Explore the Songwriting Process in Arvada Center's Season Opener Beautiful: The Carole King Musical | Westword
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Beautiful: The Carole King Musical Opens Arvada Center's Season

The musical charts King's journey from a shy Jewish girl living in Brooklyn to an international superstar.
Emily Van Fleet (Carole King) and Leslie O’Carroll (Genie Klein) rehearse Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
Emily Van Fleet (Carole King) and Leslie O’Carroll (Genie Klein) rehearse Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Courtesy of Collin Sanders
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Even if someone isn't familiar with the name Carole King, there's a good chance that they have been affected by her music in some way. Although the legendary singer-songwriter is most widely associated with her solo work, such as the 1971 chart-topping and Grammy Award-winning album Tapestry, King's career began behind the scenes as a writer for other artists.

The Shirelles' smash hit "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," the Drifters' "Up on the Roof," and Aretha Franklin's legendary "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" were just a few of the songs that King co-wrote with her songwriting partner and then-husband, Gerry Goffin. At that time she was toiling away in an office at 1650 Broadway in New York City, honing her writing skills for others.

"One thing Beautiful does really well is highlight the fact that Carole King was a nobody when she started writing," says actress Emily Van Fleet, who is portraying King in the Arvada Center's production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

"She was there to serve the music and help these other artists succeed," she continues. "Writing a song for them was the greatest thing in the world, and the show kind of alternates between her home life, the office where she and Gerry wrote and these performances by the stars she was inspired to write for."

This spirited tribute to the early days of King's long career opens the Arvada Center's 2023-2024 season at its Main Stage Theatre from Friday, September 8, to October 15. Beautiful charts King's journey from a shy Jewish girl living in Brooklyn to an international superstar. The original 2014 Broadway production of Beautiful received seven Tony Award nominations, winning two, and features music by Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Man and Cynthia Weil, with a book by Douglas McGrath.

According to the Arvada Center's artistic director and Beautiful director Lynne Collins, "This play is essentially about leading with love — the love King had for her family, friends, music and performing. Her whole career is about learning to love, and, most important, learning to love herself.”
click to enlarge young woman in black tank top and grey sweater sits at a piano
Emily Van Fleet plays Carole King, but she doesn't want to impersonate her.
Courtesy of Collin Sanders
Collins, who grew up listening to King's music, was approached a while back by the musical's publishing company about producing Denver's regional premiere of Beautiful. Though she hadn't seen the Broadway production or the musical's tour, King's story resonated with Collins both intellectually and emotionally.

"She was sixteen years old when she walked into 1650 Broadway and said, 'I write songs; will you buy them?' I think of myself at sixteen, and I could barely figure out what to wear to school," Collins says. "I tend, as an artistic director, to lean toward stories about powerful women; that is a bias of mine in looking at things. Her story moves me so much because it wasn't where she thought she was going. She wanted to write songs and live in the suburbs. She didn't see herself as a performer, partly because she didn't see herself as a beautiful girl compared to her colleagues at the time. Her life just unfolded because of her talent."

Collins typically steers clear of jukebox musicals, but she thinks Beautiful's focus on telling King's life story gives viewers plenty to sink their teeth into.

"I think a lot of times a jukebox musical is just looking for an excuse to get to the next song, but it's a documentary as much as it is a jukebox musical," she says. "It's really trying to tell her story, her colleagues at the time and what happened in the music industry at the time; it's got a real plot and arch to it, which I quite love. And it's a regional premiere for us, which is exciting to have first crack at something like this. All in all, it was a no-brainer, and box office is telling us it's selling like mad. It's doing really well, which I sort of thought, because generationally, our audience knows her, and I hope young people will come and meet her music if they don't know it."
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The Shirelles costume sketches
Courtesy of Janice Benning Lacek
In addition to Collins, the Arvada Center's regional premiere's creative team includes choreographer Kelly Van Oosbree, music director Alec Steinhorn, costume designer Janice Benning Lacek, wig designer Jason Estrada, scenic designer Brian Mallgrave, lighting designer Shannon McKinney, sound designer Max Silverman and stage managers Zach Madison, Kaylyn Kriaski and Jess Schepers; Susan Draus is in charge of music supervision. Draus joins the production after serving as the music director for the first national tour of Beautiful.

"She has so much insight on that and knows exactly what direction to push us in and what works," says Luther Brooks IV, who plays one of the Drifters. "Susan is also super fun and a genius. One thing I was talking with Susan about last week was that Beautiful is one of the few plays that talks about the process of songwriting. And I don't think a lot of people have insight into how that might go, but Susan does, and she said this is a fairly accurate example of what it's like to create a song with a team."

Along with its depiction of how a song is written, the cast was taken aback by the musical's extensive discussion of the issues that parents who are also artists face.

"Reading the script and finding out more about Carole's life behind the scenes, with her baby and all these things at home, very much mimics our real lives," says Krisangela Washington, who plays a member of the Shirelles and is in the ensemble. "I have children, too, and a lot of actors that I know have children, and they have very, very busy regular lives outside of being superstars on the weekends and during the week; it's just very real. My favorite thing that I learned about Carole King in this process was how normal she was, and that makes it even more amazing that she's able to accomplish so much with all these other things going on."

Van Fleet is using her experience as a mother of a young child for the role and working to create her own unique interpretation of King. Similar to how she approached playing Patsy Cline in Creede Repertory Theatre's 2022 production of Always...Patsy Cline, Van Fleet is steering clear of doing an impression of King, "because it will come across as fake."

"I had a director once describe it as a conjuring, in which you are sort of trying to embody the essence of the person," she says. "Find the truth in that person as a human, because we can all relate to the humanity in other people. So I've been approaching Carole not as the star we think of her as today, but as the real-life person she was when she was really just a nobody working in a song factory for all these other amazing artists that were stars."

Whether you are familiar with King's music and story or not, Beautiful is a refreshingly unpretentious approach to the musical-biography genre that highlights her relatable life story.
click to enlarge actors in a rehearsal room reading scripts.
The cast rehearses for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
Courtesy of Collin Sanders
"I've never seen this live, so I don't know how people will react when certain songs begin and people recognize what tune is being played," Van Fleet says. "So I'm excited to experience that collectively with an audience. In our design presentations, we got to hear everybody's story about when they first learned about Carole King, because everybody has a story. Everybody remembers how her songs made them feel, what period of their lives they were in and what they were going through. I think everybody in the audience will have that feeling, too. I'm really excited to inspire that nostalgia and bring up these beautiful feelings about her music through performing the show."

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Friday, September 8, through Sunday, October 15, Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada. Find tickets, starting at $56, and more information at arvadacenter.org.
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