Monday, August 29, 2016.
Adapting stage productions from novels and films has proved daunting for many a pressured writer. Compiling a Broadway musical from an iconic artist’s life and full body of work, however, is an entirely different beast.
Just ask Douglas McGrath, the playwright responsible for the Tony-award winning show “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”
“A lot of praying, a lot of weeping,” McGrath says with a chuckle when asked how he accomplished it.
For McGrath, the process of capturing the beloved singer/songwriter’s rise to fame and popular catalogue of work was no small feat. There were multiple duties to juggle, including identifying aspects of King’s life that would appeal to audiences, and choosing which of her dozens of hits – such as “One Fine Day,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “I Feel the Earth Move” – would fit into a cohesive storyline.
The greatest test: penning a story that would leave the subjects of the musical pleased.
That was first on McGrath’s mind when a producer asked if he would write the show not just about King, but also about her lyricist and former husband Gerry Goffin, as well as their best friends/fellow songwriting team, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.
“I asked, ‘Are they all still alive?’” McGrath recalls. “Writing someone’s life story, they remember everything so vividly and sharply. When you have to compress a life into two hours, it involves changes that can be hard for them to accept.”
In fact, adapting King’s and Goffin’s songs into a musical had been tried before, before McGrath’s involvement. That version had incorporated their songs into a fictional storyline, much like ABBA’s songs for “Mamma Mia.”
King and Goffin had taken one look at the script and rejected it, McGrath says, which was fine with him.
“I felt (“Beautiful”) should be some kind of biographical musical,” he says. “Because I loved their music so much, both sets of songwriters, I really wanted to know more about the people who created the music.”
He felt the best method was going straight to the source. He conducted marathon interview sessions with the songwriters that covered everything, from their childhoods to their thriving songwriting years together in the ‘60s and beyond.
“I didn’t know everything (about them) and didn’t know where the story should be,” he says. “I didn’t want to presuppose anything.”
King and Goffin were open to discussing everything, he notes, including their troubled marriage, their divorce and the difficult years to follow.
He quickly felt it was clear which years to highlight, starting with King venturing into New York at the fresh age of 16 to become a songwriter. At the time, she worked with Goffin, Weil and Mann in churning out the biggest hits of the era.
The playwright also wanted to depict King’s eventual parting with Goffin as a husband and collaborator, and how she overcame this difficult period to embrace herself as a performer in her own right.
McGrath believes this storyline can inspire both teenage and adult audience members who have experienced heartbreak.
“(King) loses everything at one point,” he says. “At the time it happens she thinks it’s all over, but not only was it not all over, but something greater was ahead of her. The show tells people, ‘Look at her. It does get better.’”
He chose to include songs that best conveyed what was happening in the songwriters’ lives, he adds. For instance, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” which King and Goffin had to write in a day under deadline, revealed an important and tender aspect of their relationship. “Beautiful” was also an obvious choice to include, he says, as it reflected the confidence King gained as a solo artist.
“I let the songs guide me in many ways,” he says. “Those gave me emotional clues to (the songwriters’) lives. I always wanted to write a musical that gave us the most emotional feeling from the songs.”
While critics and audiences have given rave reviews of the show, McGrath had to wait for King’s reaction. She initially resisted seeing the show because of its focus on years she still found painful, he says. Once she saw it, she only had one note – coaching the actress on the proper way to hit the piano keys.
McGrath has heard many positive reactions to the show, he says, including teenagers who have discovered and learned to love King’s music as a result.
He hopes they a learn something about themselves, too.
“It’s a great thing for generatinos to share an inspiring story and some of the world’s most infectious, wonderful music,” McGrath says. “It’s an uplifting show.”
“Beautiful” runs from September 20 through October 2. Tickets are available at: www.thesmithcenter.com/event/beautiful-carole-king-musical/.
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