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Garry Robson - Beautiful: The Carole King Musical Interview

For writer, actor and director Garry Robson appearing in the UK and Ireland tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical as music mogul Donnie Kirshner has clearly been a joy, "it's one of those shows where I don't think there's not been an audience on their feet at the end and that's always a great feeling."

Garry Robson as Donnie Kirshner in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical - Photography by Ellie Kurttz

The Made at Curve production helmed by Curve's Artistic Director Nikolai Foster has enjoyed a successful run and heads towards its final few tour venues including a visit to Coventry's Belgrade Theatre. I sat down with Garry to discuss the show in more detail.

Garry began by explaining how his lengthy career over the past 30 years has included television, film and theatre but that "theatre is my main kind of love". More recently Garry has appeared in musical theatre including appearing in White Christmas at Curve as General Waverley. "I don't know how that's happened so late in my career" He jokes with me that "there are the old man parts in every musical and I seem to be having the monopoly of them at the minute".

Donnie Kirshner had an important role in Carole King's career, Garry explains to me "in theory he's the person who discovered Carole King as a writer. In the 1950s music publishing was bigger than sales, you made more money from the publishing than the actual discs. That changed towards the end of the 50s"

"Donnie was originally a music publisher and then became somebody who promoted talent. He set up a building for songwriters, he would pay them a retainer and they would come and sit in little cubicles in offices within this building and would write songs. He would then parcel out the songs to various artists with both him and the artists getting a percentage. He became quite successful at doing that."

"His big thing was that it was a young persons industry. It was the decade when the teenager was discovered and he got on to that more quickly than most. His idea was the big market was the teenagers and what we've got at the minute is 50-year-old tin pan alley writers churning out songs for teenagers such as 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?'. So his discovery was letting young people write for young artists and that's where he discovered Carole King."

It's clear to me how much knowledge Garry has of the time, he further explained "there was a place called The Brill Building which is the one people know about where songwriters would gather. Donnie set up in opposition in another building opposite and his place was seen as more open and more trendy and where he'd take more risks. Young people could come along and say 'would you listen to my song?' and he would. He didn't have a great musical ear but he was a businessman and knew what sold. He surrounded himself with some good musical people and that's where he met Carole King. Carole was keen to be a songwriter, she was only 16 and tried to get her music published by various people and it hadn't happened. She walked into Donnie's office, he gave her an audition and it went from there really."

For Garry one of the attractions of the part and the show was that it was a Curve co-production alongside Theatre Royal Bath and Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. He told me "I love working in Leicester at Curve and working with Nikolai. When I read the script I was very impressed, it's a very quickfire Jewish New York humour-type script, it's essentially a jukebox musical and nobody is kidding themselves about that. People come to hear the songs but there's a good strong book to it and Carole King's story is quite amazing."

"It goes from this Jewish schoolkid on the streets of New York with dreams of becoming a songwriter to changing the way the music industry looked at women singers and writers. She had a difficult life, she was married to Gerry Goffin, and together they were a famous songwriting duo, but Gerry suffered from manic depression for all of his life. He had various drug addictions and was serially unfaithful to Carole so she had a very difficult early part of her life. They married when she was 16, she was just a kid. It's a strong story and a very witty script. It uses the song, not just as sticking a song here or there but it develops the story and I've always liked that."

"Nikolai had the idea using very much a Curve ethos in warts and all. We've got actor-musicians playing every part, they've even got me playing the Glockenspiel which has never happened in my life. The idea is that a lot of things that happened in Carole's life took place in recording studios when musicians hang out and are pulled in to do demos. You get to see the process of the songs, you see Carole come in and demo a particular song. You hear her raw and pure version of it and then the next time you hear it it's The Drifters doing it. It's a rock solid piece in terms of popularity which is always nice to be in."

