What does it take to earn a little respect in this town? A couple of Olivier Awards? Heck, that's overseas. Wildly successful productions in two wildly different countries? Nah, that's got nothing to do with Broadway. Standing ovations and a mob for autographs at curtain call? Ehh.. nowadays it's harder to find a sitting ovation. So Taliep Peterson and David Kramer have their work cut out for them building an audience for their musical, Kat and the Kings. Box office grosses have been rising, but attendance has yet to climb above the 50 percent mark. However, audiences at the show certainly do respond to the South African and London hit musical revue, about a fictional vocal harmony group in 1950s apartheid South Africa. The show ends with the cast whipping the audience into a participatory frenzy and then rushing to the lobby to shake hands, sign autographs and receive hugs and kisses. Librettist and lyricist Kramer (pronounced krah'-mer) is used to such reactions: he's been a pop star in South Africa for years, with numerous gold records to his credit. In the 1980s he began to feel he could express himself better writing more story-oriented songs for other people to sing, and so began his journey towards musical theatre.
Playbill On-Line: When you were growing up in Worcester (South Africa), what were the major theatrical experiences you remember?
David Kramer: What made a huge impression on me was amateur dramatics in the small town where I grew up. Everybody knew everybody knew everybody else...and there was this fellow in town, George Downs. He didn't act. He dressed up in drag and mimed to a song called "Mr. Fire Eyes." I was absolutely fascinated by this. I couldn't believe it was "Uncle George" from our small town singing this song. I didn't even understand he was miming or why he was dressed up as a woman, but suddenly, that opened a window for me into a world of all sorts of possibilities. Another time, when I very young, singers toured around the country and visited the small towns. One of them was a country and western singer, Charles Jacoby, who dressed in a big cowboy hat and cowboy suit. He was South African but was doing American country & western cover versions, which was very popular at that time. And I remember the way they'd advertise the show: He'd get on a big white horse and gallop up and down outside the school yard wearing his suit. There'd be a motor car with a loudspeaker saying, "See Charles Jacoby tonight!" That was enormously romantic for me as well.
PBOL: So did that flamboyance carry over into your performing career?
DK: Rock and roll was my big interest, and I still do that with my band. I wanted to be the Beatles or the Rolling Stones when I was young. At the same time, my image was very much rural South African and eclectic. I took the styling from various cultures there. One element is that I wear red shoes. They're basic leather shoes which I made red -- one of my trademarks. It's a slightly outlandish image, but not drag and not cowboy! But then in the 1980s I realized my songs were stories and suited to characters and other people's voices. Theatre lent itself to that kind of work at the time. I felt I could express myself a lot better through the theatre... That's why Kat has a huge love and nostalgia for rock and roll music, and there's all that energy in the performance. I've always been a very energetic performer on stage, and I've tried to impart that to this cast. Kat and the Kings also has a nostalgia for me for something destroyed in our past. It was a sense of the place, District 6, where the architecture and the people and the community were destroyed. I have a strong feeling for that.
PBOL: Speaking of strong feelings, your thoughts on the reviews Kat received from the New York press?
DK: I don't read reviews very seriously. When you get a lot of mixed reviews, you love the nice things and get upset when they don't like it. I read [reviews] or hear about them, just as a measure of what they might do for the success of the show. But critics really haven't been able to help me in terms of improving the work. I haven't gleaned much from what they said.
PBOL: Still, it must be tough to ignore the persistent criticism that the horrors of apartheid are kept very much in the background in Kat, even though the political situation impacts upon the characters and the story.
DK: This show started in South Africa in 1995. When you're doing a show for South Africans, one hardly has to tell them the history of apartheid or what that was all about. We weren't trying to tell that story again; we were wanting to explore a particular aspect of Capetown's pop culture in District 6. And Kat is a story about a very talented vocal harmony group whose dreams weren't realized because of apartheid. Kat is a victim of apartheid, and we see him looking back. He essentially says, "When I was 17, I was great." Had it been a different time for him, he might have made it very big. But Americans say, "Why isn't the show more South African?" The answer is, because it wasn't, it was American music! PBOL: If critics haven't been very helpful to your development, who has?
DK: Well, my mentor was at the Market Theatre in South Africa, artistic director Barney Simon, who's no longer with us. He taught me a lot and encouraged me. Barney made me understand that I'm a storyteller; not necessarily a singer-songwriter, and that I should write for other people. He also made me understand how to unfold something. It's like a rose. You have to take the petals off very carefully to discover what there is at the core. Also, you must listen to other people. I love to observe people and listen to their stories and recreate that, as we've done with Kat. In London, Nicholas Kent at the Tricycle Theatre has been incredibly encouraging and helpful. Kent warned me that the overseas audiences would want more politics in this particular work.
PBOL: Speaking of the Tricycle...?
DK: Yes, I've just come from London where I'm working with them on another piece. Taliep Peterson [composer & arranger on Kat] and I are rewriting and adapting an old musical of ours for them, Poison. Jenny McLeod is also working on it with us. They'll produce the new version early next year with British actors. We are now setting it in North London (as opposed to South Africa), and it's quite exciting. Poison is loosely based on Othello. It's about drug dealers and young people who get caught up in that world. Michael (the Othello character) is a drug lord married to Desdemona, an up-and-coming recording and singing star. Iago is a drug peddler working for Michael. The show starts rehearsals in January 2000 and should premiere at the Tricycle in February.
PBOL: And what about plans for Kat? Even if the show becomes a hit, doesn't the South African cast have to leave in December?
DK: Well, I hope they'll get an extension, but that depends on the box office and the producers, of course. Meanwhile there's now a Netherlands company of Kat and another company going to Vienna, Austria in January. There's also talk of a German tour, though I have no details yet on an American tour. I'd imagine that would have to be with American actors.
-- By David Lefkowitz