This August saw Eric Abraham and Fugard Theatre Productions make history with the staging of the 1959 smash-hit musical, King Kong. Getting the production to the stage was no easy feat. Although the nostalgia-based memories of those who saw it in its original form still lives on, much of the production's blue print was lost over time and had to be reconstructed and thus reimagined. The result is the 2017 staging of King Kong – Legend of a Boxer, a musical inspired by the life of Sophiatown boxing hero, Ezekiel Dlamini.
A strong creative team and highly talented cast were set the challenge of paying tribute to the much-loved original, but also add their own flair to it. With that came the need to balance the respect owed to the 1959 version, while musically giving it a contemporary vision and voice.
So, sitting down to talk with one of the musical directors, Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba, and the two leads, Andile Gumbi (playing King Kong) and Nondumiso Tembe (playing the role of his feisty love interest, Joyce), it simply had to be asked: How did they tackle the daunting task of giving a modern voice to a classic musical?
Lucwaba upfront admits, “Charl [Lingenfelder] and myself asked that from the very beginning, but Charl has this saying, ‘The only ego in the room is that of the theatre piece’. So, when we came into this project our first goal was just to figure out as accurately as possible what they had done in the original. So – rewinding back in time about two years ago – when we started we had nothing but the body. Luckily, our producer Daniel [Galloway] found a little bit of the orchestration at Rhodes University I think. They had archives of the original King Kong music, but it was only for a piano part and a voice.” That, Tembe comments, “is really nothing”, when you are trying to reconstruct a full musical.
Lucwaba and Ligenfelder truly had their work cut out for them, but he explains that they went about it very logically, and just started working at putting the deconstructed puzzle pieces back together. “So we decided to just write out all the music. We got the London recording of King Kong, and then the South African recording, and we literally transcribed it so that we could have on paper exactly what they played in 1959. That was our point of departure for everything. And then, in terms of now balancing it with the sound of 2017, we trusted the artists to do that. We knew that whoever played the drums would play it in a more contemporary style than they did in 1959. Same way I’m playing bass in a slightly different way. The way Nondumiso sings the part of Joyce, the way Andile sings the part of King Kong, we knew would be contemporary just because of the artists. So, that meeting of the two worlds was always going to happen.”
In embracing that synergy Lucwaba notes that they kept a careful check on not moving too far away from the original feel, “I mean in terms of the horn orchestrations, for instance, we didn’t want to lose anything. Originally, I think they had thirteen horn players, we now only have five, but what we did was then we looked at the original, we did some redactions, some of it was tracked, and so we stayed as close to it as possible.”
Gumbi agrees that although some changes were made, this had to do more with allowing a modern day sound to supplement the original 1950s vibe and feel, which of itself is intimidating for a contemporary performer. “I was listening to the music and wondering, ‘How am I going to sing this?’ The way it sounded is not something that we’re used to. Then working with Charl and Sipumzo, they tweaked it, made it easier for me to approach the music in a different way, in a different style. Also the original voice was different. I don’t have a deep voice. [Hugh Masekela] was a baritone and I am a tenor. So, they had to tweak the music here and there. Yet, it is still the same music, it is still the same songs and everything else. It just kind of sits in a different melody for me so that I can be able to hit certain notes…So, working with these guys, it morphed into something else that works for today’s audience.”
Tembe shares that she too had similar fears and reservations to that of Gumbi when she first encountered the music and realised how very technical it is. “First of all, the role of Joyce, just in terms of the vocal role, the music is exceptionally hard. It really is. As a role it stretches my voice to either extreme. Many of the keys sit sort of in my passaggio, which is the point where the voice wants to flip from the chest to the head voice … I was very intimidated and overwhelmed. I really have to say Charl and Sipumzo have been unbelievably supportive and have really helped me figure out how to make the music work for me, finding the right tone and approach to it to make my voice shine, and to really be able to make this role my own.”
