David Kramer and Taliep Petersen originally wrote Kat and The Kings to showcase the talents of an untried group of youngsters. Now, 17 years later, the reprise offers a new generation a new experience, writes Theresa Smith
The original cast were invited to perform in London in 1998 and expanded the show for the West End. Eventually they were touring Europe with two pantechnikons and 40 crew members before moving on to Broadway.
David Kramer admits with a wry smile that it did seem rather “ridiculous” at the time, considering that when they started performing in SA all the cast needed was, yes, a microbus and a Venter waentjie.
Performing in London meant expanding the musical to add more production value and pizzazz. This eventually led to an Olivier Award for Best New Musical, and in the US, Tony and Drama League nominations and three Drama Desk Awards.
Kat and The Kings grew out of Kramer’s fascination with Taliep Petersen and the older cast members and musicians of the musical District Six talking about their experiences growing up in 1950s Cape Town.
Specifically he was struck by one coloured singer’s story about starting a vocal harmony group and Kat and The Kings is his attempt to capture the magic of being young and bursting with energy, talent, hope and dreams, despite an entire system designed to keep you down.
While the role of older Kat is now played by Danny Butler, Salie Daniels was the original inspiration and when he died in 1999, it was proudly clutching the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical that he’d just received for playing the original Kat Diamond.
“Kat was written for singers, which is why there’s not so much dialogue,” explained Kramer.
Even when it hit London, the musical was still more predicated on the charm and raw talent of the original six performers: “it was just a show absolutely perfect for festivals and then it became a West End show.”
Despite starting to write musicals back in the mid-1980s and working steadily ever since, Kramer says he hasn’t become jaded, though “I can get a little bored with myself”.
Kramer – who turns 61 this month – has been there and done that, winning awards for not only specific productions, but also a GMT (Geraas Musiek Toekennings) Lifelong Achievement Award for his contribution to Afrikaans music, an honorary doctorate of literature from UCT, The Order of the Disa from the Western Cape province and gold and platinum records for album sales.
“When I look at other people who become famous as songwriters, that’s all they do; they are just being a particular personality. I can’t do that, I can’t do just my own songs.
“So the challenge of writing musicals and working with other people is stimulating, and the teamwork is necessary,” he said.
It’s not only the designers, stagehands and choreographers, but also the new performers who he finds so necessary to the process: “It’s one thing that I’m quite proud of, that Taliep and I started years ago. Giving opportunities to new kids, a first- class experience for newcomers.
“We didn’t set out to be the best in Cape Town, but in the world. The idea was that it had to be able to open in Singapore or London and when I look at work being produced internationally, this is as good as it gets.”
Loukmaan Adams and Alistair Izobel (from the original cast) coached this new cast, with the four young men bonding especially well on a vocal level.
“I think people will see a show as good as the one that toured internationally,” said Kramer.
After a successful run at The Fugard in Cape Town – in the smaller kind of theatre space the show was originally written for, with the nostalgia of being performed in what was District Six – they’ll move on to the Highveld.
“They aren’t experienced yet, but the audience will teach them that, how to act. That’s what’s so wonderful about doing things night after night, you learn. They turn into the performers they are because of that immersion.
“Joburg should expect a polished performance,” said Kramer.
• Kat and The Kings, Pieter Toerien’s Theatre, Montecasino, September 21 to November 18.