Playwight Douglas McGrath on writing ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’

When Paul Blake, the producer of Beautiful, asked me if I wanted to write a Broadway musical about Carole King, her ex-husband and lyricist, Gerry Goffin, and their fellow songwriters, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, there was something I had to know before I could commit.

“Are they all alive?” I asked.

“Good news,” Paul said.  “They are.”

Actually, that sounded like bad news. I had once worked on a screenplay about a real person whose vanity was so advanced that he would not let me portray him as anything less than thrillingly perfect.  But audiences aren’t interested in characters without flaws – even Achilles had that tendon trouble.

Paul kept after me, constantly telling me things that might entice me.  He reminded me that the songwriters had had their offices at 1650 Broadway, one of the two buildings people mean when they refer to the legendary Brill Building sound. (The Brill Building was down the street at 1619 Broadway.) These buildings had once been the province of the classic American songwriters of the Tin Pan Alley age and then in the 50’s became the place where kids came to create rock and roll.  Maybe there was something in that clash, the old being ousted by the new? Carole and Barry and Cynthia were coming to New York to interview book writers.  Paul said, “Come meet them. They’re a lot of fun.”

So I went and he was right, they were a lot of fun.  I was so at ease.  I told them my idea, and I could feel as I told it that it was right: a musical about kids chasing out the old guard so they could create the new sound of rock and roll.  Carole’s face lit up.  I knew I had nailed it.  She leaned forward to share her reaction.

“That,” she said, “is completely wrong!”

“What?” I said, almost losing my balance even though I was seated.

“We idolized Gershwin and Porter and Kern and Berlin,” she explained.  “We studied their music –“

Cynthia piped in, “I wanted to be Cole Porter.”

How surprising.  As teenagers they changed the sound of popular music but they were traditionalists at heart – rock and rollers but classicists, too.  Before the meeting, I had known only one thing about these songwriters: that they were talented.  But now I saw that they were something not all talented people are: they were interesting.

And I knew what kind of show I wanted to write: not a fictional creation like Mamma Mia which used an original story with the ABBA catalogue, but the true story of these incredible people and how some of the greatest songs of the last century were created.

To do this, I interviewed the songwriters, separately, for many hours over many days.  I asked them about everything in their lives – from birth on – because at the beginning I had no idea what the show would be.  If you see the show, it seems inevitable now that it starts with Carole on her way into Manhattan to sell her first song and that it ends at Carnegie Hall with her celebrated concert as a solo artist, but when you are looking at four lives and some 70 years worth of memories, to get to the inevitable, you have to weed out a lot of the evitable.

After the interviews, I stared at my giant notebook, packed with hundreds of pages of their stories. One feeling hovered above everything: a feeling of friendship.  These people had been friends for more than 50 years.  It’s one thing to be friends with old school chums but they were not school chums – they met as competitors in 1650 Broadway, vying for Don Kirshner’s attention, racing each other up and down the Billboard chart, fighting for the best artists to sing their songs. And it was not a casual competition – they once took a vacation together just to make sure the other couple wasn’t writing more than they were.  It was often fierce.

And yet.

They loved each other, these four great artists, and they respected each other.  They studied each other the way they studied Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.  That was an interesting, even classic dynamic – competitors who loved each other.  That sense of friendship pervaded even Carole and Gerry’s relationship, which started as a romance, moved into and then out of marriage, finally settling into a forgiving and affectionate friendship.

That sense of kindness infuses much of Carole’s music.  Many of her listeners feel she is their friend, a feeling I suspect they do not have about other singers they may adore.  They see themselves in her.  Her music is marked by forgiveness, compassion and warmth.  Even her breakup songs are tinged with understanding.  The show had to mirror that.

So I began to see the story – it would be about music and friendship and love.  There would be heartache in it, because the show is about life, but it would have hope in it, too.

Because their music is so good, I wanted to place the songs in a way that gave them their full emotional impact.  This was harder than it might seem.  You figure, if it’s a good song, it’ll be good wherever you put it.  But that is not the case. I would not write a scene and then plop a song into it.  I had to write the scene knowing which song it was going to be about.  If a song didn’t work, it was because the scene didn’t work, and I would rewrite it until the song felt as though it were written just for that scene.

Everything came out of the music, which is the greatest guide to the thinking and feelings of the tour songwriters.  The theme of the show itself comes from a song.  Early on, Carole says “You know what’s so funny about life? Sometimes it goes the way you want and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes when it doesn’t, you find something beautiful.”

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical plays the Aronoff Center May 2-14, 2017.  More information is available at BroadwayInCincinnati.com. 

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