As a high school student in New York, young Carol Joan Klein changed her name to Carole King. She set out to become a songwriter at age 16, but got pregnant and married her songwriting partner, lyricist Gerry Goffin at 17.
And at age 18, in 1960, she had her first No. 1 hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” recorded by the Shirelles.
“She got a lot done” in a short time, said Douglas McGrath, author of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opens its pre-Broadway run Tuesday, Sept. 24, in San Francisco. It opens in New York in January.
McGrath, a New York screenwriter, film director and playwright, envies King’s rapid progress. He started work on “Beautiful” five years ago, when he was recruited to turn King’s long list of hit songs into a stage musical.
King is the most famous of four hit-making songwriters McGrath interviewed extensively while writing the story for the musical.
The others are King’s contemporaries from the ‘60s, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (who wrote “On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and more) and Goffin, King’s husband until 1968, when they divorced.
“I knew I wanted the show to be about the songwriters,” McGrath said. “I didn’t want to write a show like ‘Mama Mia’ (based on the hits of the group ABBA), which takes a song catalog and creates a fictional story around it. I was interested in how these writers created so many hits.”
The show follows the lives and careers of Carole King (played by Jessie Mueller) and the others through the ‘60s and 70s, also dealing with King’s troubled marriage to Goffin.
“They got married very young,” McGrath said.
By the time King recorded her Grammy-winning solo album, “Tapestry” in 1971, best-known for the hit single, “It’s Too Late,” she was already established as a top songwriter.
She had turned out a long list of hits for other recording artists, including “Take Good Care of My Baby” for Bobby Vee, “Up on the
Roof” for the Drifters, “The Loco-Motion” for Little Eva, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for the Monkees, “(You Make Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin and “You’ve Got a Friend” for James Taylor.
As he interviewed King and her cohorts, McGrath realized “Beautiful” could be more than a series of songs.
“I knew their music, but I really didn’t know anything about them,” he said. “One of the things that struck me was the incredible workethic they had at a very young age.”
And even though the late ‘50s and early ‘60s are remembered now as a time of youthful rebellion, King and her friends respected the professional songwriters of New York’s Tin Pan Alley district who had come before them, including George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.
“I had assumed that, because they were so young, Carole King and others were revolutionaries who wanted overthrow the old guard. In fact, these four deeply admired the masters of the great American songbook,” McGrath said.
“I think that’s one of the reasons their songs have lasted so long, compared to other pop songs of that era,” he said. “They had such integrity. They took it all seriously.”
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” runs daily daily except Mondays through Oct. 20 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Admission: $50-$210. Tickets: 888-746-1799, shnsf.com.