Doug McGrath, writer of "Beautiful — The Carole King Musical" admits that his job was difficult.
"Hard in a fun way" is how he describes his task, telling the story of the early days in the life and career of the woman whose record-breaking 1971 pop-folk album "Tapestry" became a cultural touchstone.
In creating the show, now onstage in a pre-Broadway run in San Francisco, McGrath began by interviewing King and fellow songwriters Gerry Goffin (King's ex-husband) and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (who were also married) about how they pumped out hits at New York's Brill Building in the early 1960s when they were in their late teens and early 20s.
"I'd adapted novels before, but I'd never had the opportunity to talk to creators before about their philosophies. It was fantastic," McGrath says. The writer of film screenplays for "Emma," "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Bullets Over Broadway" says he couldn't believe his luck, being able to talk "for days and days" with the people who wrote so many songs he loved when he was growing up.
"The idea of a cultural creative beehive was really appealing to me," says McGrath, who for a second thought the show might be about how the young songwriters ushered in an era of musical change.
"That is not what we did," McGrath says, emphasizing how King, Goffin, Mann and Weil loved their predecessors from Tin Pan Alley and studied the Great American Songbook.
All were natural songwriters, and all had an incredible work ethic; "Beautiful" shows them in an office at a piano and a broken-down desk, penning hits — some simply catchy tunes ("The Loco-Motion"), others more closely connected to their lives and feelings ("Up on the Roof").
Although he mostly included songs that would best advance the plot, McGrath admits, "If I liked a song, I found a way to get it in."
His comment about "Will You Love Me Tomorrow": King wrote that when she was 17, and the female-sensitive lyrics actually were written by a man, Goffin.
What McGrath hopes audiences — and not just middle-aged women who grew up with "Tapestry" — will take away from "Beautiful" is that it's an empowerment story.
He says, "Carole fell in love with the boy she wanted, got the career she wanted against incredible odds, and the marriage fell apart; in the trauma of that marriage, she found the greatest success of her career. If I had a daughter, I'd like her to see that story."