The last two Library of Congress Gershwin Prizes for Popular Song have gone to Burt Bacharach (with Hal David) and Carole King. Coincidentally, they are both being saluted - in very different ways - right now in musicals, one on Broadway, one off.
What's It All About?, at the New York Theatre Workshop, reimagines the work of Burt Bacharach in a brilliant way. Kyle Riabko, who conceived of and stars in the show, strips the songs of their pop gloss and digs down to their emotional core. Entering the the warm and welcoming set, with floor lamps and comfy sofas (filled with audience members) on the sides, Kyle introduces the concept, then becomes part of a young and supremely talented multi-racial ensemble (five men, two women) taking joy in singing more than two dozen Bacharach classics (most co-written with Hal David, a few with Carole Bayer Sager) in different combinations.
There's no dialogue, no plot, just the songs. "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," "Walk On By," "There's Always Something There to Remind Me." You get to the point where you gasp, "He wrote THAT one, too?!" The approach is more like Once than Glee. All the performers also play instruments, and the staging, by Steven Hoggett (who, in fact, co-directed Once) is organic and seamless, flowing from one number into another. Sometimes there are counter melodies or unexpected mashups, like "Wishing and Hoping" with "That's What Friends Are For."
If there's a unifying quality to the songs, it's not "The Look of Love," but "the longing of love." Yet it's not depressing and doesn't give up on love. The 90-minute evening ends with Riabko delivering a moving, solo version of "Alfie," singing, "When you walk, let your heart lead the way," followed by the whole cast in a stirring version of "What the World Needs Now Is Love." Amen to that. Catch it before it closes on February 2nd.
Beautiful: The Carole Musical, which opens tonight (the 12th) at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, is the polar opposite and yet just as good. It's a Broadway bio-musical - it's big, it's slick, and, in fact, it's beautiful in its way. It's blessed with a terrific cast and production team. They've got a perfect Carole King in Jessie Mueller (at left in photo above), who captures Carole's Brooklyn accent and appealing combination of ambition and vulnerabilty, both a singular talent and a conventional person. A veteran of Broadway musicals such as The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Nice Work If You can Get It, Mueller must possess a legit voice, but here she offers a very reasonable facsimile of Carole's pleasant, unexceptional vocals, and she even plays piano!
Surrounding Mueller are excellent performers, including Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Anika Larsen as Cynthia Weil, and Jarrod Spector (coming off 1500 perrformances as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys) as Barry Mann. The two songwriting teams toil in the hitmaking machinery of the Brill Building culture, and while they're best friends, they're very competitive about topping each other's hits. And what a list of hits - "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," "Up On the Roof," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "Pleasant Valley Sunday," "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," etc., etc. As with What's It All About?, you find yourself going, "They wrote THAT, too!"
There's a lot of scene-changing machinery in the elaborate set design that keeps the action moving swiftly. The costumes are true to the period, and the choreography reflects the moves you remember groups like The Shirelles and The Drifters doing on American Bandstand. And let's credit the actors portraying those groups for bringing their hits to life.
The book, by Douglas McGrath (co-author with Woody Allen of the Bullets Over Broadway screenplay) is pretty clever, rarely corny, and it does generate real emotion. The heart of the story follows the turbulent marriage of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, a man possessing a creative gift and a volatile psyche. The show climaxes with Carole's move to California, her self-discovery as a singer-songwriter, and the phenomenal success of Tapestry. Beautiful toys a bit with the actual timeline of some songs and biographical details, but that's in the service of a good story.
The finale, with Carole singing "Beautiful" at her Carnegie Hall concert, is triumphant: "You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart." That attitude is part of what binds us to Carole as a real person, not just a superstar, and it's a sentiment I suspect Burt Bacharach would share.