Thursday, 16 April 2015

250th Interview: Katie Brayben, starring as Carole King in Beautiful

Fresh from winning Best Actress in a Musical at the 2015 Olivier Awards last Sunday (5th April), we are thrilled to reveal that West End Frame’s 250th interview is with Katie Brayben!

Katie is currently starring as Carole King in the West End premiere of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical which opened at the Aldwych Theatre in February. The show is based on the early life and career of Carole King. As well as winning an Olivier, Katie has received tremendous critical and public acclaim for her portrayal of the legendary singer/songwriter. Many have labelled her performance as career-defining. 

She most recently played Princess Diana in King Charles III which transferred from the Almeida Theatre to the West End. Her credits also include: American Psycho (Almeida), Joking Apart (Nottingham/Salisbury Playhouse), A Midsummer Night’s Dream & Ragtime (both Regent’s Park Open Air), 13 (National), Company (Southwark), John and Jen (Landor), Friday 4pm (Arcola), Counted? (Tour), The Great British Fete (Bush Theatre), Mamma Mia! (West End/International Tour), Return to the Forbidden Planet (Tour) and Some Girls are Bigger than Others (Lyric Hammersmith/Tour). 

I recently spoke to Katie about her whirlwind journey with Beautiful, what it’s like to take on such an almighty role and how it felt to meet Carole King on opening night…

The last few months have been crazy for you! From meeting Carole King on opening night, receiving rave reviews and then winning an Olivier Award! Have you had a chance to sit down and take it all in?
What’s weird is that it has been such a whirlwind, right from auditioning for the part up until now. I don’t think there is a way of sitting down and taking in what has happened, especially while I’m still in it. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll go, ‘oh yeah – that happened!’ [laughs]. It’s so weird for all this to be happening to me, I just feel like I’m watching somebody else’s life; it’s almost like I’m looking at it from the outside. It’s a very bizarre time!

I understand that you’ve always had a lot of love for Carole King and her music. Did you try and treat that first audition just like any other audition, or did you go in knowing this was a part you really, really wanted?
Well it’s so difficult with auditions, you have to put yourself in a certain mind frame and sort of do yourself up and stuff. So no, it wasn’t just any old audition, but I couldn’t really think of it like that because I would have put too much pressure on myself. As soon as you want something invariably you don’t get it [laughs]. I just tried to work on it like I would with anything else, I felt really engaged with the script and the music. Even though auditions are not necessarily pleasant things, I think I actually allowed myself to enjoy going in and singing those songs that I’ve always known and loved. It was actually quite nice to work on all that material!

Katie as Carole King

And then how did you find going into rehearsals? How much freedom did you have? There’s always more pressure when you’re playing a real character and the expectation was already high because the Broadway production was (and still is) so successful…
Marc (Bruni, director), was great. He allowed us to have our own views on what we thought the scenes were and how to play them. Obviously he’s great at putting a show together and they’ve worked with the Broadway show for so long that they knew it would work. I’m sure there will be some things that are similar, but in terms of our performances we were definitely given freedom to come up with our own interpretations. I think that’s important because otherwise there would be no point [laughs], it’s got to be creative and it’s got to be organic. Also I haven’t seen the show on Broadway and have no idea what that show is like, so I have no point of reference for comparing anything which is nice because we just see it as our show. It’s nice to have that feeling of ownership over what you’re doing. 

It certainly isn’t just a carbon copy of the Broadway production.
Exactly, it can be difficult because if a show has worked well then obviously the creatives know what works, but we were confident in Marc and he was confident in us. That’s the most important thing.

In terms of researching Carole, when you got the part did you spend your life watching videos and interviews on repeat?
Yes… basically that’s exactly what I was doing [laughs]. A lot of YouTube, a lot of Google and I read her autobiography which was obviously very enlightening. I did as much as I could before and during rehearsals. I wanted to have done the work and then to go in and do the play because the play is its own entity. You have to respond to what Doug (Douglas McGrath, book writer) has written as much as you need to have done your research – you’ve got to balance those two things. It has been a fascinating journey to go through.

Katie & Alan Morrissey as Gerry Goffin
Carole’s music speaks to so many people in so many ways, what was it like to rediscover the music from an actor’s perspective? Lyrically these songs tell amazing stories and lend themselves well to musical theatre.
Rediscover is the right word, and I think that’s why it’s nice for the audience as well – they rediscover the music within the context of this play. People have their own memories associated with these songs or maybe they don’t as the music is new for some people which is great as well. I think to hear the songs for the first time in this context would be quite amazing! The songs are beautifully written stories and it’s a joy as an actor to tell those stories. 

It’s impossible to pinpoint what makes the music so special!
You’re right, you can’t put your finger on or pinpoint what makes them so brilliant but that’s the genius of her and Gerry (Goffin) – they have this wonderful collaboration of two very different people creating these incredible songs. They really are a joy to sing. In the very first audition I got to sing ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘Beautiful’ which are two of my favourites and to sing them in the audition was just so great… and then to sing them every night is a dream because you can really feel how much the audience love each song. My friend said to me that he went home just thinking how important music is which I thought was such a wonderful thought to have after the show. I think a lot of people leave feeling like that – music can be so important in somebody’s life.

It’s amazing to introduce this music to a whole new generation, and I’m sure there will be people who know all the songs but just don’t realise they were all written by this one amazing woman!
Definitely! I’m always surprised that a lot of young people come and see the show and actually know the music! That goes to show it has stood the test of time and it will continue to. ‘Locomotion’ was a hit in three different decades – it just goes to show these songs are magic.

