Shebeen queen: Joyce (Miriam Makeba) dances with Lucky (Joseph Mogotsi) in the original 1959 production of King Kong. Picture: The Fugard
One of the most anticipated musicals of the year, King Kong, will be on at the Fugard Theatre from July 25 to September 2, before moving to Joburg.

The South African-brewed musical was first staged in 1959 in Joburg and was billed as an “all African jazz opera”.

In 1961 King Kong went on to a hit tour in London.

The 72 all-black cast included artists like Miriam Makeba, Nathan Mdledle of the Manhattan Brothers, Hugh Masekela, Kippie Moeketsi and Thandi Klaasen. Most of the principle players went into exile and became internationally renowned.

King Kong was inspired by the life of South African heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, who died in 1957 after an apparent suicide.

He was called King Kong because of his size and physical strength.

People were fascinated by the complex urban landscape he inhabited - a vibrant black cultural milieu - within apartheid South Africa.

After attaining fame and celebrity, he lost it all and resorted to working as a bouncer at clubs and dance halls. Gangsterism, murder, drug dens; a shebeen queen: those were some of the elements which fed into his life and was evoked on stage in King Kong - with music composition by Todd Matshikiza.

Harry Bloom wrote the book (story). Pat Williams wrote the lyrics and original storyline.

During its run at University of the Witwatersrand’s Great Hall in 1959 there were standing ovations.

Areas were roped off and demarcated for the different races.

Pat Williams told me in 2010 when she flew in from her home in London to attend the opening of the Fugard that audiences were enthralled by the musical about this “solitary stubborn bloody-minded man who did what he pleased fiercely in a country where that wasn’t easy with a black skin. He was not prepared to be the punching bag of anyone”.

When South African born/UK producer Eric Abraham launched the Fugard, he said he was committed to bringing back King Kong. Seven years later and here we are. Jonathan Munby from the UK is in the director’s seat.

Cape Town’s Mdu Kweyama is associate director. William Nicholson has revised the book. Others who are part of the King Kong 2017 creative team include Sipumzo Lucwaba and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (musical directors) and Gregory Maqoma (choreography).

Munby last worked at the Fugard in 2014, when he directed A Human Being Died That Night - based on Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madizikela's book of the same name.

The award winning Mdu Kweyama, who has worked extensively with companies like Magnet Theatre and with playwrights like Mike van Graan, is known for layering his work with a visceral and innovative mix of dance and physical theatre.

As to his role as associate director, Kweyama said: “I work closely with the director. For instance, I am involved in the casting and work-shopping ideas around physicality. Jonathan shares his ideas with me. I provide input and feedback, but he does have a final say in everything that will be done in the show.”

Munby has tagged the production as a “21st century evolution”.

Is it an adaption; a revival?

“It is not a complete adaptation,” said Kweyama. “We have a writer (Nicholson) who is looking at the script - searching for the ‘root of the drama’ - that is why Jonathan calls it an evolution rather than adaptation. Nothing from the original has been taken out. Jonathan’s idea is to make sure that everyone enjoys this musical - whether you lived during the 1950s or not; South African or not. King Kong won't lose its values and originality in 2017.”

There is the historical element of working “on an old South African story and thinking about how that can be staged as a modern piece”, he adds “but there is also the excitement, for me personally, of working on a musical".

"That is not something I have done before, so this is an enormous opportunity for me to learn and to grow my own skills. Working with someone as experienced as Jonathan, is amazing.

"For me this is about re-living my parents’ history, going through our photo albums, asking questions, reading up on life in Sophiatown - that kind of situation. I think being truthful to the core characteristics of the people presented in the play is very important.”

The cast list has not been released.

* Tickets are R130-R280. Book through Computicket on 0861 915 8000, or at the Fugard box office on 021 461 4554. Friends of the Fugard members receive a 15% discount on tickets.