Performing Arts

In ‘Beautiful,’ love and talent spin pop songwriting gold

Carole King (Julie Knitel, left), Cynthia Weil (Erika Olsen), Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) crafted a slew of pop hits from the 1960s through the 1990s.
Carole King (Julie Knitel, left), Cynthia Weil (Erika Olsen), Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) crafted a slew of pop hits from the 1960s through the 1990s. ©2016 Joan Marcus

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were part of a golden era in pop music, but they didn’t know it at the time.

“Back then we didn’t know we would end up writing what have become standards, that our music would become so important,” Mann told The Star recently. “At the beginning, Rolling Stone and all those kinds of magazines really put us down, as I remember. But that changed, really changed, over the years, especially now.”

Weil was a lyricist; Mann composed melodies. They were close friends and contemporaries of songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and both are portrayed in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opens Tuesday at the Kansas City Music Hall. The musical celebrates the life and music of King and her fellow songwriters and the era in which they flourished.

Mann and Weil said seeing a pivotal part of their lives depicted faithfully onstage is deeply gratifying.

“I’ve seen the show four or five times,” Mann said. “It’s terrific. The first time, they were doing ‘On Broadway,’ and I realized as I’m sitting there that they were doing ‘On Broadway’ on Broadway, and that’s the song I wrote. And it blew me away. That pretty much epitomizes my feelings.”

“On Broadway” is one of dozens of songs written by Weil and Mann (in collaboration with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) from the early 1960s into the 1990s. Others include “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration.”

Mann and Weil, who have been married since 1961, worked as staff songwriters in New York’s legendary Brill Building alongside songwriters like King and Goffin.

“We were best friends,” Mann said.

They were also rivals.

“When they got a record and we wanted it, for that instant, we hated them,” Weil said. “But we loved them. And we hated ourselves for hating them. There was Jewish guilt all over the place.

“(‘Beautiful’) brings that era to the forefront. It also enmeshes creativity and friendship and love and all the stuff that was going on.”

Mann and Weil brought to their songwriting a variety of influences.

“We grew up with the music of Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom (radio show),” Weil said. “I also grew up with show music.”

“I was affected by show music but without realizing who wrote the music,” Mann said. “I just loved the melodies. I realized later on that I loved Richard Rodgers. He was so melodic. Then when rock ’n’ roll started to hit, I switched over. The first rock ’n’ roll I heard was basically doo-wop, and I thought they sounded flat when they sang. But after a few weeks, it kind of grew on me.

“Carole and I were very melodic, basically because of all the Tin Pan Alley kind of songs and show songs. Yet at the same time, we took to rock ’n’ roll, so it was a combination of both.”

They collaborated regularly with other songwriters, including Lionel Richie, Leo Sayer, Dan Hill and Tom Snow. Both said their collaborations with Leiber and Stoller influenced their styles and techniques.

“We kind of learned from them,” Mann said. “We picked up a lot of stuff by osmosis. It was very exciting writing with them.”

“To be graphic, I’m a tight-ass writer,” Weil said. “I like to write the first verse, finish it and go to the second verse. From Jerry Leiber I learned you can jump around. If you can’t get the first verse, try working on the second verse, then go back to the first verse. He was a much freer writer than I was. So I think he loosened me up a little.”

Neither is writing for today’s pop market, Weil said, but they were “entertaining a television show that is based on songwriting and other things, so we may end up writing some songs for that. … But the market has changed, and it’s not really where we live anymore.”

They do, however, keep in touch with the new generation of songwriters, and both have a common favorite.

“I think Taylor Swift is a pretty good songwriter,” Mann said.

“I do, too,” Weil said. “I’m a fan of hers. I think she writes really well-crafted songs, and I’m starting to become a fan of Ed Sheeran. And I love ‘Brave’ ” by Sara Bareilles.

“There are always singer/songwriters who will stand out. And they are the only ones who will stand out because the music business has turned into a producer-driven business, unless you’re a singer/songwriter.”

“Beautiful,” on the other hand, focuses on an era when polished songwriting was paramount and when the competition was greased by mutual respect and friendships.

“There is a lesson that Carole says at the beginning of the show,” Weil said. “ ‘Sometimes you have an idea of what you want in life and you go after it. And sometimes when it doesn’t happen, you find something else. And that something is beautiful.’ And that kind of happened to her. She was a staff songwriter, and she became an artist because of some tragedies in her life.”

“Some people get the idea that when it came to writing songs, most writers at that time did it in like 10 minutes and there it was,” Mann said. “This show shows that there was love and inspiration behind it.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

Onstage

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” runs from Tuesday through April 2 at the Kansas City Music Hall, 301 W. 13th St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $38 to $120. KansasCity.Broadway.com

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