Sooner or later, Broadway was going to set its sights on the Brill Building and the teenage tunes penned therein by legendary songwriting teams such as Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
After all, contemporary pop-chart competitors have already formed the basis for Jersey Boys (doing boffo box-office since 2005) and Motown: The Musical (a surprise smash since it opened last March).
Beautiful, which opened Sunday at the Stephen Sondheim theatre on Broadway, goes deeper into Brill Building than its subtitle – "The Carole King Musical" – suggests.
Certainly, its prime attraction is the marvellous Jessie Mueller, avoiding impersonation, but otherwise perfectly channeling the contradictions of King (neé Klein), as she goes from precocious 16-year-old tunesmith in the late fifties to singer/songwriter star with the release of her seminal album Tapestry in 1971. Jake Epstein, the Canadian talent who first rose to fame on Degrassi: The Next Generation, ably co-stars as her husband/lyricist Gerry Goffin with whom she wrote chart toppers like Some Kind of Wonderful and The Locomotion for artists like The Drifters and Little Eva.
But almost equal time is given to another couple working away in the cramped cubbyholes on Broadway cranking out tunes for teenagers under the whip of producer and manager Don Kirshner, aka The Man With the Golden Ear. That would be Weil (Anika Larsen) and Mann (Jarrod Spector, vocally and comedically pitch perfect), the professional and personal pairing that birthed On Broadway and You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling.
With a spotty script by Douglas McGrath, Beautiful often feels like an extended (and somewhat sanitized) episode of TV's Behind the Music. Much of the first act feels formulaic: Kirshner sets his songwriters against one another, we watch them at work, and then the well-known songs are performed – first by the white songwriters at a piano, then by the mostly black groups who made them famous, with much finger-snapping and shimmying.
It's fun, but, as great a song as Will You Love Me Tomorrow is, hearing it twice in a row slows proceedings down. Steve Sidewell's orchestrations try to create drama by flinging the songs up a key now and then – a pop trick unflatteringly known as a "truck driver's gear change."
Alongside this musicology lesson, Beautiful attempts to tell the story of King's trajectory from teen mom and wife through to emergence going solo in life, and in art. It's tricky to tell this story through these early songs because, if anything, the lyrics more accurately reflect Goffin's struggle with his guilt-laden desire for freedom in songs such as Up on the Roof and Chains ("My baby's got me locked up in chains"). Even hampered by hair styling that makes him look younger in the the second act than in the first, however, Epstein does a fine job of eliciting sympathy for a character who, in McGrath's quick brushstrokes, might seem only a cad. ("It's the year 1964," he says, exasperatedly to his wife, as he attempts to swap partners as the ways composers switched lyricists at the Brill Building.)
King, in this version of the story anyway, handles her husband's affairs and breakdowns with admirable restraint and understanding. This doesn't quite work as drama, though Mueller is such a scene stealer, so charming in her self-deprecation, that Beautiful never falls entirely flat.
Bacharach and David were perhaps the most successful pair to emerge from the Brill Building, but they don't even have a cameo in Beautiful. Their songbook is tied up further downtown at the New York Theatre Workshop, where Kyle Riabko – a shaggy-haired 26-year-old Saskatchewanian with a couple of rock musicals under his belt – is celebrating the pair's tunes in a seven-person show he devised called What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined. The Off-Broadway cabaret is already a hit, extended, with its eyes on an even longer commercial run.
The problem with jukebox musicals is that they start with the songs, then try to build a story around them. This tends to only work when the mode is documentary (Jersey Boys) or the plot is self-consciously silly (Mamma Mia!).
With What's It All About?, Riabko simply focuses on what audiences love: the music. He arranges tune like Don't Make Me Over, I'll Never Fall in Love Again and That's What Friends Are For (lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager) in styles he believes will appeal to his generation – Brill for the Millennials.
Bacharach's music was already reclaimed in the late 1990s – oddly enough, beginning with the composer's appearances in the Austin Powers movies, which set off a revival that walked the line between ironic and earnest appreciation. Riabko's own arrangements are entirely earnest and remove the excesses of orchestral pop, the strings and horns now deemed kitschy; he tries to find a similar sensibility with stripped-down instrumentation of a rock band. In practice, this simply replaces the easy-listening sentimentality of early era with the updated sugariness peddled by oh-so-sensitive, strumming songwriters like John Mayer or Jason Mraz (to pick two artists Riabko has opened for as a musician).
As a fan of cheese only when it has been sufficiently aged, I may not the right audience for this approach. What can't be denied is that Riabko has assembled a tremendous group of young musician-singers to share the stage with him; they execute these version with flair, dressed her as soft-edged bohemians who reminded me of the hairless hippies in Diane Paulus's revival of Hair (in which Riabko starred).
Director Steven Hoggett – the movement genius behind hits like Once – takes the concept to the next level with inspired staging ideas on a fantasy living-room set designed by Christine Jones (herself, incidentally, a Tony winner from Montreal). At one point, Riabko hugs castmate Laura Dreyfuss and plays a guitar on her back as he croons Makin' Love (a hit for Roberta Flack). Later, Dreyfuss – the show's sweetest interpreter of this music – sings Walk on By as she plays musical chairs with herself. A House is Not a Home, sung by Riabko, follows as a kind of response. Here's a show that doesn't to shoehorn songs into a structure they weren't designed for, but aims only for, in the words of an early Bacharach/David hit for Perry Como, magic moments – and finds them.