As Beautiful opened to a fanfare of praise last week, Brigit Grant discovered more about Grammy-award winning seminal singer-songwriter, Carole King.
When Carole King agreed to attend a reading of Beautiful, the musical based on her life – she didn’t stay past the first act.
“I can’t watch my life like this,” she told her daughter Sherry Kondor, who is also her manager, and the notoriously private singer-songwriter left the building.
Weeks later, she wrote a note to Ben Fong-Torres, a former senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine telling him: “I had to leave… because the excellence of the writing and the actors’ interpretation, awakened long-buried emotions.”
The audience watching the first night of Beautiful last week will certainly relate to King’s sentiments, because the musical brings the past – notably for baby boomers – into sharp relief.
The clue is in the tapping feet, the bobbing shoulders and the nods of recognition as the songs King wrote with her then husband, Gerry Goffin, fill the first half of the show, while the second presents the hits she penned for her own legendary album, Tapestry.
And so in the context of the couple’s own personal story we are treated to among others, Take Good Care of My Baby and Up on the Roof as well It’s Too Late, I Feel The Earth Move and A Natural Woman.
That the show opens with the lyrics: “So far away, why doesn’t anybody stay in one place any more” is enough to make anyone past a certain age tear-up unashamedly. But there is more to Beautiful than just King and Goffin, who passed away in June last year.
Douglas McGrath’s story also focuses on the friendly rivalry the couple had with songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil of On Broadway and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling fame, to name but a few of their extraordinary successes.
Beyond the enjoyment of listening to such a plethora of great tunes performed by a gifted cast, Jewish ticket holders have the added satisfaction of knowing that all of the featured talent are of the faith and that this talent was nurtured by Jewish publishers and producers.
Don Kirshner was the first and it was at the offices of his publishing company Aldon Music on Broadway that the tune-obsessed teenager, who dated Neil Sedaka in high school, got her big break aged 17.
Together with Gerry, whom she met at college, they wrote Will You Love Me Tomorrow, which was a chart topper for The Shirelles and, in time, the couple, who married after King got pregnant, were earning enough to make writing songs their day job.
Interestingly King’s late mother, Eugenia Gingold wanted Carol – the ‘e’ was added later – to be a teacher, but as she was producing amateur shows in the neighbourhood and writing plays, she didn’t exactly lead by example. “She brought out the best in all the neighbourhood actors, including me as a bratty little eight-year-old,” said King, who was born in 1943 and recalls the importance of the family piano.
“It was the first piece of furniture in my parents’ home. It was there, and I evidently had some sort of gift for it, so that was an opportunity. But my parents were both supportive and exposed me to the arts, to music and my mother took me to shows in the city.”
Although the role of Eugenia – played by Glynis Barber in Beautiful – is not particularly significant and serves only to underline the singer’s Jewish upbringing; in real life she was key to proceedings. “When I made my Broadway debut in Blood Brothers in 1994, my mother was my coach and later, she came to Dublin to coach me when I played Kate [the character based on playwright Neil Simon’s mother] in Brighton Beach Memoirs. I channeled all my ancestors in that.”
It was information about her ancestry that persuaded King – who dislikes giving interviews so much, that she was known to take her mother along to avoid being asked personal questions – to appear on PBS’s Finding Your Roots, the US equivalent of Who Do You Think You Are? She was particularly keen to know more about her grandmother, Sarah Besmogin, who spoke very little about her native Russia.
“Her only recollection was of a day when at the age of 12, she looked through a grand parlour window and saw a girl her own age playing a piano,” recalled King. “That image became a symbol of the wealth and accomplishment to which she could never aspire and she resolved instead to become an aishes chail. Loosely translated, an aishes chail is ‘a woman of worth, a virtuous woman’.”
From such a story song lyrics are born, but it was the information King discovered on Finding Your Roots that shocked her, as her grandmother had grown up in Orsha, a town that unbeknown to her had suffered a particularly violent pogrom during the Czar’s reign and a large number of citizens were killed.
“From that day on, Sarah clearly put up an emotional wall to protect herself,” added King, who also learnt about the fate of her paternal grandparents, who arrived in America with two dollars and unable to read English.
“But following a three-day detainment on Ellis Island, where they were no doubt terrified of being sent back, they were saved by a mystery cousin who secured their entry.”
None of these stories are part of Beautiful, although there’s no denying the potential for another musical as the show only goes up to King’s sad divorce from Goffin and her move to Los Angeles with her daughter, Louise, to record the multiple award-winning Tapestry with producer Lou Adler.
That leaves her three subsequent marriages together with the arrival of three more children and now grandchildren ripe for exploring as so far they have only featured in her book, Natural Woman. It is in the book that King –- who has resurrected the Klein in her name – remarks on how Jewish traditions remain a part of her life and to prove the point at Louise’s suggestion, decided to do her own version of the Chanukah prayer.
“I recorded the traditional prayer with its traditional melody, then. Louise who is a singer/producer arranged the prayer into song form, and then she and her son sang it with me. The last vocal we hear on the track is my then-eight-year old grandson Hayden singing, ‘L’hadlik neir shel Chanukah.’
Tears come to my eyes every time I hear the prayer of our ancestors marching forward to future generations through my grandson, my daughter and me.”
The prayer is unlikely to boost King’s 180 pop hit rating on the Billboard Hot 100, but as the only female recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, she doesn’t have to worry. She knows we’ll still love her tomorrow.
• Tickets for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Aldywch Theatre can be booked until February 2016. Visit www.beautifulmusical.co.uk