Interview with Douglas McGrath, Book Writer for Beautiful - The Carole King Musical
Posted on 07/04/2019
Beautiful has thrilled Broadway with the inspiring true story of one woman’s remarkable journey from teenage songwriter to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and it's going to be at The State November 8-10. Book writer Douglas McGrath discusses with us why he was initially reluctant to take the job when it was offered to him and his process of putting everything together from hundreds of interviews.
Read the Transcribed Interview Below
with Bert, Kelly, and Hanna from All Access and special guest Douglas McGrath.
Bert: Welcome back to All Access with State Theatre New Jersey. Coming up we’ll talk about some just added upcoming events to the State Theatre lineup, and I am having just such a great time over the last couple of shows, Kelly and Hanna. Talking with people that are associated with the shows that are part of the Broadway season, and we got another guest here with us today for this segment.
Kelly: Yes, and this is the show that is kicking off our 2019-2020 Broadway season. Of course, we are talking about Beautiful: The Carol King Musicalcoming to the State Theatre November 8th, 9th, and 10th; four performances. We are thrilled to have on the show today the book writer for Beautiful, Douglas McGrath. Welcome Douglas!
Douglas: Thank you very much. Very nice to be with you all.
Kelly: Yeah, so Douglas: tell us about the rollercoaster of how you got involved with Beautiful and where you are with it today.
Douglas: Well, it’s been a wonderful journey, I have to tell you. I was asked if I wanted to write a musical about Carol King and her husband and lyricist, Gerry Goffin, and their two best friends, and I couldn’t say no quickly enough. I thought, “That’s gonna be just a nightmare. Four living people, trying to write their story, and they would all have their own specific memories and ideas of what the show could be. Then I met them, and they were the most amazing, really delightful people, and they really changed my feeling about wanting to do it. Once I was in the room with them and could see how kind of brilliant but down to earth they were, and how intelligent but friendly they were, I thought, “God, I want to know more about these people.” And in a way, that’s what the show is. It was about me learning about who they were and putting that knowledge on stage in front of people because I think most people have no sense of who Carol really is.
Hanna: Yeah, so on top of meeting, of course, our four main characters that we follow throughout the show, you also met with a number of other people, I’m sure, just to get more information and stories. So how were you, as you were worried about, how were you able to take these stories that you heard from so many people and pull it together into one cohesive piece?
Douglas: Well, it involved a lot of weeping, and praying. You know, I had, I researched; I did a lot of research. I sat with the four principle characters, individually, and interviewed them at length over many hours, over many days, asking them about all their lives. I didn’t know where to focus the story so I had to ask them about everything, looking for the piece that would make sense. And then I had all those interviews transcribed into pages and pages of documents, and then, I just sat with those documents, with those stories they told me from their lives; these kind of sometimes inspiring, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious stories, and as I would read them over and think about them, I had their music playing all the time, listening for the connections between the music and the lives. And, you know eventually, you just start to rule things out. You think, “Well maybe that’s interesting but not necessary,” and your mind goes, “How does her story.” Carol’s story is so interesting. At the age of 16, when there were no well-known female composers, Carole had decided she wanted to be a composer and she just got on the subway, from Queens, from Brooklyn, came into Manhattan, knocked on doors, and started selling her songs. By the time she was 17, just as a writer, by the time she was 17, she and Gerry had the #1 song in the country as writers, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?;” a great great song. So I could, the events start to stand out as to which would be the most interesting.
Kelly: Yeah, I mean, what an amazing life Carol King has lead. And you know, you follow, if you follow any of the interviews, I know that I have seen a couple where Carol herself was kind of like you, you know like, “I don’t know if I want this to happen. This sounds, like, kind of crazy.” So when you were doing these interviews, was Carole the skeptic in the group?
Douglas: No. She was very open, and very helpful, and very honest. I interviewed her by herself and then Gerry, who’s now her, who was then her ex-husband himself, and yet their stories matched completely. And, she’s very um, just she’s a very good memory, she’s very intelligent, uh person. She skipped two grades. She was in college by the time she was 16. She’s very very smart, but it wasn’t music college; it was regular college and she had this gift for music. I don’t think she had talked about a lot of the things we’d talked about…I don’t think she talked about them really for years and years and years, and at the time, when she was deciding, when she first came and saw, we did a reading of the show. When she first came to see it, to see what I’d written and to see how we were doing it, you know it was very emotional for her because for everybody else watching the reading: it’s a show, its entertainment. But for Carol, it’s her life. It’s about the breakup of her first marriage; it’s about a lot of heartbreak and longing; it’s about of a lot of triumph, too. But, imagine if you were that person and someone had made your life into a musical and then you had to sit in a room full of other people and watch it. It’s quite a difficult experience.
