I went to see Beautiful: The Carole King musical last night.
Jukebox musicals aren’t normally my cup of tea, and I didn’t enter the theater with very high expectations, but I’m so glad I went. Even though I spent the majority of the night choking back tears.
Mom was a Carole King fan. I remember a childhood mostly full of Dylan and Al Stewart and other intellectual hippie-type musicians whenever dad had the record or tape player on. This was a fair majority of the time considering he’s a big music fan and a part-time musician himself. His taste in music definitely influenced my own more so than my mom’s. I never really even considered her a “music person” at all while I was growing up. In hindsight, she always loved music; she just didn’t care for certain genres (IE: Dylan and Stewart and other intellectual hippie-type musicians). But she sang us lullabies when we were little, bopped along anytime the radio was on, always had a record playing while cleaning the house, encouraged Lindsay and I to take piano lessons and be in band in our formative years, and would always be one of the first ones on the dance floor at weddings and reunions. It’s hard for me now to understand how I ever thought she wasn’t into music. Maybe it was because she never played an instrument when everyone else in our household played multiple ones. Or simply because our music styles were just as different as everything else about the two of us.
I do remember mom introducing Lindsay and I to the likes of Tracey Chapman, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Carly Simon, and yes, Carole King. I still, to this day, have images in my head of her dancing and singing along to “I Feel The Earth Move”. Whether it’s a one-time memory that has stuck with me through the years, or something she did every time we heard the song, I can’t recall, but I have a very specific vision of her closing her eyes and shaking her head while belting out the “a’tumbling down” part that closes out the number. “You’ve Got a Friend” was another one of the songs I’d hear mom sing along to, throughout my life, both the King and Taylor versions. And there was definitely some inside joke we used to have regarding “Natural Woman” though, for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was. (Lindsay, do you remember?)
I say this because as soon as the musical started, I knew it was a production my mom would have loved. Like, really, really loved. This is saying something because she wasn’t much of a theatre person. In fact, I feel like I spent most of my life trying to make her understand my affinity for the stage. But if ever there was a show made for my mother, this is the one. It features familiar songs, sparkly costumes and set decorations, a marriage that didn’t work out even though there was still love on both sides, humorous dialogue that borders on cheesy, and a healthy dose of nostalgia. All things Jackie White would have greatly appreciated.
I’m a critic by nature, and definitely a bit of a snob when it comes to theatre productions. From my perspective, I noticed quite a bit of clunkiness and redundancy in the script, some unevenness in a bit of the acting, and general problems with the sound (always an issue in the Saroyan if you ask me). But I also had this incredible experience where I felt like I was simultaneously watching the entire production through my mother’s eyes. I could sense, down to my gut, the moments where she would have laughed, cried, sang along, nodded her head, and clapped with the music. I know she would have bounded to her feet for the standing ovation during the curtain call, then danced along to the post-bow finale, perhaps even doing that same familiar move during the “a’tumbling down” part that I can visualize her doing so clearly in my head. I know the “wooooo!” shout she would have given in the final moments as the actors left the stage. How she would have tried to hold my hand as we navigated our way out of the theater.
Art can be pretty incredible. Near the end of Act II, King starts playing the familiar notes of “You’ve Got a Friend” and I felt my mom whispering in my ear, asking me to listen to the words.
“When you’re down and troubled
and you need a helping hand
And nothing, whoa, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
and soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest nights.
You just call out my name,
and you know wherever I am
I’ll come running, to see you again
Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall
All you’ve got to do is call
And I’ll be there.
You’ve got a friend.”
It’s weird. I know she’s gone, and sometimes the pain of that reality still hurts so much I can hardly breathe. But there are other moments, like the two hours I spent watching Beautiful, where it’s almost like her death has helped us transcend the pettiness and mistakes of our earth relationship, so that there is somehow a connection there now that is stronger and healthier than before. I don’t know if that will make sense to anybody except those of you who have also experienced loss. All I know is I got to feel like I watched a show with my mother, and although it was 100% bittersweet, it was probably the only way I’d be able to sit with her in a theater without getting into some stupid fight by the time the night was over. And every emotion I felt for mom last night, from the first note of the overture, through the final instrumental that played us out of the theater, was all pure, unconditional love. That is what art is capable of. That is how amazing and powerful it can be.
That’s some kind of wonderful.