WHEN Bronte Barbe landed the lead role in hit show Beautiful, her mum told her to buy Carole King's seminal album, Tapestry.

"She said to get it on vinyl, to get the most out of it. It's just wonderful, a work of art," says Bronte, who stars in Beautiful - The Carole King Story, tracing the American singer/songwriter's early career. The Olivier, Tony and Grammy-award winning show opens its first UK tour at the Alhambra next month.

It's the story of King’s rise to stardom, from her hit songwriting team with first husband Gerry Goffin, and friendship with fellow writers Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, in the 1960s to becoming one of the most successful solo acts in popular music history. King wrote and co-wrote 118 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, and found fame as a solo performer in the 1970s when she sang her own songs, at the piano, in a series of albums and concerts. Along the way, she wrote the soundtrack to a generation, including one of the best-selling albums of all time, Tapestry, and classics such as (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, It Might as Well Rain Until September and It's Too Late.

"She wrote songs we all know - like Up On The Roof, Locomotion, Take Good Care of My Baby and Pleasant Valley Sunday - yet often people have no idea they were written by her," says Bronte. " She and Gerry Goffin were both so talented; it's interesting to find out more about them."

Bronte knew little about the songwriting partnership when she landed the role. "I was away in Shrek (playing Princess Fiona) and hadn't seen Beautiful. I didn't even know who Gerry Goffin was, but once I started researching it was I was fascinated," she says. "It's such a classy show, it's not like other musicals. The songs link into the story."

Much of the show focuses on King and Goffin's songwriting team, and gives an insight into the songwriting process of the day. Also featured are songs by Weil and Mann, such as We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.

"They worked in back-to-back cubicles and literally came up with songs overnight. They were so prolific," says Bronte. "There must have been such a buzz at the time; all these great songs coming through and new acts to sing them."

Bronte plays King from schoolgirl to wife and mother. "It covers the ages 16 to 29. It's a small section of her life, but very eventful," says Bronte. "She was very much a behind-the-scenes songwriter initially, that's how she wanted it. Then she ends up with this incredible solo career.

"She was a normal girl who wanted a family, but she was forward-thinking. She managed to balance family and career at a time when mothers were expected to stay at home."

Adds Bronte: "I've watched lots of clips of Carole, although early years footage is hard to find. She's a very distinctive singer - my performance is an interpretation, not an impression."

Bronté was a finalist on BBC1's Over The Rainbow, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for a Dorothy for his Wizard of Oz revival. Since then she's appeared in shows such as Chicago, Hairspray Shrek - The Musical.

"Beautiful is my biggest role yet. In these dark times, I love that audiences can lose themselves in this show for two hours. For those who remember the songs, it's nostalgic and younger people who are getting into Carole's songs now love it too."

* Beautiful runs at the Alhambra from September 9 - 16. For tickets call (01274) 432000.