Over half a century since the original South African production, a new production of ‘King Kong the Musical’ is running at the Fugard Theatre. Picture: Daniel Rutland Manners

Because I was going to see King Kong the Musical at the Fugard Theatre, I thought I’d buy a CD to familiarise myself with the music. 

The nice young man at Musica said yes, they had it – and presented me with a DVD of the 1933 film starring the giant ape and Fay Wray. King Kong the 

Musical? He’d never heard of it.

Yet the rollicking show, which opened in Wits Great Hall in 1959 – the only venue which blacks and whites could attend together – toured South Africa and Britain. 

It also launched the careers of people like of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, made Todd Matshikiza, who wrote the music, famous, and changed other lives. 

We’re rightly proud of Charlize Theron’s Oscar, but did you know that one of the stars of the 1959 King Kong, Caiphus Semenya, won an Oscar for his score for The Color Purple in 1985?

Another life it changed was that of young Rand Daily Mail journalist Pat Williams, who was asked to write the lyrics. She was known to write satirical verses in the newspaper, and on that basis – with no theatrical experience whatever – she agreed. And she came up with some great lines:

King Kong bigger than Cape Town

King Kong harder than gold

King Kong knock any ape down

That’s me! I’m him! King Kong!

And there were these about the Back of the Moon, the shebeen in the show and in Sophiatown:

By day you are boys, boys

Now make a noise, boys

Be a man at the Back of the Moon!

Decades later, the BBC used that tune as the background for footage of the Apollo 8 spacecraft giving the world our first glimpse of what the back of the moon looked like.

King Kong tells the story of real-life South African heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dhlamini, who became a township sensation, then began to lose matches and eventually was convicted of murdering a woman. He asked for the death penalty but was jailed instead. A few months later he drowned in a prison farm dam. The boxer’s story was well known in South Africa. 

Williams says such was Dhlamini’s fame that his story was recorded in the “white” newspapers and journals that usually ignored township news.

It was a wonderful time for music, says Williams. Sophiatown was full of superb musicians and singers, bands and groups. “There were concerts galore, the whole place was saturated with talent”. South Africa's first musical could be born from this – all it needed was the right story.

In the late 1950s, Clive Menell, a boss at Joburg mining house Anglo-Vaal, and his wife Irene, began talking to Todd 

Matshikiza about the possibility of a musical loosely based on Dhlamini’s life. Williams was recruited, along with set designer Arthur Goldreich.

Today, Williams is in her 80s and 

living in London. With the revival of the musical in Cape Town for the first time over 50 years later, producer Eric 

Williams persuaded her to write a memoir of that time of exhilaration and boundless enthusiasm.

To start with, Williams’s friends and family were appalled at the way she was working with blacks, but she persevered. 

The group knew they would be breaking apartheid laws but didn’t care, although it must be said the effects were harder on the black members of the show who were regularly picked up by the police after rehearsals in downtown Joburg and eventually carried King Kong “passes” to allow them out after curfew.

Williams loved the music, the dancing and the exposure to a slice of Joburg life she had little to do with. And she found something surprising: “… that by walking over lines that officially barred us, we had given up something not worth having and in its place had gained a richness in terms of human friendship, a greater capacity to see and understand, and a wider reach. So many gifts conferred, so much given back … simply by ignoring the country’s endemic prejudice.”

For the people involved with the show and its later transfer to sold-out theatres in the UK, London, King Kong the 

Musical was a seminal moment. 

Or as Williams writes: “Perhaps the whole event could be seen as rather like what some African tribes, so I’ve heard, call a ‘knot of time’, when people, place, the moment itself and other ingredients and forces one isn’t aware of come 

together as if in chemical eruption and produce a phenomenon, of a dimension and consequence far beyond what was originally conceived.”

This is a wonderfully warm and thoughtful memoir, bringing to life what some have forgotten and others have never known. 

Maybe the young man from Musica should read it. 

* King Kong the Musical is on at the Fugard Theatre until September 2, when it transfers to Joburg.