available by the show's publicists for an interview.)
"Beautiful" requires a lead actor capable of conjuring a persuasive portrayal, musically and theatrically, of the young King. In the current touring production, that responsibility falls on 23-year-old Knitel, who was an understudy for the role on Broadway.
"My parents have incredible taste, so I grew up on Carole King, James Taylor, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon," Knitel says. "I had [King's] songs in my vocabulary long before this show came into my life. We have a smart creative team that understands you will not get the same performance from every girl doing this role, or the same reaction from every audience. It's about coloring yourself as Carole. There still is as much of me as there can be in the show."
King's distinctively earthy singing voice presents a challenge of its own.
"I listen to her as much as I can and let her essence sink in," Knitel says.
Then there's the instrumental side of things — King is known for accompanying herself at the piano. Knitel does some of that in "Beautiful."
"There is a little bit of theater magic involved, but I won't ruin it for Baltimore audiences," she says.
For Knitel, the appeal of King's music is personal.
"It's so timeless," the actor says. "It has this quality that anyone can listen to it and feel, 'I know exactly what she's saying.' As I've grown as a woman, these songs speak to me differently. In San Francisco [on the tour], when I sang 'So Far Away,' I really got it in a different way because I had never been so far away — I grew up in New Jersey and went to school in Manhattan. That was so cool."
The story of King's life also strikes a chord with Knitel.
"Carole kind of forged the path that makes it OK for me to put my career first at 23," she says. "She didn't care about any obstacle. She would just walk through it and knock it down. Audiences feel that in this musical."
The 74-year-old King caught Knitel's performance when the tour recently played Boise, Idaho (King has long spent part of the year in that state).
"She really seemed to love it," Knitel says. "Seeing her was pretty surreal. She is a living legend, and you feel it dripping off of her, yet she's the most humble person you can imagine."
"She is very open and so unpretentious," he says. His wife has the last word: "Carole really is a natural woman."