If one has to present a biopic jukebox show about a pop music icon, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre) is absolutely among the best models for emulation. And make no mistake, despite Ms. King’s catchy and iconic songs, and the lovely performance by Jessie Mueller in the (sub)title role, and the diamond-sharp direction of Marc Bruni, the star of the evening is the book by Douglas McGrath. He has carefully—and wittily—traced the career of his subject and just as carefully narrowed the scope to several key relationships in what is, essentially, a extended family: her increasingly troubled boyfriend-cum-husband-cum-lyricist collaborator Jake Epstein (Gerry Goffin); her friendly rivals, the songwriting (and romantic) team of Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarod Spector); her at-home parent, single mother Genie (Liz Larsen) and her at-work surrogate father, record producer Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown). This focus keeps the notion of a dramatized biography (which could otherwise wander and sprawl) containable and conducive to structuring. Add to the focus that McGrath has the requisite talent and sensibility to deliver complex characters in economic strokes and, when appropriate, to write funny. Real-life figures may be his source, but he’s turned them into memorable musical theatre figures who can stand proudly alongside most in the classic literature. I’m not saying Beautiful is quite so classic—even though the best jukebox musicals can be thrilling, I still think of them as a breed apart—but if the breed can be elevated, it’ll be because of bookwriting as sharp, purposeful and sensitive as McGrath’s.
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