Hanna: So, just out of curiosity: logistically, when you were putting this together, obviously the music and the show is the music of these people; its Carol King and Gerry Goffin. So, did, were you also the person who also figured out which songs were going to be in the show and where they were placed? So,
Douglas: Yes, because we wanted the songs to feel like they were made for each scene. We didn’t want to feel like we were just, like the way some musicals do, where they just hurl these well-known songs in and hope that that makes a show. We really wanted to integrate the songs closely into the scenes. So, I knew there were certain songs that I knew had to be in the show but nobody dictated to me what had to be in the show. But common sense would tell you that there’s certain songs of Carol’s that had to be in the show. And, it’s funny because one of the songs that we knew had to be in the show, “You’ve Got a Friend,” which now has a wonderful place in the show, at the beginning, I couldn’t figure out where it should be. And, I put it one place; it was just terrible where it was. It was so terrible where it was we had to take it out. And then, people used to come up to us at intermissions and say, “Why don’t you got “You’ve Got a Friend” in the show?” And I tell them, “I’m looking I’m looking, just give me a second, just a little more time.” It wasn’t until we were back in New York; we tried the show out in San Francisco. We only figured it out when we were back in New York about to open on Broadway that we found the right spot for it. So it was, you know, each scene was deliberately designed to showcase each song. So they kind of left it to me in that way. Just in that it had to come kind of naturally out of the story.
Kelly: Right, and obviously so many songs to choose from with the career of so many people, careers of so many people. Were there any songs that you were so close to making it in but just had to be cut last minute?
Douglas: You know one of the songs; there were a number. The song we eventually took out. The show now opens with Carol at Carnegie Hall singing “So Far Away.” And but originally, “So Far Away” was later in the show, and we used to open the show with “Home Again” because it kind of sets up the rest of the show, because the rest of the show out of Carnegie Hall is her memory of her life and it starts back in her home in Brooklyn. So it seemed to make a nice transition and yet, as we sat with it for a while, we decided, “You know, it’s not the right song to start with. It really should be “So Far Away” which actually spoke to the emotions and the other feelings that were gonna happen. And, it was a shame to have to take “Home Again” out because it’s such a beautiful song. But, luckily, the songs still exist, they’re just not, we couldn’t fit them all in the show.
Hanna: Yeah, so you have quite a resume of work that you did before you worked on Beautiful. You actually went to school in New Jersey…
Douglas: I did! Four years.
Hanna: …at Princeton University. You worked with Saturday Night Live, you worked with Woody Allen in Bullets Over Broadway. So how did you writing career get started and how did it kind of lead you to a point where Beautifulwas something that you know what, you got asked to work on?
Douglas: You know that’s such a good question. I was at school at Princeton and I was having a panic attack senior year; a true panic attack. I’m generally a very non-panicking kind of person. But I knew I’d wanted to go into show business as either a writer, an actor, a director, but I didn’t know how I was gonna make that happen. And all my friends at Princeton were getting jobs on Wall Street or going to medical school, or going to architecture school, or grad school, and it was making me so nervous that I thought, “I can’t think about this. I just can’t think about this.” And I thought, “I have to figure out a plan for myself.” And right at that moment, and I’m not kidding when I tell you this, this plan fell into my head. It said this: I’m not going to think about this anymore and I’m just going to hope something happens. That was my plan. So all during senior year people would come up to me and say, “Oh I got a job on Wall Street, oh what about you?” “Oh I have a plan, I have a plan.” And for some weird reason, it kept me calm even though it was a mental disorder of utter denial. The day before graduation the phone rang, and a friend of mine who worked at Saturday Night Live called and said, “You know, they’re hiring new writers for the show. Do you want to submit some material?” AH, MY PLAN, IT WORKED!
Kelly and Hanna: *Laughing*
Douglas: I couldn’t believe it! It was the day before graduation; my parents were flying up from Texas. I’m sure they were quite curious to know what I was gonna be doing now. And I came in for an interview and I wrote some material, and I was hired. So, it was a very very lucky break. As it turned out, that turned out to be the worst year in the show’s history. Just a catastrophe; it was the first time the original great cast of Gilda and Bill Murray and Jane Curtain and Lorraine and all the people, it was the first time they changed the cast and brought in an all new group. And, the nation was rather shocked with us and upset. But, it’s the greatest job for a writer to have because the discipline of it and the, it helps me so much when it came time to do Beautiful. This actually helped me throughout my career because the tension is very high there. You’re doing a live television show, and the writers have to get stuff written in a certain amount of time. You have to get stuff rewritten by a certain amount of time, and it kind of teaches you to not be sentimental about your work. If a joke doesn’t work, throw it out; try something else. Um, it gives you a great sense of, you know, solving things. And, also the writer on that show, the writers on that show, really do get to develop many of the skills that directors need. You meet with the costume people to tell them what the costumes should be; you talk to the set people about what the set for your sketch should be. So when I made my first film as writer/director which was Emma, I’d kind of gone through all those things at SNL. Um, so, I don’t know. It was really like being thrown off a skyscraper and trying to make a parachute before you hit the ground. And it’s just held me; it’s been a great kind of masterclass for the rest of my career.
Kelly: Wow, that’s really something.
Kelly: Thank you so much. Of course, that’s Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, November 8th, 9th, and 10th coming to the State Theatre in New Brunswick. Thank you, Douglas McGrath for being with us today. We are looking forward to kicking off our Broadway series with this beautiful, beautiful musical.
Douglas: Thank you all. It’s very nice to talk to you.
Kelly: Thank you.