Hail to King: Beautiful Explores the Complicated Life of Carole King

Music, divorce, hypochondria—and the subjects are still around to critique it all

The Shirelles (Carly Hughes, Alysha Deslorieux, Rashidra Scott, and Ashley Blanchet, from left,) in 'Beautiful.'

The Shirelles (Carly Hughes, Alysha Deslorieux, Rashidra Scott, and Ashley Blanchet, from left,) in ‘Beautiful.’

Were Paul Blake the kind of person who took “no” for an answer, Broadway would never have seen White Christmas, and it would never know what Beautiful is.

“Beautiful” is a song by Carole King, and now it’s a big Broadway musical, subtitled The Carole King Story and previewing its way to a Jan. 12 opening at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. It came about because the head of a music company (EMI at the time) invited Mr. Blake to put together a Broadway show based on the life and songs of Ms. King. “Why me?” he wondered reasonably. The CEO couldn’t have been more direct: “Because you’re the guy who got Irving Berlin’s daughters to say ‘yes’ to a stage musical of ‘White Christmas.’ For years, they had said no to everybody else. Whatever you did to them, I want you to do to these people.”

This time out, Mr. Blake’s powers of persuasion were hard-pressed. “These people” included not just Ms. King—who was adamant about the show never, ever happening—but also her former husband and writing partner, Gerry Goffin, and the songwriting couple in the next cubicle, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

In the ’60s, on the brink of The Beatles, all four toiled feverishly as staff scribes in Don Kirshner’s music factory at 1650 Broadway, grinding out platter hits for The Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”), Bobby Vee (“Take Good Care of My Baby”), The Drifters (“Some Kind of Wonderful”), Steve Lawrence (“Go Away, Little Girl”), Little Eva (“The Loco-Motion”), The Righteous Brothers (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”), The Animals (“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”), The Chiffons (“One Fine Day”), Aretha Franklin (“A Natural Woman”) and The Ronettes (“Walking in the Rain”).

Most people would consider that something to shout about—but not Ms. King. “Carole is very personal,” explained Mr. Blake, “and felt ambivalent about sharing her life like that. Plus, what if it weren’t first-rate? She had a lot of concerns. I had to get everyone on the same page. I’m what they call ‘an old-fashioned producer.’”

He had a deft way of dealing with Ms. King—deafness: “I just kept moving forward as if she had said ‘yes’ every time she said ‘no,’ as if every ‘no’ was another form of ‘yes.’”

Before Ms. King knew it, the project had reached the reading stage. She attended the second one with her daughter-manager, Sherry Kondor, and lasted till intermission.

“I was, like, ‘You’re going?’” Ms. Kondor recalled. “She said, ‘It’s great, the writing is fantastic—that much I can tell you, but I just can’t sit here. It’s too difficult to sit here and watch my own life unfold right in front of me. It’s too weird. I just gotta go.’”

Ms. King has stuck to that. She hasn’t been back to see the show, but she did speak to the book writer and gave him her story. “I’ve told her in sort of a global way what’s going on, but she doesn’t want details,” Ms. Kondor said. “I don’t know if she’ll ever see the show. She may do a Garbo and sneak in. I just really don’t know.”

Creatively, all roads to Beautiful lead to Paul Blake. He cast the director and writer of the production, neither of whom had been on Broadway—although Mark Bruni had assistant-directed with Walter Bobbie there before and book writer Douglas McGrath will soon have on Broadway an Oscar-nominated screenplay he co-wrote with Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway, now with a book by Mr. Allen).

Mr. Bruni directed a half-dozen shows during Mr. Blake’s 22-year tenure at the St. Louis Muny, so he was in the front ranks when Beautiful had its first reading three years ago. “I thought, Wow! This is an incredible collection of songs, but, more importantly, it has been approached with such great heart and humor,” the director remembered. “That’s something I always strive for in whatever I work on.”

Mr. McGrath was slower to crumble. “I really wasn’t interested in writing it as a fictional story,” he admitted. “I figured, if you’re going to do it, tell their stories—but the fact that they’re alive, all four of them, I thought, they’re not going to let me tell their stories—and they did! They really did! I think they’d had experiences through the years where people had tried different things, and they were finally ready.”

Individually, the quartet did two days of debriefing with Mr. McGrath, who then assembled the truth-as-each-saw-it into a musical book that packs a wallop.

“I don’t do it—it’s their story that does it,” he insisted. “There’s a lot of emotion in their story, and for me as a filmmaker and a playwright, what I’m always interested in is feeling something when I go to the theater.”

He listened to their music for months, he said, “just trying to get to the heart of each song. When I felt I understood it, I felt I had a place to put it. I knew what the events of their lives were, so I would just say, ‘That goes here.’”

He found the Mann-Weil duo easier sledding than the Goffin-King. First, their love story practically qualified as comic relief compared to the angst of Couple No. 1, and secondly, they were more amendable to a musical bio, having already gone that route Off-Broadway via 2004’s They Wrote That? in which they performed songs from their catalog, accompanied by anecdotes.

“But this is the way to go,” cracked Ms. Weil. “We don’t have to get up there every night.”

She left that honor to Anika Larsen while Jarrod Spector manned up to the Mann role. “We’re the B plot,” Mr. Spector said cheerfully. “The first time I spoke to Barry, he said, ‘When I first read the script, I didn’t realize that I was a hypochondriac,’ but if you speak to his friends, which I did on opening night in San Francisco, they all said, ‘Barry doesn’t think he’s a hypochondriac, but all we’ve been talking about for the past 40 years is his ailments,’ so that’s definitely a character revelatory to steal.”

Ms. Larsen was impressed by how Ms. Weil made her way in the male-dominated music business. “There’s a picture I saw in doing research of all of the writers at 1650 Broadway. It’s a sea of men in suits and two women—Carole and Cynthia, two women succeeding in a man’s world—and succeeding incredibly, writing No. 1 hits. Her moxie and her sass and her smarts—she’s who I want to be when I grow up.”

Jake Epstein and Jessie Mueller have rougher roles to hoe in the star spot. Mr. Goffin and Ms. King married, pregnant, when she was 17 and he was 20, and had two daughters, but as their marriage started falling apart, so did he, and they divorced in 1968—amiably but emphatically—and she moved on to solo stardom with the recording of Tapestry, the album that sold 25 million copies and established her as a major singer-songwriter.

Mr. Goffin surfaced at the San Francisco opening and made a point of congratulating his impersonator. “It was really special that he came and he liked it,” said Mr. Epstein. “Their story was a long time ago, and Gerry has been dealing with mental issues and difficulties in communicating, but in his prime, he was the master of telling a really complicated story in simple terms.”

Re-riding the dramatically rocky, comet-like career of Ms. King’s also brings Ms. Mueller to the doorstep of stardom where she has been steadily heading since 2011’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. “Aside from the fact that it’s Carole, it’s a great role,” she declared. “The sort of span of what I get to do—starting at 16 and basically becoming a woman throughout the course of the night—is great stuff to sink your teeth into. Then on top of that is the fear factor of ‘Oh, yes, let’s play a living legend.’”