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A 'Beautiful' tapestry of Carole King's life

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NEW YORK — Since you're probably wondering, let's just get this out of the way: Jessie Mueller, the actress playing the title role in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" on Broadway, has met the famed singer-songwriter but only once, during a surprise visit to a rehearsal last fall.

"It was brief but beautiful," the 30-year-old actress recalled during a recent lunch at a burger joint across the street from the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, where "Beautiful" has been in previews since November and will officially premiere Jan. 12. "She was just as cool as I wanted her to be."

The jukebox musical uses hits by King and others to tell her remarkable life story. The show is bookended with scenes of King, in her signature unruly curls and a flowing bohemian dress, preparing to take the stage at Carnegie Hall after the massive success of her 1971 album "Tapestry." In between, it charts her transformation from a sweet Brooklyn girl with precocious musical talents into a young wife and mother and bestselling solo artist.

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The drama centers on her troubled marriage to first husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), the man who brought some of her most indelible melodies to life with tender, sophisticated lyrics ("Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Up on the Roof").

But the title tells only part of the "Beautiful" story, which also focuses on Goffin and King's friendly rivalry with the songwriting duo of Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector). Weil and Mann worked in the same legendary hit factory at 1650 Broadway as Goffin and King, were likewise romantically involved, and their equally memorable songs ("On Broadway," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'") make up nearly half the numbers in the musical.

In this way, "Beautiful" also provides a glimpse into a bygone era of songwriting. As Weil put it in a telephone interview, "Back in the '60s, there was no Auto-Tune. It was simply the piano and the writer and the ashtray."

The project was originally conceived by music executive Roger Faxon to capitalize on the catalogs of the duos. Producer Paul Blake approached Doug McGrath, a playwright, screenwriter and director (he wrote and directed the Truman Capote film "Infamous"), about writing the book for a musical built around their work.

Though a fan of the era's pop songwriters, McGrath was initially wary of the project because of the inherent complication of writing about living subjects (all four musicians are alive and well and participated to some degree in the project). But, he said, "Paul just kind of ignored everything I said," and McGrath was soon won over by the charm of his subjects — and especially their music.

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The research process involved extensive interviews with the four principal subjects — conversations that required McGrath to ask rather probing questions, particularly of King.

"If I had just met her at dinner, I couldn't possibly have asked her the things I asked her: 'How did you feel when you found out he was sleeping with another woman?' You think, 'OK, I have my pad, this is what we're here for.' It was a strangely confessional thing," he said.

Along the way, McGrath determined that the story should focus on King because of the drama and contradiction of her narrative.

"She had this preternatural gift for melody writing, but what she really wanted was to fall in love with a boy she thought was dreamy and move to the suburbs and have a family," he said, noting how even as a young, successful hitmaker, she'd often spend her evenings playing canasta with her mother's friends. "Carole told me in our time together, 'You know, I just always saw myself as an old Jewish lady.'"

For Weil and Mann, McGrath's decision to make King's story the centerpiece of "Beautiful" meant accepting that their fictional counterparts would be downgraded to supporting players. "The hardest thing, I think, was everybody had their own idea of what it should be," said Weil, "and we all had to let go and adopt Doug's version of what it should be and accept it."

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It helped that Weil and Mann, who've been in the industry since their teenage years, have "a shrewd understanding of the business," said McGrath. "In fact, Cynthia started jokingly referring to herself and Barry as Fred and Ethel. So she gets it."

The unlikely but enduring romance between Weil, the sassy fashionista, and Mann, the neurotic hypochondriac, who have been married since 1961, serves as a foil for Goffin and King's more turbulent relationship, which cracked under the pressures of fame, infidelity and the '60s.

Ironically, Goffin had few qualms about "Beautiful," in which his character is, if not quite the story's villain, then certainly its most complicated figure. "He's been for it all along," said Sherry Kondor, the younger of his two daughters with King and an executive producer on "Beautiful." "If anything, he would be like, 'Get your mother to say yes.'"

Ultimately, it was King who required the most cajoling. She walked out of an early reading at intermission, said Kondor, not because she objected to her portrayal but because it rang too true emotionally.

Though she ultimately gave her consent to the musical and has continued to provide input through her daughter, King still has no plans to see it. "Imagine if your own life was portrayed by other people for you onstage. It would be the weirdest thing in the world. How could she not feel uncomfortable?" said Kondor.

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Should King change her mind, she would probably find little to trouble her in Mueller's performance, which captures King's spirit without descending into mimicry. The actress, with Broadway credits in "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It," was, according to all involved, the only choice for the part.

"There seemed to be no effort and yet everything she needed to make us feel, she made us feel," McGrath said of her audition.

Mueller is the first to admit that she was nervous about her ability to master King's warm, textured vocal style. "I knew I couldn't sound just like her, but I couldn't just sound like Jessie singing it," she said.

But Kondor praises Mueller for being able to "crack the code": "It's not an easy thing to unlearn your Broadway training, or to relearn how to sing that sort of open, honest rock 'n' roll that Carole sings, but Jessie has gone from reminding me of Carole to me sometimes not even being able to tell that's not her."

Once cast, Mueller dived head first into research, calling Kondor for advice and consuming books including King's memoir, "A Natural Woman," and Sheila Weller's dishy account of the women of the singer-songwriter era, "Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation." She also listened to King's records — on vinyl, of course.

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Mueller was also adamant about playing the piano onstage, though it wasn't required for the role, because "it's such a huge part of who she is as a musician." (Don't worry: Another pianist plays along with her from the orchestra pit.)

A tryout run in San Francisco received largely positive reviews in October, with Mueller's performance in particular a point of praise. Since moving back to New York, McGrath has continued to tinker, creating a scene in the second act to properly set up "You've Got a Friend."

The show's use of widely known and beloved songs to tell King's story creates a palpable sense of anticipation in the audience, according to McGrath. "One of the things I love now, which I never expected, when I'm sitting in the theater, the audience starts to try and guess which song is next. Even though our plot is not exactly suspense-laden, there is a level of suspense."

Early Broadway ticket sales have been brisk, if not quite blockbuster. It remains to be seen whether the show will attract an audience beyond nostalgic baby boomers, though King's journey of self-discovery is one that appeals to many, particularly women, born well after "Tapestry" was released.

"In the moment when she tells Gerry, 'I don't deserve this, I'm leaving, we're done,' the audience applauds," said Kondor. "You know that they're feeling her pain in that moment. I think a lot of people feel very connected to that story."

Early anecdotal evidence suggests that "Beautiful" has at least struck a chord with its target audience.

During a break in a recent preview performance, Kondor overheard a conversation between two theatergoers.

"They're screaming at each other: 'It's the soundtrack of our lives,'" she recounted, using a thick, affected Noo Yawk accent.

Kondor said the other person said, "'I know, I know! But what I didn't know is where all those songs came from. Now, the soundtrack of our lives has even more meaning.'"

meredith.blake@latimes.com

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