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CITY PRESS: Musical King Kong’s back story

2017-08-13 00:00
King Kong The Musical
King Kong The Musical (Photo: City Press, Supplied)

Johannesburg - The idea for King Kong, the all-black musical that became a nationwide hit in 1959 and moved to London’s West End in 1961, was initiated by Johannesburg couple Clive and Irene Mennell and Drum magazine journalist Todd Matshikiza, who covered the Ezekiel Dlamini story and murder trial.

Matshikiza was also an accomplished jazz musician who distinguished himself on piano with the Manhattan Brothers and the Harlem Swingsters. 

On website SA History, his late son John wrote that he applied all his jazz and choral experience, as well as his intimate understanding of Sophiatown and black Johannesburg, to producing King Kong. Matshikiza left South Africa with his family in 1960 and moved to England, returning to journalism in the absence of any serious musical opportunities. They moved to Zambia in 1964, where he worked for the Zambian Broadcasting Corporation. Frustrated by the lack of a creative musical environment and missing South Africa (where he had been banned), in 1967 he left broadcasting to become a music archivist for the Zambian Information Service. He died in 1968. 

William Nicholson, who produced the revised script and extra lyrics, says of the original: “The music was electrifying, the songs glorious, the dance numbers I knew must have been thrilling, but the drama of the true story of Ezekiel Dlamini had not been able to be fully realised … I saw my main job as fleshing out the characters and getting the big dramatic moments on to the stage.” 

In his approach to creating new music for the musical, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder writes that he was “very lucky to have access to some bootleg recordings that were made of Todd playing piano around the time of the original production. It’s amazing to hear him coax the melodies that would become King Kong from the piano. His use of voicing and progressions were so unique; he cleverly managed to combine the jazz flavours of the day, which were drifting across the Atlantic from the US, with the local musical styles he grew up with. All of these influences were carefully kept in mind while writing the new material.”

Director Jonathan Munby notes that this “cautionary tale of human strength and fallibility not only transcends racial divides, but also time. The piece shows us that violence only leads to further violence and that the answer always and can only reside in unity, humanity and understanding.” 

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