Australia has hosted quite a few ‘world premiere’ musicals in the last couple of years, with little critical or commercial success: Zhivago; An Officer and a Gentleman; Moonshadow. So when it’s announced that Melbourne will play host to the world premiere of a new musical based on King Kong, it’s understandable to feel a little scepticism.
Knowing the show is produced by Global Creatures (responsible for the arena shows Walking With Dinosaurs and How To Train Your Dragon ) gives some faith in the technical and visual aspects of the show, but that doesn’t make a successful stage musical.
With the launch hosted by Myf Warhurst, rather than the usual suspects like Bert Newtown, Kochie or (god forbid) Alan Jones, you know something is a bit out-of the-ordinary.
However, when the creative team was introduced at Melbourne’s Plaza Ballroom on Sunday, things started to fall into place, and it became obvious that this won’t just be another ‘family’ show for kids.
Firstly, knowing that producer Carmen Pavlovic’s brother is Steve Pavlovic of music label/promoter Modular People, and between them they decided that the reference point for the music would be Massive Attack, things look a little different.
Music for the show will be written by Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, Sarah McLachlan, French electronic music duo Justice, The Avalanches, and Elbow’s Gus Garvey. It’s been a long time since the paths of musical theatre and popular music diverged. When they’ve met over the past few decades, it’s generally been for jukebox musicals: hardly contemporary in style.
Turning these varied contributions into a cohesive score will be Marius De Vries, perhaps best known for music-directing Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. The approach here seems similar: combining popular songs of the 30s with mashups of old and new songs coming from a variety of songwriters, more in the manner of a movie soundtrack than a classic book musical.
Looking at the rest of the creative team is where it gets a little more, well, gay.
The book will be provided by Tony and Pulitzer-nominated Craig Lucas, writer (and in some cases director) of a number of plays and movies dealing directly or via allegory with HIV/AIDS, including Longtime Companion, The Dying Gaul and Prelude to a Kiss. He also wrote the book for Adam Guettel’s musical The Light In The Piazza.
American/British director Daniel Kramer also has quite an impressive resume of queer theatre, helming West End and UK productions of Prick Up Your Ears, Angels In America and Bent, as well as a range of operas. On a more gossip column note, he is also the former partner of actor Simon Callow.
And then there’s the choreography: John ‘Cha Cha’ O’Connell describes an opening number that’s 1930s with flavours of Beyonce; a Fosse-esque burlesque number set in a New York club; a shipboard ‘fantast number’ described as ‘Broadway meets Lady Gaga’. Roger Kirk’s costumes will also be “1930s meets fashion meets music video clips.”
As for the cast, they have gone for quality rather than star-power name recognition, including performers whose experience largely draws from community rather than professional theatre. Female lead Anne Darrow – following in the footsteps of Naomi Watts, Jessica Lange, and of course Fay Wray is Esther Hannaford, best known for her Helpmann Award-winning turn as Penny Pingleton in Hairspray. Minor wardrobe malfunction aside, her performance of the song her character sings as a lullaby at the top of the Empire State Building was moving.
Queenie van de Zandt (aka “music therapist” Jan Van De Stool, as well as the Bearded Lady from Smoke and Mirrors ) plays Cassandra and got to demonstrate what an amazing talent she is with her spine-tingling performance of Rise. It will be interesting to see how the implications of this number and the show in general go down in a post-9/11 New York if it makes its hoped-for trip to Broadway.
And then of course there is King Kong himself: still in the process of creation at Global Creatures workshop, he will be a six metre puppet, operated on stage by 11 circus-trained puppeteers and aerialists, as well as three off-stage operators. Like The Lion King and the soon-to-be-seen in Australia War Horse (also produced locally by Global Creatures), the puppeteers will not be blacked out, but rather a visible part of the performance.
I left the launch more intrigued than I expected to be. The show will be a major theatrical event (exclusive to Melbourne, but obviously with an eye on Broadway). Like Kong himself, it promises to be a strange beast, unlike anything we’ve seen before. Unlike the King Kong story, however, we have to wait until June 2013 to see how it ends!
King Kong will open at the Regent Theatre Melbourne on 15 June 2013.