This particular production opened at Curve back in early March of 2022, so fast forward 6 months and the tour is heading toward the final few venues. Garry explains that journey and the process of working in with the actor-musician company "I think it's amazing, what you get is a huge band on the stage. We don't do the Mamma Mia thing where you get seven or eight songs at the end with everyone up and dancing but it's similar to that in that we end with some crackers. We're all part of it, we're all singing, and all playing so it does have the fizz and excitement of a live concert. A lot of the audience's reaction is to celebrate Molly-Grace Cutler who stars as Carole King, she's astonishing, a complete force of nature but it's also to celebrate the uplift the show gives people. It's a very joyous show, it came at a time when the theatres were just coming back to their feet and audiences were coming back in and I think that was the response when to the show in the early months. It's so joyous and made me feel really happy. I'm going out into the night signing the 11 o'clock number".

This new production is completely different from the earlier production of the show that ran on Broadway and in the West End and Garry says "if the audiences have seen it before they all been saying the same thing this is amazing we've never seen it like this. Another trademark of Nikolai is his pace of shows, I love the pace of his shows, and this really rattles through, it's very buzzy and very exciting. It tells a really great story and takes its time to tell it but you never feel it's dragging. It moves at a great pace. I think that's a good thing, audiences like that, you're getting a story and being carried along by that. People are really excited to see the high-quality musicians on the stage playing their stuff and the next minute acting in a dramatic scene."

Carole King's longevity is more than worthy to be celebrated, her back catalogue of songs she's either performed or written is quite frankly astonishing. Garry explains "there's a real richness lyrical it, how much of that is Carole or Gerry Goffin in the early songs that's for debate but there is a lyrical richness. Something like 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow?' is a beautiful song and it's a heartbreaker that has wonderful success every night. There's a wonderful arrangement by our Musical Supervisor Sarah Travis, it builds and it builds and is an amazing song."

"The later work, she was speaking to a lot of women whose voices were not being heard. There are some great lines in the show 'I'm not a singer because singers look like Diana Ross or Petula Clake. I'm a fairly scraggly-haired woman who wears relatively plain clothes with a Bronx accent. I'm a New York Jew'. She's kind of an ordinary person and what ordinary people want is people who sing songs to them that they can relate to. One of the delights of the show is having a large number of women in the audience who you can see have been there and brought Tapestry (Carole King's second album released in 1971) when it came out. Every household had Tapestry. It was very liberating for a lot of women, it spoke a lot of their lives and their relationships and the breaking up of those relationships and the joy of those relationships."

Garry and the cast of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical - Photography by Ellie Kurttz.

For wheelchair-bound Garry who during lockdown worked with Curve on their Curve Classroom project running a session about Disability in the Arts. Working on a tour production has certainly come with its own difficulties. "It's an interesting one and another reason why I wanted to do it. I'm still up for challenges. Number one tours aren't known for having disabled artists." Garry tells me that there are also "more disabled artists in the show than just myself, disabilities are invisible and come in all shapes and sizes".

"I kind of wanted to do it for that reason, I thought it was important to be visible in these settings. It's been very good, some of the theatres try very very hard but backstage they're still not quite up to snuff when it comes to access. They've all been willing and ready to learn and I think that's really important."

"The other surprise for me was that tour producers Theatre Royal Bath hired a young woman, Ellie, to be an accessibility officer on the tour. She checks out the theatres in advance for me and the other cast members who have access needs and makes sure the theatres are aware of what we need." Garry is rightfully full of praise for Ellie and the role she has done. "It's worked really well. Without that kind of liaison, I think some of these theatres could have been very difficult" Garry tells me of a recent stop at Manchester's Palace Theatre where his only access was to go right to the back of the building, over cobbled streets and enter on a slope that's meant for flight cases. He does go on to say "it was workable because of the excellent staff at the Palace, they went out the way to make it work. It's hardly ideal but going there without the intervention of Ellie would have been a nightmare."

"The fact there has been somebody employed whose job it is to make sure access works in some of these places I think has been quite an industry breakthrough. It's something other producers should think about if they're serious about working with deaf and disabled performers."

