Admittedly, when I first heard about Beautiful: The Carole King Musical I wasn't thrilled. As an avid theatergoer and fan of the medium, the jukebox musical that has seemingly taken over the genre of "new" musical is growing long in the tooth, and I can't help but wonder who still wants to see these things. Regardless of my personal feelings on the jukebox musical, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical has garnered seven Tony Award nominations, six Drama Desk Award nominations, strong reviews, and it has found Broadway patrons that adore it. The positive fervor surrounding the show made it a hot property for Ghostlight Records to record; however, as I imagine the show does, I simply feel that Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording) rests too heavily on the sense of nostalgia that these various hit songs generate.
Beautiful tells the true story of Carole King's rise to stardom. The show opens in 1971 with King on the stage at Carnegie Hall singing "So Far Away." Going back in time, the show follows King's long road to pop stardom from selling her first song to releasing her hit album Tapestry. Along the way she meets, marries, and eventually divorces lyricist Gerry Coffin. For the finale, the show comes full circle and closes with King's concert at Carnegie Hall.
As the eponymous titular character, Jessie Mueller is the star of the show and album. Like the title suggests, her voice is beautiful and she offers dynamic renditions of the hit parade favorites present on the disc. Taking on "So Far Away," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Beautiful," "I Feel the Earth Move," and others, Broadway veteran Mueller sweetly sings each number with tangible emotions. Listening to the album, audiences will get a sense of the emotional scope of the production, as she performs some songs with a cheerful lightness and others with the dulcet tones of weighty heartache.
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The show's supporting cast (Jake Epstein's Coffin, Anika Larsen's Cynthia Weil, and Jarrod Spector's Barry Mann) give strong vocal performances as well. Songs like Spector's and Larsen's take on "Walking in the Rain" are standouts on the album.
Yet, none of the performances truly stick with you after hearing the recording. It's not because they aren't technically well sung, and it's not because the songs aren't good. In fact, the whole score is made of tried and true pop favorites. The problem is that, like the overall premise of the musical, the songs and their re-tooled arrangements for the Broadway stage aren't terribly interesting.
As the record spins, I found myself reminiscing about all the other places these iconic tunes have sprung up in various forms of pop culture. I found myself thinking about the original versions of the songs and how clever, poignant, and beloved they were in the time period in which they were originally released. And when it comes to giving the United States' baby boomers a musical to throw their money at, it is no surprise that this, as Ben Brantley put it, "friendly, formulaic bio-musical" is the success it is. The downside to that equation is that artistry is stifled by nostalgia, and the end product is a genial collection of songs we all like. Sadly, the product is like donuts for dinner and leaves listeners craving something more substantial to whet their appetites and satiate their cravings.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Original Cast Recording) was digitally released by Ghostlight Records on March 18. Physical copies of the album were released on May 13. The record can be purchased from Ghostlight Records, iTunes, Amazon, and elsewhere music is sold.