Going in to see Beautiful, all I knew about Carole King was she was a singer from the ’70s with an enviable mane of curly hair who wrote that song about being a natural woman. I did know I was about to see a biographical jukebox musical, and I expected a cut-and-dry retelling of every detail of Carole’s successful life, reaffirming the popular image of what a strong career woman looks like.
From the first few scenes, I was right on point. We were introduced to a teenage Carole (played by the stellar Jessie Mueller) who was so brilliant that she was already writing songs for money AND attending college at the age of 17. I predicted that the conflicts in the musical would be about being taken seriously as a woman in the entertainment industry, or perhaps about dealing with controlling your own image as an artist, especially as a female one. Both these topics are very valid and important to me, and I was ready to see a strong-willed, driven young woman hold her own in an oftentimes ruthless industry, even though I wouldn’t be able to fully relate.
Then something interesting happened. While Carole strolled the halls of her college, she bumped into a very attractive, black-leather-jacket-wearing stud who asked her to help him write music to his poetry. He looked like a mix between Jordan Catalano and Danny Zuko, that moody, handsome archetype whom every girl falls for at some point, but not someone a wise girl stays with. Except — spoiler — that brooding intellectual was none other than Gerry Goffin (played by Degrassi star Jake Epstein), and Carole would go on to not only marry and have two kids with him, but to also let him in to the most personal part of her life as her co-songwriter.
The musical then became about their troubled relationship and how Carole seemed to be stretched thin by the two worlds she was trying to live in between — one at the studio, where she would sit diligently at the piano until she was satisfied with her product, and the other at home, where she tried to balance raising her kids with making her husband happy. She was at once Lisa Simpson and Betty Draper, a juxtaposition that I wasn’t used to seeing but understood immediately. Shy and not fully appreciative of herself yet, one moment she would smile and happily rest against Gerry’s shoulder when she saw big-name musicians take on the songs they wrote together (“Some Kind Of Wonderful,” “Take Care Of My Baby,” among many others), and then the very next, she’d sing “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” by herself at the piano, weakly tapping a lone key while trying to figure out where she went wrong and why things couldn’t just return to the way they were.
Watching an exceptional woman deal with the unexceptionally sad problems many people in first relationships face felt oddly reassuring. As someone who was raised to always strive for independence and put career first, I grew up thinking that a strong woman lets no man stand between her and success. As an adult, I know that’s obviously not true, and that women can exert their power in a multitude of ways, but that doesn’t mean that the fear of love getting in the way of personal achievement isn’t something that I obsess over a lot, because I do. I worry about falling for the wrong guy, or getting so swept up in a romance that I lose myself for good. I worry about being stuck in a relationship, or marriage, where neither of us is right or wrong or happy, cemented in a limbo where you can clearly see it’s not working, but where you also can’t bring yourself to finally break apart.
It may all be very irrational, but Beautiful made me feel anything but crazy. Aside from Carole, there was the insanely talented Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen), Carole’s rival-turned-friend who co-wrote songs with the equally gifted Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector). Barry and Cynthia’s relationship grew to be more than just professional, but Cynthia initially turned down Barry’s marriage proposal because she was scared of what it would mean in the long run. As Carole and Gerry tumbled through the ups and downs of their marriage, Cynthia and Barry’s main struggle seemed to be Cynthia’s reluctance to commit, because that fear was real. What if the marriage didn’t work out? What would it mean for her career?
Interestingly enough, right as Carole and Gerry filed for divorce, Cynthia and Barry at last decided to get married via a very charming duet in “Walking in the Rain.” This crossroads signified two momentous changes for both women: for Carole, it was the moment she decided to go solo in every sense of the word and ultimately move to California to start working on Tapestry, the album that would make her a star; and for Cynthia, it was where she let herself be vulnerable and admit that, yes, she loved Barry and wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. (Adorable detail: They’re still married to this day.) Both women made choices that were healthy for them, making the musical more about their emotional growths as people when it could’ve simply counted their successes and disregarded their failures and still been pretty good.
I haven’t seen all the Tony nominees, and I have no doubt that all the nominated shows are worthy of all the praise they’ve been getting, but seeing a flash-forward of a beaming Carole at the piano, banging out “Beautiful” to a crowd at Carnegie Hall meant a lot. I saw her path to glory, but it wasn’t glorified. It was painful, and raw, and so very real to the people who don’t make best-selling albums and go on to win Grammys, because so much of it wasn’t about the music at all.