What do you think audiences can expect from Beautiful? Not many people know much about Carole’s story…
It’s very much a journey of a person realising their potential and what they have to offer, without sounding too dramatic [laughs], the world. It’s a story with a lot of heart. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a story about a relationship and heartbreak and creativity and music. I think there is a lot for people to relate to on a very personal level. I always, always listen to music if I’m going through a tough time in my life, there is so much associated with music and being able to express yourself and your emotions. So I think the journey the audience go on will almost be cathartic. There is definitely a connection between relationships and music, I know that’s how I feel about it.

“It’s so weird for all this to be happening to me, I just feel like I’m watching somebody else’s life!”

Roles like this don’t come up very often – what has it been like to take on? How do you feel when you come offstage? It must be so exhausting yet thrilling at the same time!
Well yes [laughs], you just answered the question! It is absolutely exhausting and thrilling! You know I’ve been thinking about this, I actually think it’s a lot harder to play smaller roles than it is to play a role like this. It’s because with Carole I start the show and then I’m on the train and don’t get off until the end – there’s no time to assess or think ‘oh god I messed that up’ so therefore you’re just in every moment. It’s such a gift to play a part where you really do get a beginning, a middle and an end of your character’s story. Yes it is exhausting, but it’s actually really uplifting and I find I always feel very uplifted at the end of the show. Surprisingly I don’t feel that tired! Like you say roles don’t come along like this ever! 

And have you had to change your lifestyle? You’ve got to look after yourself!
Well I can’t really go out at all [laughs]. But that’s ok, I’m quite happy to make that sacrifice. You know, I can have a couple of drinks with friends sometimes; it’s completely about balancing your life. You can’t do nothing otherwise you would go mad! A lot of my day is geared towards doing the show, whether that’s doing my yoga or eating well and all that sort of stuff so I’m prepared and know I can do the best show I can possibly do. You can’t just hide away until the show because that would be mad!

After researching and discovering Carole King for so many months, what was it like to actually meet her on opening night?
It was surreal! Just completely surreal! I still can’t believe it. I’m sat in my dressing room now looking at a picture of the two of us together. I keep looking at it and thinking ‘oh yeah, that actually happened!’ It was just amazing! I didn’t know she was going to be there. There was a rumour ages ago when we were rehearsing that she might come on press night, but I just said “You know what, I don’t think I could do it if I knew she was there so I just don’t want to know if she’s in.” Nobody told me which I’m really grateful for because I would have found it very difficult; I would have questioned everything I was doing because the person I was playing would have been actually sitting there. When she came onstage at the end I was blown away, I really, really couldn’t believe it. We had a great chat afterwards and she was very nice. It must be so strange for her to watch that part of her life being performed onstage. I can’t imagine what that would be like – it must be very emotional for her. 

Katie meeting Carole King on press night

The Olivier must be the cherry on top!
Again it is also completely surreal [laughs]. I watch the Oliviers and abstractly have gone, ‘Oh god imagine being nominated one day, that would be amazing’ but you don’t actually believe it’s ever going to happen! It still feels very surreal, I don’t really believe it!

What’s the atmosphere like amongst the cast backstage? It looks like you’re all having an amazing time!
Oh it’s great, everyone gets on really well and is very respectful of each other. I mean it’s such a talented cast, they’re absolutely ridiculous and wonderful. The great thing about the show is that everyone has a moment or a few moments to show exactly what they can do which is really wonderful – and boy do they show you what they can do! They are an incredible cast and we’re a very happy company. 

Throughout your career you have done so many completely different things – going from King Charles III into Beautiful could not have been more extreme. Do you like to keep yourself on your toes? Is diversity something you purposely search for?
I think that it is so important because, for me, the whole point of being an actor is that I get to play lots of different characters and people in lots of different stories. For me the most important thing is that the work is varied. I love political theatre, I love musical theatre – new musical theatre especially – basically what I’m saying is that I just love theatre. I love anything that is inspiring or speaks to me or is passionate. I’ve been lucky to do some pieces recently which I have been very passionate about. I think the most important thing is to stay inspired and passionate. I just love playing completely different characters, I wouldn’t want to get typecast or known for doing one type of thing. I think I’ve been lucky in that respect.

Katie & Carole King
So, as this is West End Frame’s 250th interview, I can’t let you go without asking you the West End Frame killer question!
Oh my goodness, wow! Go for it!

You’re going to a desert island and can take three musical theatre songs with you… which three are you going to take and why?
[laughs] Oh god! That’s really hard! Ok… off the top of my head I guess I would take ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret just because it’s so hopeful but desperate… so desperately hopeful and sad – I really like that one. I would probably take… this is difficult! I would obviously need something from Beautiful, in fact probably ‘Beautiful’ because I love the sentiment and it’s very uplifting. Then finally… I’m trying to think of something I loved when I was a kid… what would my third one be?! I would probably take a Sondheim, maybe something from Into The Woods? I know, ‘Moments in the Woods’ because it’s a very clever song and it’s quite funny and it’s about the path you choose in life and ‘all those magic moments’ that happen. They are all just off the top of my head! If I thought about it for longer I’m sure I would come up with something better [laughs]! 

Finally, there is already so much support behind you and the show – theatre fans are always so passionately dedicated. It must be lovely to know that theatregoers have totally embraced Beautiful?
It’s wonderful; I think it restores your faith in the industry because people will get behind a good show! It’s just great that there is so much positive energy about this show and I’m really grateful for that. It’s nice to know you’re doing something that people are enjoying! That’s the main thing!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical is currently booking at the Aldwych Theatre until Saturday 13th February 2016. Please visit for further information and tickets.

Thank you for following the countdown to West End Frame’s 250th interview and, as always, thank you for reading and supporting West End Frame! Here’s to the next 250!

Photo Credit 1: Craig Sugden
Photo Credit 2: Uli Weber 
Photo Credit 3: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Photo Credit 4&5: Dan Wooller

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