Singer-songwriter Carole King's compositions have resulted in more than 100 hit singles, with more than 400 of her compositions being recorded by more than 1,000 artists, according to her biography at caroleking.com. Her own solo album "Tapestry" held the record for most weeks at No. 1 by a female artist for more than 20 years. On top of that, she has won four Grammy Awards, the 2013 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular song (the first woman to do so), was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2015 and has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, according to her website.
So how does one begin to sit down and write about King's life, success and music?
“The way I began was by admitting to myself that I had no idea where to begin,” Douglas McGrath, book writer for the award-winning musical “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical,” said in a recent interview. The show will make a stop at Salt Lake's new Eccles Theater Nov. 15-20.
Though the musical is dubbed the “Carole King Musical,” it’s also about her writing partner and then-husband, Gerry Goffin, and her friends and colleagues, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. McGrath said it was King who suggested making the show about all four of them.
“When the idea for the show came up and I chatted with Carole, she said, ‘We should make the show about all four of us. Barry and Cynthia were such an essential part of our lives and they’re interesting people,’” McGrath said. “Carole’s a bit of an oxymoron. She’s a bashful celebrity. She’s a big star and yet has a sense of modesty that she’s never lost that comes from being a girl from Brooklyn.”
McGrath interviewed all four of them, resulting in hours and hours of interviews.
“It was really kind of wonderful,” he said. “Since I had no idea what the show should be, I asked them everything. I had each of them tell me about their lives, their childhoods, love, heartbreak — everything.”
Slowly, McGrath figured out the story.
“I kept searching for the heart of it and what journey we should take in the two and a half hours that we’d have,” he explained.
“Beautiful” begins with King’s performance at Carnegie Hall in 1971, and then takes a look back at her beginnings as a 16-year-old in Manhattan trying to sell a song.
McGrath said that through the interviews, he became interested in the group's work at 1650 Broadway, sister building to the Brill Building in Manhattan that played a major role in the music scene.
“Those two buildings from mid-’50s to the mid-’60s were the hub of the bulk of the best of American pop music,” McGrath said, noting that eventually the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Motown would change the music scene, but until that happened, music was made in those two buildings.
“I pass those buildings all the time,” he said. “From the street, it looks like a normal office building. But back in the day, it was a creative beehive. These songwriting teams gathered in cubicles competing for the next big hit.”
It was there that King and Goffin, Weil and Mann and the rest of their songwriting cronies penned such beloved hits as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “On Broadway,” “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Up on the Roof,” “Locomotion,” and “One Fine Day.”
And while in the business of writing the next hit, the songwriters ultimately became great friends.
“They will tell you they were as competitive as they could be while still remaining best friends,” McGrath said. “They always wanted to beat each other and everyone else. But they both felt if they can’t have a No. 1 hit, they’re glad it’s the other.”
“Beautiful” is a musical journey down memory lane, but it’s also a fascinating look into what was happening personally to King and Goffin at the time.
“Their relationship didn’t work out,” McGrath said. “They sort of had the odds stacked against them. But they have such a great love and respect for each other. And Gerry was very open and honest — he didn’t cover anything up. So it made it possible to really tell the true story.”
McGrath chuckles that he can email Carole King “and she’ll actually respond to me. She’s the most genuine person,” he said. “There are times in my life where I’m in a situation and I feel funny coming home and talking about work. I want to say ‘I didn’t work today.’ It’s all so wonderful.”
Content advisory: The show contains some drinking and smoking, a scene of a man and a woman kissing passionately, and a brief game of strip poker, but no nudity is shown.
If you go …
What: “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical”
When: Nov. 15-20, times vary with matinees available
Where: George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main
How much: $45-$95
Erica Hansen was the theater editor at the Deseret News for more than three years. An area performer, she was also the original host of the radio program "Showtune Saturday Night."