How Carole King conquered the Brill Building system

A new musical on the singer's life is at its best on the hit factory that King made her own


In the Playhouse theatre in Edinburgh, the curtain lifts on the Carole King biographical musical Beautiful. We meet a triumphant King, played by Bronté Barbé, at a grand piano singing So Far Away to a sold-out Carnegie Hall. It’s 1971 and her seminal album Tapestry, borne out of her broken marriage to brilliant lyricist Gerry Goffin, is a huge success. It will remain in the top 100 album charts for six years and sell 25 million copies.

Beautiful focuses on the years of King’s life before Tapestry and is the sometimes sanitised tale of how, after years of writing with and for other people, Carole King came to trust her own voice. It opened on Broadway in 2014 and won several Tonys.

The scene shifts and we are introduced to Carol Joan Klein, a 15-year-old school girl in Brooklyn, leaving school for the day and making her way to the offices of Atlantic Records to play them her songs. As she wrote in her memoir: “Someone was going to get her songs recorded. Why not me?”

King was hired while still in school, and Beautiful brings us inside the famous “Brill Building” system of songwriting that prevailed then. Working in a hit factory that churned out the soundtrack of the 1960s, King writes in a cubicle barely large enough for her upright piano. She meets and marries lyricist Goffin and they write You Make Me Feel Like a (Natural Woman), Will You Still Love Me and The Locomotion (for Little Eva, who was King and Goffin’s babysitter) along with many more hits.

King becomes a mother at 18, and is so close to her dream of being a wife in her beloved suburbs. But, as she sings, “there’s somethin’ wrong here, there can be no denyin’”. Goffin’s insatiable appetite for LSD, his alcoholism and bi-polar disorder rob King of that simple life.

Beautiful cleverly uses the set up of the hit factory to give us a wider range of songs from the era. Rival songwriting couple Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann toil away in a neighbouring cubicle, competing with Goffin and King for hits and acting as a foil. They are the couple who have it smoother and sweeter, happy bystanders to the central tragic romance, but still writing hits like On Broadway for the Drifters, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place for The Animals and, unforgettably, Unchained Melody for the Righteous Brothers.

One of the criticisms made of Carole King’s memoir, A Natural Woman, published in 2012, was that King was just a little too nice to make it a compelling read. At times, Beautiful has the same failing. The writing is somewhat clichéd, and the set-up can be heavy handed. Walking away from Goffin for the last time, King tells him their daughter deserves better, “And you know what? So do I!” The crowd whoops; yu go girl.

What Beautiful does well is capture the moment of a song’s creation. King, having written the music for a new hit, is stuck for the words and goes to bed. Goffin comes home drunk, sees her music on the piano and writes Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow before falling asleep on the couch.

Nostalgia is a surefire way to get bums on seats, and the success of jukebox musicals like Beautiful, Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia means that more will be made. The woman beside me sings along throughout, despite the increasingly terse requests of the lady behind, “Can you stop singing please?”

At the end, people jump to their feet after a roiling rendition of the titular song. Critics have described this as a sort of “ovation by coercion”, the audience manipulated by a two-hour nostalgic trip, but the audience stay standing and have a little boogie to the finale, I Feel the Earth Move.

It is true to say that something might be lost from a good pop song with this sort of “belting out” musical theatre style. But pop music is about fun and entertainment and this is a warm charming show, carried by King’s brilliant catalogue which gives a truer sense of the woman than any script ever could.

In the dressing room backstage, 26-year-old Bronte Berler is still in full makeup but has slipped into her jeans and curled up on the sofa for a chat, apologising that she’s not very presentable. Eight years ago, Berler was a contestant on BBC’s Over the Rainbow, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s version of The X Factor.

When Bronte left the show, Lloyd Webber told her to keep in touch. “He said, ‘if you can’t get the money for drama school, we’ll help you’.” She took him up on his offer.

“I graduated and did a few character roles like Penny Pingleton in Hairspray. That was my kind of jam.” Then she got the lead role of Fiona in Shrek. “I got a massive leap.”

Berler, from Cheshire, has now done nearly a hundred shows as King. She is far too young to have listened to Carole King growing up, so Berler’s mother introduced her to the music. “I got a record player about four years ago and she was like, ‘You need to get this album, Tapestry’.”

For research, she watched “every possible YouTube. I read her book. I tried to listen to the music of the time, look at the era what’s going on especially for women. She was so pioneering with what she was doing at such a young age to walk into an office like that – it’s quite impressive.” She tells me about the “Carolisms” in the songs, “intonations or riffs that we always keep.”

She acknowledges that this may be a lighter version of King’s life, but “it’s as close as they could do in a musical. I read another book about her that detailed it more. She went through a lot.”

Berler is possibly referring to King’s violently abusive third marriage to musician Rick Evers. “But I tried to not look as much at after, because if I know things it influences [the performance].”

King concedes that jukebox musicals do seem to be “a winning formula. I do worry sometimes if a musical is created just to shoehorn the songs in if the story is not so great, but I think this is so unique in the way it flows and it fits perfectly, the way she wrote her songs. They reflected how she was feeling.”

Playing an adored, and living, performer has its pressures. “I’m never going to be able to do an impression; I want to do an interpretation. Obviously I can’t get close to her because she’s so individual and people have their vision of who she is and her music and her mindset. She’s a living breathing person, it’s her story, and it’s very precious to do it in the right way.”

‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ is at Bord Gais Energy Theatre January 9th to 17th.

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