Winner of two Tony Awards, a Grammy Award, and two Olivier Awards, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical will have its official Australian premiere tonight at the Sydney Lyric Theatre.
Starring Esther Hannaford in the title role, Beautiful is a celebration of the gifted singer-songwriter and follows her rise to stardom, her relationship with husband and song-writing partner, Gerry Goffin (played by Josh Piterman), as well as the pair’s friendship and rivalry with fellow song-writing team Barry Mann (played by Mat Verevis) and Cynthia Weil (played by Amy Lehpamer). The winner of two Tony Awards, a Grammy Award, and two Olivier Awards, Beautiful’s is now set to wow Australian audiences.
On Thursday, leading lady Esther Hannaford spoke to media at the Sydney Lyric Theatre about her admiration for the woman she’s now tasked with portraying eight shows a week.
“Carole King is an absolute living legend,” she said. “For me, to get to sing those songs is the hugest honour.”
Asked to single out her own favourite song from King’s incredible back catalogue, Hannaford named the 1971 number one hit ‘It’s too late’, which the singer wrote with Toni Stern for her career-defining ‘Tapestry’ album.
“To me, it’s one of the most generous breakup songs I’ve ever heard,” she explained. “She’s saying, ‘We can’t be together but, at the same time, I love you and I love that what we had was special and [there’ll be] a time when we’ll be friends again. That, to me, embodies Carole – she’s so generous and always looking to the positive.”
Hannaford is excited to share the stage with the cast assembled for Beautiful’s first Australian outing.
“This cast is incredible, [with] some of the best voices you’re going to hear,” she said. “Honestly, everyone is like a star in their own right. Everyone gets their moment to shine in the show too.”
Marc Bruni, who directed Beautiful’s Broadway production, is at the helm of the show once again and he shares Hannaford’s enthusiasm for the local cast.
“We have an extraordinary company of Australians,” Bruni said. “It’s a great honour to have found a completely Australian company for Beautiful. I’ve been here for six weeks, rehearsing them every day, and I’m dazzled by the breadth of talent that we have, starting certainly with Esther Hannaford – who is an extraordinary actress playing Carole King – but [also] the rest of the principals and the ensemble.
“This show depicts songs that she wrote not only for herself, but also for other artists, and those other artists are depicted by members of the ensemble, who are portraying characters who, in their day, were stars, [including] The Shirelles [and] The Drifters. To find the breadth of talent to properly depict all of those great artists of the day is just wonderful.”
The most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the twentieth century, more than 400 of King’s compositions were recorded by over 1,000 artists, leading to 100 hit singles and six Grammy Awards.
“This show has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the number of hit songs that it depicts”, Bruni said. “But also, it tells a heartfelt story that goes from 1959 to 1971 … of a girl who starts as a kid and sells her first song and becomes a superstar. That’s a great, inspirational tale I think for a lot of people who are going into show business.”
He said King herself has been a great supporter of Beautiful from the very beginning.
“She was reluctant to see the show initially, but once she finally did, she absolutely loved it and she personally approved Esther to perform this role … I think that she’d be very pleased with what’s going on on stage at the Sydney Lyric.”
Beautiful’s Tony, BAFTA and Academy Award-nominated book writer Douglas McGrath is also in Sydney for the musical’s Australian premiere. Asked about what prompted his initial interest in writing the show, McGrath shared his own history with King’s music.
“The best songs of my youth, along with The Beatles, were Carole’s and Gerry’s songs. So, I was very interested in knowing who created such emotional, rich, melodically-thrilling music,” he said.
“But then I learned about her life, and it was a life of romance, heartbreak and struggle, of incredible hard work and, ultimately, some of the most beautiful and moving successes, in terms of her own personal life and her music. I wanted to tell that story because I thought it was not only great for her fans to know it, but for the whole younger generation to see what it takes to become a great artist – how much joy there is in it, and also how much hard work it is.”
McGrath also recalled his time spent with King as he prepared to write the show’s book.
“She was very generous,” he said. “I interviewed Carole and all the songwriters at length, for many hours over many days, to get their stories because I didn’t know what the plot would be. I talked to them about every aspect of their lives and they were great. Carole particularly was like, ‘I’ve told you everything you’ve asked’, which she did – she held back nothing.
“She was writing her autobiography at the time, and what was so interesting was I assumed she would be keeping some stuff for the autobiography. But, in fact, she told me many things that are not in her book, things that I think were almost in a way too personal for her book, that she felt better if someone else told than if she told. So, the musical has many things in it that are not in the autobiography and offer a deeper level of understanding of her life [during] this period.”
McGrath described what he believes it is that sets King apart from many female musical artists.
“Most women singers, particularly who have her level of success, often present themselves as exotic, glamorous pop goddesses – whether it’s Katy Perry, Barbra Streisand [or] Aretha Franklin, they all seem a little bit above the listener. They’re figures of glamour,” he said.
“Carole does not present herself that way; Carole presents herself as your friend. She’s like someone you could’ve gone to school with, the nice woman who lives next door, [or] your sister. She has no pretence and she doesn’t make any effort to make herself seem other than what she is. So, people are fooled a little in thinking ‘she’s just like me’, which she is in a certain way because her heart is so humane and so compassionate and so forgiving, but there’s one difference – she’s a genius. She is a melodic song-writing genius.”
McGrath continues: “You think of what she wrote at the beginning of her career – a song like ‘Rain until September’, a charming lovely song, or ‘The Locomotion’ – and then you compare that to a song like ‘Natural woman’ or ‘It’s too late’, which are songs of a much deeper emotional complexity. What unites all of them is that they go straight to you, there’s no defence. Her vulnerability and her honesty are right there.”
McGrath is also asked about the opportunities Beautiful affords actors of different ethnicities.
“This is 2017, so you would hope that was happening,” he said.
“What’s interesting is it reflects what Carole and Gerry were doing at the time. Carole and Gerry were two Jewish, middle-class kids who had no prejudice about anything. They wanted the best people to sing and perform their songs, and it’s an interesting part of American culture that at that time, two middle-class Jewish kids were writing for black groups. They wrote some of the best songs for those groups that were done, and they gave work to people who, at that point in history, were often relegated to R&B stations, they weren’t as much in the mainstream. But Carole and Gerry and Barry and Cynthia helped them move into that. So, I think what we’re doing here reflects the ground-breaking work they did so long ago.”
And is there a chance we will see King here at some point during Beautiful’s Australian season?
“I can’t speak for her, but I know she’d be really thrilled to see what’s happening on stage,” Bruni said.
BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL – SEASON DETAILS
Season: Now playing until Sunday 21 January, 2018
Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Pirrama Road, Pyrmont)
Tickets: From Ticketmaster on 136 100 or www.ticketmaster.com.au
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