Douglas McGrath first learned about Carole King thanks to a mistake. As a child, he and his sister were playing with some 45 RPM records when his sister misread the songwriting credit.
“My sister misread Goffin/King as Coffin King, which we thought was a really funny name,” McGrath said. “Later I found out it was Carole King and Gerry Goffin. It was that accident that made me aware of Carole King at an age where I otherwise might not have been.”
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” opens at the Wharton Center Tuesday. The Broadway show, which McGrath wrote the book for, is built around the music of King and Goffin, her former husband and songwriting partner.
A Hollywood screenwriter and director, McGrath’s writing credits include “Infamous,” a Truman Capote biopic, and “Bullets Over Broadway,” which he co-wrote with Woody Allen. When he was approached about writing a musical based on the life of Carole King, McGrath didn’t know much about the singer/songwriter’s personal life, but he agreed to meet with her.
“We talked for hours. She didn’t hold anything back,” McGrath said. “I thought she must be saving some stories for her autobiography, but when I read it, there were things that she had told me that weren’t in the book.”
After those initial conversations, however, King did not want to be involved in the creative process.
“She couldn’t have had more reservations,” McGrath said. “Several people had tried to write a musical, but she was never happy with what they would bring her.”
At King’s insistence, McGrath met with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, another songwriting duo that worked for years in the office next to King and Goffin’s at Dimension Records. McGrath also interviewed Goffin, and the musical started to take shape. McGrath decided to focus on the 12-year span between King selling her first song in 1959 to the release of her breakout album, “Tapestry,” in 1971. Much of the musical is driven by the relationship between the two songwriting couples.
“Barry and Cynthia are one color, and Carole and Gerry are another color,” McGrath explained. “They were devoted to each other, but intensely competitive.”
During that span, Goffin and King turned out a string of hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Up on the Roof,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman).” But behind the professional success, their relationship was strained as Goffin grew restless and pursued extramarital affairs.
While the musical covers the darker side of their relationship, it doesn’t wallow in it.
“When I was thinking of the story, I knew it couldn’t be a story of professional struggle,” McGrath said. “It can’t be ‘Gypsy’ or ‘A Chorus Line.’ She had a No. 1 hit at age 18.”
King saw part of the musical in San Francisco as it prepared for a pre- Broadway run at the Curran Theatre in 2013. She gave her approval, but never attended a show in San Francisco. The musical opened on Broadway in January 2014, but even then King waited until April to see the show.
“She thought that if she came to the show, everybody would be watching her instead of paying attention to the show,” McGrath said. “She didn’t want that attention.”
King attended the show in disguise, wearing a black wig and a scarf, McGrath recalled. At the end of the musical, King snuck backstage, grabbed a microphone from a crew member who was in on the plan, and joined the cast on stage for an encore performance of “You’ve Got a Friend.”
“Everyone’s jaw dropped,” McGrath said. “All the women in the cast were crying. It was very special.”
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan 10-Thursday, Jan. 12; 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15
Tickets start at $41
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com