Bronté Barbé on bringing Carole King musical Beautiful to Sunderland

How do you step into the shoes of a living legend?

The cast of Beautiful
The cast of Beautiful

“There’s a pressure, but it’s an interpretation, not an impersonation,” says Bronté Barbé about curling her hair to become Carole King in Beautiful, a musical based on the life of one of the most successful female songwriters of all time.

It’s easy to forget just how many hits flowed from the pen of Carole King, tracks which became the soundtrack of a generation, 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 The Locomotion.

Beautiful looks at the story behind the creation of those hits and the true story of King’s remarkable rise to stardom, from being part of a hit songwriting team with her husband Gerry Goffin, to her relationship with fellow writers and best friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, to becoming one of the most successful solo acts in popular music history.

The show also includes the Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann hit songs You’ve Lost that Lovin Feeling, On Broadway and We Gotta Get Out of This Place.

Bronté says the musical’s success is down to the strength of the story.

“It’s not just for fans of Carole King,” she explained. “It’s a musical with a lot of heart and it’s very relatable, everyone is on their feet at the end.

“A lot of people don’t know her back story. She was just someone who wanted to make music, but a lot ended up happening at a very young age. She was so determined.”

King’s career began in the 1960s when she and her first husband wrote hits for a number of other artists, including Will You Love Me Tomorrow for the Shirelles and A Natural Woman, which was immortalised by Aretha Franklin. Though her songs struck a chord, she came into her own when she stepped into the spotlight herself.

In the 1970s she began to sing her own songs, accompanying herself on the piano, and scored her breakthrough with the album Tapestry, which topped the US album chart for 15 weeks in 1971 and remained the best-selling album by a female artist for a quarter of a century.

And she’s still making music today. Her most recent non-compilation album was Live at the Troubadour in 2010, a collaboration with James Taylor that reached number four on the charts in its first week and has sold more than 600,000 copies.

“All her songs are so personal and a lot of those great songs were written when she was still so young,” explained Bronté. “She has such an extensive back catalogue and a lot of people don’t realise just how many songs she wrote.

“So some people know songs like Tapestry and don’t realise she also did Will You Love Me Tomorrow. And these were songs that were all written between the ages of 16-29. It’s such a short amount of time for such a great deal of remarkable work.

“You hear so many stories from people who remember the first time they danced to those songs, it’s music that means a lot to people.”

The musical which celebrates this achievement received its Broadway premiere in January 2014 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre where it continues to play to packed houses, leading to a London production at the Aldwych.

Joining Bronté on stage for the UK tour is Kane Oliver Parry as King’s husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin, Amy Ellen Richardson as songwriter Cynthia Weil, Matthew Gonsalves as songwriter Barry Mann, Carol Royle as King’s mother Genie Klein and Adam Howden as music publisher and producer Donnie Kirshner.

Bronté rose to fame as a finalist in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s BBC1 television series Over The Rainbow in 2010 before appearing on stage in roles including Princess Fiona in the UK tour of Shrek the musical.

This role, however, brings a different form of pressure.

“There is more pressure in that Carole King is a real person, so you have a different theatrical response,” she explained.

“It’s about being true to who she is, while also making it our own as this is a role. It’s not an impersonation, it’s an interpretation.

“I know she’s been to see it on Broadway and London and I’d love her to see the tour, that would be amazing.”

l Beautiful – The Carole King Musical is at Sunderland Empire from March 6-10.