I tell Garry of some of my own experiences of seeing some deaf and disabled performers on the stage, particularly at The Royal Shakespeare Company. Has there been a shift in the industry? "It used to be when I started out that you were pretty remarkable and that's often how you were referred to in reviews which is always very nice. But what they were saying was remarkable is the fact you were there not in fact praising what you were doing. That was a bit of a battle to get actors and performers treated on their merits. I think there's still some education to be done on both sides."

"It's different for audiences, a number of audience members have said to me that they've never seen anybody in a wheelchair on stage before and I think that's really important to have that visibility still. I think producers are waking up to that fact. It also brings a lot of positives, it brings different ways of looking at the world, and different interpretations of classics and of modern plays. It brings other stories and new stories to tell and new ways of looking at the world. Surely that's what theatre is all about."

What about playing someone who really existed and how do you prepare for a role of a real person rather than a character in fiction. Garry explained "Nikolai was clear in the fact that this isn't a biopic. This is an imaginary interpretation of a woman's story. Molly who plays Carole has clearly done huge research into the way Carole King sounds and performs. The fact that Donnie was actually a 6-foot-3 basketball player doesn't have a lot of relevance. I have done work but I was more interested in his attitude, this sense of this is a new world and the music industry needs to move with this world. You can't keep churning out the same stuff. People today want to have songs that are relevant to them and it's as true as it was then in the 50s."

As our chat headed to its conclusion, I asked a couple of general questions. I began by throwing him if he could have a drink with any of the characters he's played to date who would he choose and why. He told me "I played Death once and I think I'd quite like to have a drink with Death just to understand it all really. Me and Death going out for a pint somewhere would be really cool."

For Garry, the early theatrical roots go back to seeing local amateur groups. "I saw Oliver because my parents were in it as part of a local Am Dram. Oliver has always stuck with me, I think it's a great show. It's got great songs and characters. In a way, it's a good show because it tells a familiar story. You have to forget the anti-semitism of it that was played up in the early years. When I keep talking about the Jewishness of Carole King, interestingly they very much referred to themselves as that. It's not just about Carole and Gerry but it's also about Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, who were also Jewish. They did refer to themselves as four Jews in a room that changed the world."

What do theatre and performance mean to Garry? "For me it's storytelling, bringing stories from all around the world about all different people. That's what keeps humanity being human in a way. This ability to tell one and other stories to understand one and other and hopefully have empathy. We all go through this world trying to make sense of it and I think that is what theatre does. It's also one of the last great uncensored spaces where we can tell those stories."

One of the great surprises that you may not know about Garry is that he has also dabbled in International Sport as part of the English International Team including playing at two World Championships. "it's all true, I'm an England International." It came around as part of a bet. "Me and Jamie Beddard, who is also a disabled performer, were having a drink one night and talking about sport because we both love it and saying I bet I could become an International sports person before you can. I was speaking to someone who said I should try Curling. Understandably because I live in Scotland there are not many Curling rinks in England. I decided to go along to the local rink where I knew there was a team. I also knew the English team was there and I went along and had a couple of practices and they offered me to join the team and that's how it happened! You couldn't do it now because it's a much higher standard. There's a lot more money in it now than there was then. It was a lot of fun."

Our chat wrapped with Garry explaining why anyone should go out and see Beautiful. "It's an amazing show. The songs are great, and the movement is great. We had a wonderful choreographer (Leah Hill), and the movement is really feisty, really earthy, sexy and exciting as is the music. It tells a great story. You also have got to see Molly-Grace Cutler's performance because it is astonishing. She is going to be a superstar, she is just amazing. It'll make you feel joyous."

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical tours and at the time of editing plays at Blackpool Grand Theatre until Saturday 22nd October 2022. Tickets are available from The show visits Peterborough (25th - 29th October), Coventry (1st - 5th November), Cheltenham (8th - 12th November), Liverpool (15th - 19th November) and finished in Oxford (22nd - 26th November).

Garry and the cast of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical - Photography by Ellie Kurttz.

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