Playing Carole King in Norwich is just Beautiful
- Credit: Birgit & Ralf Brinkhoff
The life story and countless classic songs from iconic singer-songwriter Carole King feature in hit musical Beautiful which arrives at Norwich Theatre Royal this week. It's star Bronté Barbé tells us about taking on the title role.
Tapestry, the 1971 mega-selling, multiple Grammy award-winning album from Carole King, was a fixture on many record player turntables throughout the 1970s.
Last year to celebrate its 45th anniversary, the iconic singer-songwriter returned for a spectacular concert at London's Hyde for more than 65,000 fans.
But her place in musical history is more than just two sides of vinyl with many more hits and standards to her name, not to mention her collaboration with her first writing partner and husband, Gerry Goffin, to produce acts such as the Drifters and the Shirelles.
She was tailor made then for a theatrical musical and Beautiful – The Carole King Musical has proved to be a huge Olivier and Tony award-winning West End success.
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Next week it comes to the region as part of its first ever UK tour with Bronté Barbé, who was a finalist in Andrew Lloyd Webber's BBC series Over the Rainbow in 2010 and appeared in Shrek the Musical, taking on the role of Carole King.
The show tells the story of King's remarkable rise to stardom, becoming a prolific song-writing team with Goffin in New York's factory-like Brill Building, and her bond with their friendly rivals, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.
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It also boasts a soundtrack to a generation, with countless classics such as (You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman, Take Good Care of my Baby, You've Got a Friend, So Far Away, It Might As Well Rain Until September, Up on the Roof and Locomotion.
Beautiful has been an Olivier and Tony award-winning success. Getting the role of Carole King in this touring production must be very exciting?
I feel very lucky. It is not a part that I ever thought I would get to play. You see something like this and you think wow it's such an incredible part and it would be a dream come true just to be involved, so it came as a massive shock when I got to play Carole. It is so nice to be able to sing these songs every night. I sing in 16 songs. There are a lot of numbers in the show and so many that I didn't realise Carole King wrote until I saw the show in London.
Know much did you know about Carole King before Beautiful?
I have a record player and I had Tapestry for quite a few years because my mum had said you have to get this album, it's amazing. But until I saw the show I didn't realise all the other songs that she written. Her catalogue is just incredible. I also hadn't realised the involvement of her husband at the time Gerry Goffin with his lyrics and arrangements. I've learnt a lot. It goes from her trying to get her songs produced at such a young age to meeting Gerry to working at 1650 [the Broadway office in New York, close to the famous Brill Building] and meeting Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. It documents her working life, her private life and what happened — but I don't want to give too much away.
What did the audition for the role involve?
I learnt three of the songs for the audition from different stages of the story of her life. The story spans her life from the age of 16 to 29. I'm 25 at the moment so I can relate to most of it, but my goodness she managed to do so much at such a young age. It is both a wonderful story and very interesting.
The show features many classic songs, but how much of the story is told dramatically?
I think the way it is constructed is quite unique. The writing is wonderful and, though it is a jukebox musical in a sense, it is very heavily script based. It is much more of a play with songs than any other musical I've worked on. There are a lot of stand alone scenes and it is so well written. It is packed full of intelligent and witty jokes and a lot of heartfelt moments. There are a lot of things that an audience can relate to. Some of it is embellished but it is quite true to her story.
Is the story told through her songs?
Usually in a musical you sing because you can't express yourself though speaking any more whereas in this there are very few of those classic break-out musical theatre moments. Most of the songs in this show are being sung because they are sung as part of the story. They are being presented to a producer or being performed for a TV show.
Was it daunting to capture Carole King's voice?
I was quite nervous about that because she has such an iconic sound. But as we went though the process it became clear that it was mainly about doing an interpretation rather than an impersonation because I could never mimic what Carole King sounds like. It is about finding a happy balance between getting her mannerisms and certain vocal tricks and quirks but also for me to bring my own take on it and do it a way that suits me.
So it is not about Stars in Their Eyes-type impersonation?
As much as possible they've tried to make me look like her and wear outfits that she would have worn at the time. Some of them are direct copies. But no, it is about the audience suspending disbelief and hopefully they will think I sound enough like her to do these wonderful songs justice.
Do you think the show will inspire younger audience members to explore more of Carole King's music?
I hope so. Its funny all my friends, people my age, were saying you need to go and see Beautiful it's amazing. I think she does have an appeal to all ages. And even if a younger audience comes in thinking they don't knowing anything about Carole King, they will be surprised about just how many of her songs they will actually know. They embed themselves in your mind and are part of the popular culture and have been covered so many times, including by current artists. Also the story is timeless and everyone can relate to it.
Is the music being played live?
Yes and it sounds amazing. We have an incredible band that has have taught me so much, especially with playing the piano. The cast as whole is 22 strong and that is very special about this show is that everyone gets their own individual moment to shine. The Drifters and The Shirelles both perform with all the cast getting lines. It is a real ensemble piece.
You were part of the tour of the Shrek musical. Is touring something you enjoy?
It is a very unique thing touring on a show. You start rehearsals not knowing anyone and just hoping everyone is nice, but give it a month and you are all super close. You travel together, eat together and just spend so much time together. Luckily on this show one of my best friends, Kane Oliver Parry, who is playing Gerry Goffin. We trained together at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London, so that is great.
Shrek stopped off in Norwich. Are you looking forward to returning?
I can't wait. I absolutely love Norwich. It is so sweet with all its little lanes and everything. I'd never been before I came with the Shrek tour but I really fell in love with it. I'm really looking forward to being back.
• Beautiful, Norwich Theatre Royal, October 3-7, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Oct 4-5, 7, £43.50-£8, 01603 630000,