It is a moment that British director Jonathan Munby is still embarrassed to recall.
“Eric Abraham turned to me and said ‘have you ever heard of King Kong?’” he shudders. “And I said you mean the giant monster thing?”
It was an inauspicious start to a journey that would end with Munby directing the first major revival of a seminal South African production.
Abraham was talking about the classic “township jazz” musical King Kong, a 1959 production that brought international attention to performers such as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.
The freshness of the music, which mixed American jazz with choral and folk traditions, caused a sensation when the production transferred to London.
It became South Africa’s most successful ever musical, but despite its legendary status the play was never revived, partly because of rights issues.
But King Kong’s reputation wasn’t just about box office.
The musical charted the rise and fall of the boxer, Ezekiel Dlamini, against the bohemian backdrop of Sofiatown.
This multi-ethnic Johannesburg neighbourhood had been destroyed by the apartheid government, although the area’s physical destruction would ensure it legendary posthumous status.
Nelson Mandela, a keen boxer, saw it four times: it became his favourite musical. When Munby took on the task of directing King Kong – The Musical, much more than cultural reputation was at stake.
The original production’s roots lay in a meeting between Jewish philanthropists Clive and Irene Menell and composer Todd Matshikiza, who had followed Dlamini’s turbulent life.
The group were soon joined by journalist Pat Williams and set designer Arthur Goldreich.
The ensuing collaboration between all-black cast mixed with non-black creatives faced obvious obstacles. Matshikiza was often unable to meet Williams, forcing the musician and the lyricist to record their work and collaborate by passing tapes back and forth through the post.
Working and socialising across “the colour bar” was an intentionally political and provocative act.
The musical’s triumphant success marked both a mini-cultural renaissance and nurtured a lasting spirit of multi-racial cultural activism in South African theatre to which the Jewish community made a significant contribution.
Harry Bloom wrote the book which King Kong was based on, Leon Gluckman was stage director, while Stanley Glasser was responsible for musical direction.
The Menells played an important role in turning what had been an amateur collaboration into an international success performed to more than 200,000 people in South Africa alone.
In the estimation of Brooks Spector, a journalist currently working on a social history of Johannesburg theatre, “such figures, often steeped in Yiddishkeit and socialism, made foundational contributions to South African theatre.”
Figures like Athol Fugard and Barney Simon would institutionalise this example in the years to come at institutions like the Market Theatre.
It was the memory of this era that motivated Abraham to spend twenty years trying to acquire permission to revive King Kong.
“We are not just reviving a musical that is both of its time and timeless,” says Munby, “but sharpening a compelling story while trying to remain true to a method of imaginative collaboration.”
It’s to the massive credit to all involved that the current revival that has just closed at the Mandela Theatre in Johannesburg has been a resounding success.
The production has put established South African talents such as Nondumiso Tembe on the stage alongside a range of significant and emerging talents.
Screenwriter Bill Nicholson, whose credits include Gladiator, Sarafina and Long Walk to Freedom, was employed to modernise the original script, while the tape recordings of Matshikiza held by his widow helped inform new musical numbers.
Just as every generation gets the Hamlet it deserves, King Kong’s new found success provides an opportunity to revisit an important moment of cross-cultural solidarity in South Africa. Such a venture appears needed.
“It's no easy task staging a revival of a classic that is so interwoven with our histories,” as Ismail Mahomed, the current Market Theatre chief executive, puts it.
“[King Kong] re-incarnates a classic that connects with a younger audience. It makes them sing. It makes them dance. It makes them celebrate the era we all call Sophiatown.”
King Kong - The Musical will return to Cape Town in December this year with Abraham developing plans to bring the production to London and the United States