Writer/director Douglas McGrath (Emma, Infamous, Bullets Over Broadway) is the man behind Beautiful, the new musical about the life and music of singer/songwriter Carole King that is having its world premiere at San Francisco’s SHN Curran Theater this week. We talked to McGrath this summer about the process of turning beloved pop songs into a narrative of marriage, friendship, heartache, and art.
San Francisco: How did you come to be involved in this show?
Douglas McGrath: The music publishing company EMI had various catalogues that they wanted to develop. They came quickly to focus on [two songwriting teams,] Carole and [her husband] Gerry [Goffin], and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. One of the things I love about this story is that Carole and Gerry were on one side of a wall [in New York’s famous Brill Building, home to many iconic songwriters of the 1960s], and Barry and Cynthia were on the other side. Because they shared a wall, they were always running into each other. So very quickly they became best friends. And between the four of them they wrote, like, 30 of the best songs of that era.
So when they approached you to do the musical, did you jump at the chance?
Actually, when they first asked me [in 2009], I said, “Uh, no thanks.” I thought, doing a show about four living songwriters—it’s going to be a nightmare. Everybody’s going to be like, “I never wore pants like that,” “I didn’t say things like that.” It would be impossible. But [EMI’s Paul Blake, the musical’s producer] kept after me. So I met everybody and, of course, they were all great. They’re really smart and funny, and for people who are as successful as they are, they’re also very sweet.
Is there a particular challenge in doing this kind of musical?
I’ve seen a lot of these shows, and there’s only two categories, the good ones and the bad ones. The bad ones don’t work because they seem to think that all an audience wants is to hear somebody perform in a fairly decent way a bunch of songs that they already love. But that wasn’t my interest. I wanted to tell a story.
Which is what?
In 1959, Carole was just 16, coming to New York to try and sell a song, which she did. She and Gerry met and fell in love very quickly, and she got pregnant very quickly, and they got married very quickly. The show explores their marriage and how, after its collapse, she had to regroup and find out who she really was, both as a woman and as a songwriter on her own. The thing about Carole and Gerry’s music is that it was smarter—richer and more emotional—than the average pop music of its time. There’s a great story I learned when I was doing research for the show: When The Beatles came to America in ’64, they were asked, “Who do you want to see?” and they said, “We want to see Goffin-King.” Carole and Gerry’s reputation was so enormous that the greatest musical act in the history of music groups wanted to meet them. Those early pop songs—they’re dressed up like candy, they’re easy to hear. But in the context of their lives, you realize that songs like “Up on the Roof,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” are actually rich with feeling. The challenge was to present the music so that the audience could feel that emotion—not just nostalgia. Because otherwise you might as well just go to an oldies concert.
Describe the process you went through with King and the other songwriters. How involved have they been?
I spent several days in California interviewing Gerry, Cynthia, and Barry—that’s where they live. And then Carole met me here [in New York] and we talked for a long time. Since then, she has seen [early versions of the show], but she doesn't want to give notes or get in the way of the process. I think she trusts us—she could see that we had the right spirit. It was an affectionate, warm, funny show about these four people who had, you know, interesting things happen to them. I can’t imagine having someone write a musical about my life. It would be very strange. Part of the show is about her marriage coming apart, and that can’t be fun to watch every day. I think she reads drafts. Her daughter Sherry is her manager—she raises any warning flags about things that don’t seem right, but she’s not policing us.
What about the other three songwriters?
Gerry reads every draft and has been very supportive. Barry and Cynthia have been to every reading, and they have very helpful suggestions.
You seem drawn to biographical projects—the Truman Capote movie Infamous, a play about Richard Nixon last year called Checkers. What is the appeal?
The people I’ve written about are people who have had a real impact on the world. And sometimes things happened to them that were so incredible that, if they had been fictional, you’d say, “Well that’s doesn’t seem plausible.” You’d like to try and get inside the psyche of someone who can affect the world so much. Sometimes it’s inspiring and sometimes it’s heartbreaking.
A show like Beautiful seems like it would be more terrifying than those projects on some level, but also potentially richer, because you have access to insights about these characters that you might not have had with Nixon and Pat, or with Truman Capote. That would’ve been my premise, too. But sometimes people are very helpful in offering you insight into their own lives, and sometimes they’re no help whatsoever. I’d say, “Why did you do this?” and sometimes they’re like, “Ya know, I don’t know.” People are too busy living their lives to analyze their lives. But what I did have was their music. In some ways, the songs told me as much about them as anything they told me in the interviews.
Most of the other big juke-box shows—Jersey Boys, The Buddy Holly Story, American Idiot—are about male artists. Are there pressures that go along with being a man writing about a woman as iconic as Carole King?
I don’t think so. Women write great male characters, men write great female characters. That doesn’t mean we always understand each other in a relationship, but in writing, it’s just about putting yourself in that person’s place.
But I think of Tapestry as being the soundtrack of the women’s movement in the early 70s. It was a hugely transformational moment for women in this country, in the world. Her music resonated because so many women were struggling in the same way that she seemed to be struggling. I can’t tell you how many people I know—highly successful, bone-crushingly powerful people in the industry—who have gotten a little teary and told me, “That album means so much to me. She wrote about things that no one had written about.” More than most artists who’ve achieved that kind of success, Carole’s success came out of being very personal. She seems to be struggling to understand things. Her music is not dictatorial, like “you have to feel this.” There’s a compassion and a gentleness of spirit. She did not write angry music. She wrote I’m-trying-to-figure-this-out music.
A musical version of Bullets over Broadway, the movie you wrote with Woody Allen in 1994, is also coming to Broadway next spring. What’s your involvement in that?
Just that it’s based on Woody’s and my script. I’m just a friend of the court.
That screenplay got you nominated for an Oscar. What is it like to see your work adapted in this way?
It’s pretty great being adapted by Woody. He knows what he’s doing. It seems like he and Susan Stroman [the Tony-winning director/choreographer of The Producers, among other shows] have a really terrific partnership. She knows how to work with big geniuses. She has such a beautiful, smart eye, a great sense of humor…she’s just right. The two readings that I’ve been to—I thought they were wonderful. I mean, I’m not disinterested. So I might not be the best person to ask. But I enjoyed them quite a bit.
So Beautiful might be on Broadway at the same time as Bullets Over Broadway?
It could, if the stars align.
Beautiful runs at the Curran Theater from September 24th to October 20th. For more information click here.