Carole King had one bit of advice for actress Abby Mueller, who plays the singer in the first national tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical: “Have fun playing me.”
Mueller was touched and impressed.
“It’s a huge responsibility to play any person when you’re an actor. There’s an added layer when someone is still alive and can come see what you are doing,” she said recently while performing the role in Tampa. “She was so warm and welcoming, and I think I tried to focus on being as truthful and open as I can be and hope I’m doing her justice.”
Beautiful, which details the lives of New York husband-and-wife songwriting teams King and Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, opens Tuesday for a two-week run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. The musical’s first appearance in South Florida comes on the heels of Beautiful’s two Tony Awards for sound design and its original lead actress, Jessie Mueller — Abby’s younger sister.
With the support of her sister and King, whose second solo album Tapestry served as an inspiration, Mueller was ready for the road. There are few certainties in life, but here’s one: If you’re of a certain age, you or someone you knew — likely both — owned the Tapestry album, which featured three Goffin-King songs. (As a team, King composed the melodies while Goffin wrote the lyrics).
The intimate Tapestry, released in February 1971, is a musical rite-of-passage. The mostly acoustic album’s warm, honest and tuneful songs like It’s Too Late, So Far Away and Home Again are as comforting as a hug from mom and as educational as an advisory chat with your older sister before your first day of college.
Mueller and Liam Tobin, who plays Goffin, weren’t even born when Tapestry spent 15 weeks atop the Billboard album chart and earned Grammy’s Album of the Year award in 1972. Yet the album found its way into their hands and helped guide their performances.
“My mom had the Tapestry album like everyone else, so I knew a lot of the songs. I knew who she was,” said Canadian actor Tobin.
“I remember I had the Tapestry CD in the ’90s in high school,” said Chicago actress Mueller. “It’s so simple yet completely says what it needs to say. All of their songs are deceptively simple melodies but poetic lyrics. They’re so well-crafted but it never feels pushy or showy. It’s like your friends talking to you. That’s why she’s so relatable.”
Beautiful uses tunes like Tapestry’s It’s Too Late and earlier Goffin-King songs written for other artists to chronicle King’s life from the time she was a Brooklyn teen with a preternatural talent for composing melodies to her triumphant first solo performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall to promote Tapestry in 1971. Douglas McGrath’s book takes some liberties with the story, but the essence remains. King, a fledgling songwriter, meets Goffin at Queens College. She’s 17, he’s 20, when they marry in 1959.
The new parents quickly turn their union into fodder for pop songs. As staff songwriters with an office at Aldon Music at 1650 Broadway near Manhattan’s Brill Building, they are joined by other writers like Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond and friendly competitors Mann and Weil, who wrote You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling (with Phil Spector), On Broadway (with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller) and We Gotta Get Out of This Place.
The Goffin-King partnership pens more than 100 songs. The hits often became hits over and over as the songs were remade by different artists.
Among the most popular of the Goffin-King songs in Beautiful: Will You Love Me Tomorrow, a No. 1 hit for The Shirelles in January 1961; Some Kind of Wonderful (The Drifters, Michael Bublé); Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee); One Fine Day (The Chiffons); Up on the Roof (The Drifters, James Taylor); (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin).
The Loco-Motion, in particular, had serious legs. The bubbly tune became a No. 1 hit for King and Goffin’s babysitter Little Eva in 1962. The Loco-Motion went No. 1 again via a hard rock rendition by Grand Funk in 1974. Australian dance-pop singer Kylie Minogue took it to No. 3 in 1988.
Even the Beatles recorded the couple’s jaunty Chains for its British debut album, Please Please Me, in 1963. The Cookies, Little Eva’s backing singers, first made Chains a Top 20 hit in 1962.
The breadth and bravado of the songs gave Beautiful’s actors dramatic material to work with, often more substantive than what makes up the usual jukebox musical. The provocative Will You Love Me Tomorrow, for instance, is a song about teens contemplating sex, originally sung by young women. The norm in that era demanded that even married couples like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz could not be seen sharing a bed on their TV sitcom, I Love Lucy.
“What I found interesting and informative when trying to figure out how to play Gerry is that in his songs like Natural Woman and Will You Still Love Me he writes from a uniquely feminine experience. He was able to tap into that and understand on such an amazing level to write that,” Tobin said. “And then he’d go out and do exactly what those songs said. ‘Are you and I going to have sex, and you’ll leave and not even care?’ He’d make these bad decisions after writing about it. How can you do this if you understand it so well? I find this very intriguing in trying to approach this character.”
While the Goffin-King union was successful musically, the two divorced in 1968, four years after Goffin fathered a child with another woman who had recorded one of their tunes (I’m Into Something Good). Goffin, who died at 75 in 2014, also had a drug habit. In her 2012 autobiography, A Natural Woman: A Memoir, King revealed that Goffin suffered mental illness after taking LSD and was diagnosed manic depressive.
“Performing that breakdown is a challenge for me every night to get to that place and make that truthful,” Tobin said. “It can be so easy to give a glazed over or a false rendition of that. It’s very important for me to try to really be in tune with that feeling and what’s going on in his head.”
Mueller was most struck by King’s “resiliency and her ability to retain a sense of positivity despite the loss and hardship in her life,” she said. “That has been the most surprising and really the best take-home lesson for me as a person to get to kind of live in that person’s world. That has been valuable for me to remember.”
Director Mark Bruni helped the actors by showing them rare, private footage of Goffin and King working together. (Their daughter Sherry Goffin Kondor was an executive producer.) This exposure allowed the actors to tap into the peculiar shorthand Goffin and King shared at the piano in a cubicle while writing their tunes.
“Those are the ingredients to cook your stew,” Tobin said. “Gerry was not always able to get out what he means or say or do the right thing. He’s a very complex and complicated guy. I think it would be easy to fall into the trap of playing the villain, but that’s not very interesting nor accurate.”
Mueller, who has received raves from critics for her ability to mine the raw, not easily replicated, King voice and persona, had an even bigger challenge: how to play someone so familiar and do so after her sister won a Tony for playing the role.
The Muellers are an acting family. Mueller’s parents, as well as brothers Matt and Andrew, are also actors. They urged her to try out for the role of King for the touring production, which hit the road in September 2015.
Mueller, who has had roles in Kinky Boots, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon and the off-Broadway workshop for School of Rock, remembers Jessie auditioning for Beautiful in San Francisco where it opened pre-Broadway at the Curran Theatre in October 2013. Beautiful then opened at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway in January 2014.
“I got to see her final dress rehearsal, and the show has changed a great deal from that tryout and the opening in New York,” Mueller said. “I never would have thought I’d be here now and that it turned out the way it did. Such a huge honor and it’s awesome to bring this show and this music that people love so much.”
Have fun playing me.
Carole King’s advice to actress Abby Mueller who headlines the national tour of ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’
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If you go
What: ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ featuring songs by Gerry Goffin/Carole King and Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil
When: Opens 8 p.m. Tuesday; 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 6:30 p.m. Sunday; 2 p.m. matinee Saturday (and May 18) and 1 p.m. matinee Sunday; through May 22
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Information: 954-462-0222 or BrowardCenter.org