While making the role – which catapulted Miriam Makeba as the original Joyce to stardom – her own, Tembe admits the role took a lot of vocal and stylistic preparation. “I am a classically trained singer, but the music in my soul and the kind of music I write myself is sort of neo-soul and soul. I’m a very contemporary singer. I’m not a jazz singer. So, the role required a lot of vocal and artistic discipline for me. Initially when Charl and I met in New York, he was very strict with me about approaching this very classically and to keep everything very straight, no runs, no riffs, just to really – as Sipumzo was saying – start with basically just the notes and honour what is on the page ... So every day and for the last two months I’ve been soaking up jazz singers from the period – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, obviously Ma Miriam Makeba, Lena Horne. So I’ve been soaking up that sound and that style, trusting myself. I've been blessed to have the kind of artistic freedom to infuse it with my own soul, and spirit, and essence. But absolutely no R&B riffing”, she laughs. Her musical directors have been good at reminding her that no such little surprises should be added to her performance. “So it’s been a wonderful challenge. It has been one of the hardest roles that I’ve ever sung… I really feel like that’s made me a stronger and a better artist.”
All three relate that part of the beauty of King Kong as a musical resides in its (now contemporary) technically demanding simplicity, as it requires the performers to hit every note accurately and purely, and do so with lots of heart. But if it is so deceptively simplistic in sound, why then was the original staging billed as a jazz opera?
“I think it is very interesting that they went for jazz opera”, Lucwaba reflects. “There are multiple levels when you are describing what an opera is: There is a style of storytelling that happens in each opera, there is a style of music. The music may have shifted, but I think – and I do not want to give away the ending for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the show – when you see the end of King Kong, you can see those elements of opera. But our version, sits very much in the world of musical theatre ... I wouldn’t say we’ve moved completely away from the jazz opera side of things, because we still have a very operatic ending [storytelling wise], but at the same time we live largely in the world of musical theatre today.”
Gumbi adds that he feels “this show in particular has found a way of marrying all the theatre elements, like from musicals, to operasm to plays … Everything is there in this show when you watch it. It goes from numbers like Back of the Moon, which I feel is so Sophiatownish, jazzy, and then you have numbers like the Death Song, which is maybe a bit more operatic, and then you have scenes where there is no music, there is just dialogue, silence and that tension of what the story is about. So you find all those elements, along with great choreography – there is beautiful dancing throughout the show. The creatives have really found a way to marry all those elements. The original was a jazz opera, but this one has just become something else, it is a different beast on its own. I kind of like that about this show”.
Listening to Lucwaba and Gumbi debate the new theatrical nature of the reimagined ‘beast’, Tembe reveals that for her there is still a subtle essence of something operatic that gives her an idea of why the original creatives went with the ‘jazz opera’ description, because the “music is so incredibly sophisticated, and it is very difficult, and layered, so the scale of the music is very operatic... something more heightened” than what you would generally associated with a musical. Yet, she also agrees with Gumbi that their King King is “something else” that can not be clearly linked to any one style. "There is something for everyone in our reimagining of this production. Whether you are a more classical musical theatre, or a jazz opera lover, or a lover of theatre and straight plays, or a lover of the spectacle of musicals in terms of lights and the gorgeous costumes Birrie [le Roux] has created, and the unbelievable choreography that Gregory Maqoma has come up with or just a lover of a great story – an epic love story – there is something for everyone to relate to, so I think audiences of every age, of every race, every background, everyone will have something to relate to and get excited about and get pulled in. That’s perhaps the biggest triumph of this production."
And in that relatability a key ingredient is that the creative team was constantly aware of the need to showcase the personal versus public conflict that drives King Kong as a character, as well as his interaction with his community and the boxing fans. So on the one side you have happy music and happy people, with the audience’s feet tapping along to lovely jazzy numbers, while on the other side you witness King Kong and Joyce fighting for happiness in a self-destructive manner. And in that the creative team has embedded a contemporary cautionary tale of a man trapped between his public need for fame and his private yearning for the simple things in life. Ultimately that is what plays out as a Greek, perhaps even Shakespearean, tragedy within a musical setting.
As Tembe so insightfully summarises, you end up wondering, “what did Joyce and King Kong do wrong – if there is something that they did wrong – or what choices did they make that led to these outcomes versus the other characters who do end up riding off into the sunset. As a cautionary tale, it is sobering in that way… but it is great theatre! And why do people come to the theatre? Because they want to see all of the good and all of the bad, and every colour on the spectrum of humanity and human experience. I think that is what we are giving them: the dark and the light and everything in between. It makes for a good night of theatre.”
King Kong - Legend of a Boxer runs at the Fugard Theatre until 2 September 2017. Tickets are selling fast, so book your seats at Computicket without delay if you want to see this reimagined musical.