The other side of ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’

i Carnegie Hall 2
Sara Sheperd stars as Carole King.
Joan Marcus

Some people already know the story behind ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.’

A 16-year-old girl and aspiring Brooklyn songwriter wants to go into showbiz at the end of the 1950s against the wishes of her mother. Maternal wishes be damned, the young girl sells her first song to a bourgeoning music publisher, meets someone equally-as-young, easy-on-the-eyes, they collaborate, fall in love and get married. They write some of pop and R&Bs most enduring standards of the 1960s. They break up. The 1970s happen. The girl-becomes-a-woman, alone, writes and releases ‘Tapestry’, sells over 25 million copies, all but starts the singer-songwriter movement, enters the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the show ends, and everyone goes home happy.

The people who go in-and-out of King’s life are well-known. The publisher was Don Kirshner. The lyricist-turned-husband-turned-ex-husband was Gerry Goffin. Some of the artists who zig-zagged through the life and work of King include Aretha Franklin, The Monkees, The Drifters and James Taylor.

The secondary (but just as sharp) focus of ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’—now on stage at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Academy of Music—spotlights another equally crucial musical marriage: that of fellow songwriters, best friends and occasional rivals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Portrayed on this current tour, respectively, by Sara King and Ryan Farnsworth, this acting-singing pair know well the historical importance of the roles they play. “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” by The Crystals, “On Broadway” by The Drifters, “Walking in The Rain” by The Ronettes, “We Gotta Get out of This Place” by The Animals, and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” from The Righteous Brothers are but a few of the smash hit tunes written and-or co-written by the married Mann and Weil.

Calling from a ‘Beautiful’ tour stop in Wilmington, North Carolina, King and Farnsworth have been going non-stop as Weil and Mann since right before Thanksgiving 2021.

“Compared to Broadway’s struggles with Omicron – and our hearts go out to everyone on the stages of New York, our friends who have had to bear early closings and cancellations – we have been fine. Knock on every bit of wood,” says King.

With other famous musical shows as part of their resume (Farnsworth and Memphis, King and Rent), ‘Beautiful’ stands out, particularly for King as she originated the “Marilyn Wald” role during its initial Broadway run in 2014, as well as playing Weill later during its tenure on the Great White Way.

“It is a crazy, full circle thing, having someone new emulate what I did then, and having me emulate what the original “Cynthia,” did, and everyone making it their own in the present,” says King. “I saw this show being born, songs going in and out, and now – after several years away – I have a better eye for this character. Cynthia is a spunky, grounded firecracker. Having a few years under my belt is giving me another layer of life to the role.”

Farnsworth too has been with ‘Beautiful’ on tours of the past as a swing, playing multiple roles, before getting to the hot shot role of Barry Mann.

“I got a deep appreciation for the entire story and the diversity of its charters and all of the music through those tours,” says Farnsworth. “All that made me a better Barry.”

For my money, though ‘Beautiful’ is named for King, it is Mann and Weill who drive the engine, present a counterpoint and complete the circle as characters, foils, marrieds and songwriters.

“Barry is an incredibly competitive, passionate, even slightly eccentric individual,” says Farnsworth of his charge. “Barry cares deeply about what he’s doing and loves his music, his wife, Carole and Gerry. That’s mirrored in how excited he is all the time – he wants to be successful, monetarily and aesthetically. He gives it 100% all the time, so I give 100 % all the time.”

The same percentage points is true for King of Weill, who comes on equally strong in ‘Beautiful’, with firecracker energy to spare. “Cynthia’s un-apologetically who she is – she’s a brilliant lyricist and the mash-up she made with her husband Barry is magnificent.”

With that, Carole King’s songs are classic – the centerpiece of ‘Beautiful’, and the reason this musical exists. But pay attention to the work of Weill and Mann, too, and your head will never stop spinning, and your soul ringing.

‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ is on stage at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Academy of Music now through Feb. 27. 

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