On Tuesday night, the first national tour of "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" arrives in Chicago for a 12-week engagement at the Oriental Theatre. In the title role will be Abby Mueller, older sister of Jessie Mueller, who won a 2014 Tony Award for playing King in this biographical treatment of her life and work. The Muellers grew up in Evanston.
Recently, I spoke briefly to the notoriously press-averse King about her complicated relationship with the show, an ongoing hit on Broadway. It was one of the few interviews this four-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter has given about the show that includes many of her biggest hits — from "Some Kind of Wonderful" to "Natural Woman" — and probes her marriage to fellow songwriter Gerry Goffin, whom King married when she was 17 years old. King will be recognized at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors in New York on Sunday along with filmmaker George Lucas, actress and singer Rita Moreno, conductor Seiji Ozawa and Broadway actress Cicely Tyson.
The following is an edited conversation.
Q: You seemed reluctant to become involved in any way with this show, even though it is about you. At least, that's how it seemed to me. Why was that?
A: There was a reading. I went in there all huddled up and keeping my coat on and wrapping my arms around my backpack. It was just a workshop for people in the industry. I tried to keep everything low-profile. But at the end of the first act, I decided I needed to go out for some air and that I did not think I could go back. The part of me that was a professional could see that it was good. But I said to myself, and to my daughter (Sherry Kondor), that I will never go and see it. I said it would just be too difficult for me ever to see my life played out like that.
Q: You weren't even at the Broadway opening.
A: I didn't want to take attention away from the cast, and from the other songwriters who are featured in the show. It is not just about me.
Q: But then, like three months after the opening in New York, you finally showed up. Unannounced.
A: I wore my disguise so nobody would know I was in the audience. The cast was not told I would be there. And I definitely did not want anyone to be watching me watching the show. But it worked out quite well.
Q: And? Was it hard to watch the scenes involving the collapse of your marriage to your first husband, Gerry Goffin? Or did it all feel long ago?
A: The experience was emotional, but it turned out to be so for totally different reasons than I expected. I was prepared for the painful parts involving Gerry and so on, but not for how moved I would feel when I was watching my mother give me a pep talk, or when I got to see Barry (Mann) and Cynthia (Weil) get back together.
Q: And since?
A: Well, I've seen every Carole who has played the role. Each time, I've been in disguise. But I've watched each actress not so much impersonate me as make the role their own. I am a fan of them all. I saw Abby in Boston. She is doing a tremendous job. I am very thankful to the Muellers and I know they all are from Chicago. Please thank them for me. They have given us not one, but two great Caroles.
Q: A lot of Broadway musicals about recording stars have to deal with subjects who are very concerned about their image. You were the opposite, it seemed. You didn't crave more control?
A: I was aware of Doug McGrath's script from the start. I knew that while it was not strictly accurate, the story still was authentically what happened. Or, at least, the essence of what happened in my life. The character of Nick, for example, is obviously a composite of my second husband (Charles Larkey) and James Taylor. But the show is structured so that everyone is rooting for Carole, the character, to come out of all these experiences and make it on her own, and so when that happens, everyone applauds. And when I'm sitting there watching, I find myself thinking, well, great, that is kind of what happened.
Q: You always struck me as someone who never went after fame or success, and you'd really rather have just gone home and lived a quiet life. In your memoir ...
A: You read my memoir?
Q: When it came out. It is harder on you than the show.
A: Hmm. Well, I think there is a quest for normalcy that is central to my character — and, well, to who I really am.
"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" runs through Feb. 21 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; broadwayinchicago.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.