During the first weeks of my freshman year of college, my roommate turned on some music and I knew the words to every song but had no idea what the name of the band was. It was a weird feeling, right up until I put it together that this was one of the albums – or, probably, cassette tapes – my dad had played on repeat in his gray Oldsmobile when I was probably eight or nine. By the time I was a teenager he’d switched to classical in the car and I forgot about “Our House” and “Teach Your Children” and “Woodstock” and a whole bunch of other Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young songs that had imprinted on my brain at an impressionable age.
When my mom suggested last year that we go see the Carole King musical, “Beautiful”, I wasn’t too interested (sorry, Mom!) – at least until I saw Jessie Mueller and the cast perform “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” on the 2014 Tony Awards, with Carole King joining Jessie to sing “I Feel the Earth Move”. (I tried to find video but couldn’t – if someone tracks it down, please link in the comments!) I realized that these, too, were the songs of my childhood, the songs my mom loved and had played over and over, and that there was a very good chance I’d love this show that follows the story of Carole King as a young woman in NYC writing music.
But when I checked for tickets, they were difficult to come by, at least on my budget. So my mom and I haven’t made it to see “Beautiful” yet, but on Monday night the cast and orchestra performed (on their night off!) at SummerStage, the City Parks Foundation’s annual free performing arts festival. It’s SummerStage’s 30th anniversary season, and “Beautiful” is the first running musical to perform at SummerStage.
About 4,000 people were at the Rumsey Playfield in Central Park that night, on chairs and bleachers and on the grass. So many people showed up that some were turned away! I was lucky enough to have a press pass (my first ever!) thanks to the lovely people at SummerStage, so my friend and I were able to skip the line and had guaranteed seats on a set of bleachers. The VIP treatment was nice, but we would have also had an awesome time if we’d showed up early to get in line and claimed spots on the grass – though without my photography credentials I wouldn’t have been able to take such great pictures!
After my friend and I staked out seats (and quickly ate some food we’d picked up at a deli), I headed up to the pit, an area in front of the stage where photographers were allowed to shoot pictures of the first ten minutes of each performance. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I only got my DSLR camera this spring, and while my photos of stationary objects and scenes are coming along, this was my first attempt at shooting during a performance.
The opening act was a Canadian band led by Scott Shea. There was something really nice about opening a concert of a musical about a singer-songwriter with a performance by a singer-songwriter, and they had some really lovely songs. If you like music with a soulful folk feel, check it out here!
After a changeover onstage, it was time for “Beautiful”! The concert was hosted by news anchor Hoda Kotb of the Today Show, who told us before starting that she’d seen “Beautiful” not one, not two, not three, not four… but nine times. And here, she pointed out, unlike in a Broadway theater, it was probably acceptable to sing along.
So we did.
No, really. I didn’t sing while I was shooting photos from the pit, but once I was back in the bleachers I couldn’t resist singing along, and neither could many people in the audience. There was a whole row of women in front of us who knew every word and were in total agreement with Hoda when she described how Carole King had become the “voice of a generation”. As the cast moved from familiar song to familiar song, with their beautiful voices and energetic dancing, Hoda filled in some of the blanks in the story of Carole King’s life. She talked about the shift in King’s writing as it became more mature and a bit darker, and about her decision to sing her own music.
There were so many songs I knew! I came home afterward and immediately started listening to the cast album, as well as pulling up the original Carole King albums. The show includes songs by King, written with Gerry Goffin, as well as songs by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil “So Far Away”, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “On Broadway”, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “One Fine Day”, “Beautiful” (of course)… even a brief orchestral riff on the theme song from “Gilmore Girls”, “Where You Lead”. Some staff members were giving out buttons and I got one that said “Kiss me, I’m a natural woman!”
The song that brought it all home for me was “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. Everyone knows the song, and most of the people there on Monday night sang along. It’s fitting that a song about connection, about knowing you have someone to call on, was one that united the audience. Music brings people together, and clearly Carole King’s music has over the years brought many, many people together. The last song was “I Feel the Earth Move” and for that one, everyone in the audience got up to sing and dance along with the performers.
Even though this was a concert performance of songs from the musical, we still got both a glimpse of the show’s narrative (through Hoda’s commentary) and its choreography (through the wonderful dancing by the cast). Every performer gave it his or her all. I got some really great photos of the ensemble, some of which you see here, in which you can tell how ON each person is! There’s something special about a free performance like this. This cast and orchestra perform the show eight times a week for audience members who have often paid hundreds of dollars to see them, but on Monday night they performed for 4,000 spectators who didn’t pay anything — some of whom might not have otherwise been able to see this show — and loved every minute.
If this free performance was meant to convince a few of us in the audience to finally go and see the show on Broadway, well, I’m more than convinced! I know I’ll love the music, and now I want to fall in love with the story.
I’m so glad SummerStage offered me the opportunity to see the show as a member of the press – especially because I had a great conversation with someone while I waited in the pit for “Beautiful” to start. Joan Chiverton is an artist and was sketching the performance – she gave me permission to share a few images with you! Aren’t they gorgeous? Check out more of her work on Instagram!
If you haven’t already clicked through to see the SummerStage calendar, I highly recommend it! It was a beautiful way to spend a summer night, and there aren’t that many of them left… The majority of the SummerStage performances are totally free, and there are some really great events coming up soon! I’ll be back at the Rumsley Playfield next week for a concert staging of “The Wiz”! I can’t wait!
Have you attended any SummerStage events this summer? What did you think?