Entertainment & Arts

Carole King calls London tribute musical 'a wonderful gift'

Carole King (centre) on stage with Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and cast members of Beautiful Image copyright Dan Wooller
Image caption King was joined on stage by husband-and-wife songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (left)

US singer-songwriter Carole King called a tribute musical about her early life "a wonderful gift" as the Tony-winning show made its West End debut in London.

King took to the stage to thank the "spectacular" cast of Beautiful before singing hit song You've Got a Friend.

Before the show, the 73-year-old told BBC News she was "so excited" to see the London company's efforts.

Singer Petula Clark and record producer Mark Ronson were among the first night audience at the Aldwych theatre.

The former received a round of applause when her name was mentioned during the show, which tells of King's formative days as a songwriter and her gradual emergence as a solo artist.

As well as You've Got a Friend, the show features such timeless King classics as I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away and Will You Love Me Tomorrow?

There are also performances of other songs from the 1950s and '60s, among them Oh! Carol - a song written and performed by Neil Sedaka, King's former boyfriend.

According to the show's American writer, Douglas McGrath, Beautiful is "about a girl who works hard, achieves her professional dreams and has her heart broken by the boy she loves.

"She thinks it's all over, but then finds something more beautiful in her life than she realised was there before."

Image copyright Dan Wooller
Image caption London-born actress Katie Brayben (right) plays King in the show

Beautiful opened on Broadway in January 2014 and went on to win two Tony awards, one of them for its lead actress Jessie Mueller.

Katie Brayben, from Lewisham in south-east London, plays King in the London production, having previously appeared in the Almeida theatre's stagings of American Psycho and King Charles III.

"We were looking for someone with the essence of Carole," producer Mike Bosner told BBC News. "We weren't looking for an impersonation.

"Katie is self-effacing, warm and vulnerable, yet she has a lot of strength. People see a lot of Carole in her."

As well as charting her early career, Beautiful also dramatises King's troubled first marriage to fellow songwriter Gerry Goffin, who died last year aged 75.

'Authentic if heightened'

At the end of Tuesday's opening night performance, King said the cast had "done [Goffin] proud" and that he would have "loved" the evening had he been there.

Other characters in the show include Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, songwriters who enjoyed a friendly but sometimes competitive relationship with Goffin and King in 1960s New York.

Weil, who was in attendance on Tuesday along with Mann, said the show was "both authentic and honest, if heightened for dramatic reasons".

"Not a lot of people know about this part of Carole's life, which amazes us," she continued.

Image copyright Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
Image caption US singing groups like the Shirelles and the Drifters (pictured) have a role in the show

"We thought everyone knew she was an amazing songwriter, long before Tapestry [the 1971 album that made King's name as a solo performer]."

"London has always been very kind to songwriters, so I hope they recognise the show in the same way," said Mann.

Beautiful presents a string of familiar songs by Weil and Mann as well as ones by Goffin and Weil - a tactic that has seen the show likened to Jersey Boys.

The Broadway and West End success, later filmed by director Clint Eastwood, told of Frankie Valli and his time with '60s chart-toppers The Four Seasons.

Yet producer Paul Blake played down comparisons to that and other so-called "jukebox" musicals, saying the show was "a female empowerment story that happens to be about Carole".

"Not everyone is involved in the Mafia like Frankie Valli was," he told BBC News. "But all women know what's it like to feel unappreciated."

'Hope and heartbreak'

"I was very interested in these four songwriters and fascinated by what they did with their lives," said McGrath, an Oscar-nominated writer and director whose films include the 1996 version of Jane Austen's Emma.

"I wanted to show people who love their songs where they came from, and to show that some of the romance and hope and heartbreak they hear in them came from real life."

King admitted she had been "terrified" of seeing the original production and that it took her "a while" to attend a performance.

"I just want [audiences] to have a great evening," she told the BBC. "They know the music, I know that already, because I know our songs were hits in the UK."

Image copyright Presser
Image caption Hollywood star Tom Cruise (third from right) met cast members during a recent visit to London

Reviews of the London production have been generally positive, with The Times' critic saying it offered "a thoroughly pleasant night at the theatre".

The musical, Dominic Maxwell went on, was "slick, beautifully played [and] terrifically tuneful" in which Brayben "sings even better than the real thing".

The actress, Paul Taylor wrote in The Independent, "gives a wonderfully endearing performance... in a piece that shows King evolve from hired hit-maker to empowered solo artist".

The show, said the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts, is "sweet and happy as pie". "It milks the tear ducts, gives you a long list of searing songs and will send many a couple home arm-in-arm".

Yet The Guardian's Michael Billington expressed some reservations, saying Beautiful "lacks the drama that some of us still hunger for in a musical".

Beautiful, which also stars former Dempsey & Makepeace and EastEnders actress Glynis Barber as King's mother Genie, is currently booking to 13 June.

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