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Reviving a South African Musical That Once Promised So Much

The resuscitation of “King Kong” is the work of Eric Abraham, a South African-born, London-based producer of theater and film (“Kolya,” “Ida”) who encountered the music by chance in the mid-1990s, and immediately decided to pursue the project for the Fugard Theater, which he founded.

“Somewhere I had heard about the myth of ‘King Kong’ the musical, and it just resonated,” Mr. Abraham said in an interview at his west London home. “The making of ‘King Kong’ reflected a kind of utopia in the midst of an utterly fragmented society. Having grown up in that society, this appealed strongly to me.”


Andile Gumbi in the title role of a new production of the musical “King Kong.”

Jesse Kramer

“King Kong” is set in Johannesburg’s Sophiatown neighborhood, until its demolition in 1955 a multiracial cultural hub that bred a generation of writers and musicians. It tells the true story of a famous boxer, Ezekiel Dlamini, nicknamed “King Kong” for his size and strength, whose downfall (caused partly by his jealousy over his girlfriend, Joyce, the owner of an informal nightclub) and untimely death provided, for many, a parable of lost chances and thwarted lives in apartheid South Africa.

Mr. Abraham had some experience of that himself. Working as a journalist in his early 20s, he was targeted by the South African secret service for reporting on police atrocities and torture, placed under house arrest, and eventually smuggled across the border to Botswana in 1977. For a long time he retained an ambivalent connection to his home country, but by the time he heard the “King Kong” music, he was actively looking for South African projects.

His path to a revival needed the kind of tenacity that Mr. Abraham has plenty of. (An attempt at a revival in 1979 folded after two shows.) “I like a challenge,” he said. “And who can resist Todd Matshikiza’s music and Pat Williams’s lyrics?”

Ms. Williams was 23 and a journalist for Johannesburg’s Rand Daily Mail newspaper when she was asked to write the lyrics for “King Kong” by her friends Clive and Irene Menell, who against all social strictures were friendly with Todd Matshikiza and his wife, Esme. Without their financial and practical support (among other things, Mr. Menell wrote the story line), Ms. Williams wrote in her recent memoir, “King Kong — Our Knot of Time & Music,” the musical would never have happened.

Ms. Williams, who moved to London in 1960, said in a telephone interview from Cape Town that she was delighted when Mr. Abraham approached her about the rights to the lyrics. But he had a longer road to travel with the widow and heirs of Matshikiza, who died in 1968, and of Harry Bloom, the author of the book (a credit Ms. Williams gently disputes in her memoir).

“It was a long, hard journey because there were lots of differences of opinion,” said Esme Matshikiza in a telephone interview from Cape Town. “But we got over them. Now I am very excited to see the show.”

By 2011, Mr. Abraham had secured the rights and begun the search for a director. He would, he said, have liked to find a black South African director, but after several unsuccessful forays, he approached Jonathan Munby, an English director with whom he had collaborated previously.

“I was completely seduced by the score and songs, but I had great reservations about the book, which felt outdated and thin,” Mr. Munby said in a telephone interview from the Fugard Theater, two days before the premiere. “I felt it had to be rewritten and reimagined, to tap into an emotional center, in order to survive in the 21st century.”

Mr. Abraham called on William Nicholson, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter, who noted in an interview that he had worked on South African material before, in scripts for “Sarafina!” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

The key was to dramatize pivotal moments that weren’t shown onstage in the 1959 production, he explained.

“They had strong singers and dancers, but not actors,” he said. “Times have changed, so I said, I’ll rebuild the story while keeping the songs and big moments from the original.”

Mr. Nicholson also added new characters, composed lyrics for additional songs (with new music, based on Matshikiza’s compositions, written by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder) and wrote in boxing matches for the choreographer Gregory Maqoma to flesh out. “It may be a tragedy, but it’s an absolute blast,” Mr. Nicholson said gleefully. A critic for the Cape Times praised the show’s “stellar” staging and called it “a worthy successor” to the original.

After initial doubts whether he, as a white European, was the right choice, Mr. Munby said he came to feel that being an outsider was also an advantage. “I’ve had to do a lot of listening and research, and a lot of empowering the cast to bring their South African-ness into the show,” he said, adding that his associate director, Mdu Kweyama, was South African.

Asked if he had faced resistance from the cast, led by Andile Gumbi and Nondumiso Tembe, he laughed. “Early on, absolutely,” he said. “Deep suspicion. I have had to win their trust. Now we have a show that everyone feels ownership of.”

Ms. Tembe said that she had never questioned Mr. Abraham’s choice of Mr. Munby as director. “We the cast are black, ensuring every day that the integrity of historical accuracy and cultural authenticity is there,” she said.

Despite the differences between the South Africa of 1959 and today, Mr. Abraham said he felt “King Kong” remained a universal morality tale “in a post-truth, post-shame, politically fragmented society.” He reflected briefly and smiled. “It’s also great fun.”

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