Two-time Tony Award-winning bio-musical Beautiful, based on the early life and career of singer-songwriter Carole King, received its West End premiere at the Aldwych Theatre last night. What did the critics and other press say about the show, leading lady Katie Brayben and King’s own emotional curtain call? All here – plus my own thoughts…
My childhood is littered with family road trips that clocked up miles to an eight-track soundscape. I grew up listening to the likes of John Denver, Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel and James Taylor – so much James Taylor – and without knowing it Carole King. Taylor’s 1971 version of King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”, a Number One hit, was my go-to song on myriad occasions.
One of the greatest delights when watching Beautiful at the Aldwych Theatre was not just hearing so many great songs from my youth again – but hearing how differently they sound from initial conception to finished interpretation by the artists, such as Taylor, who first made them famous.
In the 1960s, composer King and her lyricist-husband-writing partner Gerry Goffin created hit after hit for The Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”) The Drifters (“Some Kind of Wonderful”, “Up on the Roof”), The Chiffons (“One Fine Day”), The Monkees (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”) and even their babysitter Little Eva (“The Loco-motion”).
In Beautiful, the answer here to the oft-asked question “what comes first, the words or the music?” is sometimes one, sometimes the other
In Beautiful, we get a sneak peek into the creative process between composer and lyricist (the answer here to the oft-asked question “what comes first, the words or the music?” is sometimes one, sometimes the other) and it’s thrilling hearing the first stabs at these songs followed by full-throated and slickly choreographed performances by Beautiful’s bigger-than-life ensemble.
The show’s sub-title, “The Carole King Musical”, is a bit of a misnomer, and slightly disrespectful to the other artists portrayed. King wasn’t working in isolation, and owes much to the troubled Goffin (sympathetically played by Alan Morrissey) as well as friends and rival writing team, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (the spirited Lorna Want and Ian McIntosh), whose own hits – also in the show – include “On Broadway” (The Drifters again), “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (The Righteous Brothers) and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (The Animals).
At the centre of it all, despite some questionable early fashion choices and very dodgy wigs, is Katie Brayben, giving a barn-storming performance as Carole King herself
Incidentally, while King went on to record her own songs, and accumulate Grammys in the process, Goffin, who passed away last June, didn’t exactly slip away into oblivion after their divorce in 1968. With other writing partners after King, including notably Michael Masser, he wrote such classics as “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” (for Diana Ross), “Saving All My Love for You” (Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr), and “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love” (Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson).
So much great music to celebrate. And, at the centre of it all in Beautiful, despite some questionable early fashion choices and very dodgy wigs, is London-native Katie Brayben, giving a barn-storming performance as Carole King herself. As the show culminates in King’s California-bound, post-divorce creative blossoming, we get Brayben finding her confidence, claiming her voice and belting out King solo hits “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “It’s Too Late” and – yes, thank you – “You’ve Got a Friend”.
That really is Some Kind of Wonderful.