Old school is cool, they say. And indeed, nostalgia seems to be the buzzword in SA’s theatres at the moment, with stages awash with a tidal wave of retro musicals that, producers hope, will draw in audiences who are becoming increasingly reluctant to move away from their plasma TV screens.
It seems many theatres are bargaining on the familiar and beloved (and, by implication, quality-assured), with old favourites being given a snazzy new coat of paint and, often, a gritty edge to elevate them above mere museum pieces.
The subtext is that South Africans are looking for fun, escapist live entertainment to offset the doom-and-gloom headlines. But whether it’s Broadway blockbusters or vintage local classics, big-ticket productions are still risky financial propositions. If successful, they help cross-subsidise less sexy but no less important work while giving local actors a chance to sink their teeth into iconic roles.
Live entertainment is a fickle business, notes Hazel Feldman of Showtime Management. She’s producing Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, currently sashaying across the Artscape stage in Cape Town before a stint at Johannesburg’s Teatro and then five weeks in Hong Kong.
It’s been a long, uphill battle to get this musical, based on the cult film, into our theatres. Because of the logistics of bringing over the elaborate wigs, costumes and the fabulous bus, SA had to wait its turn to present this "fun show with a touch of heart".
"To have made them ourselves, here, would have pushed the show out of the realm of financial viability. As it is, it’s hit or miss when you’re paying [for the rights] in dollars and earning in rands," she says.
"But now it’s here, and it’s been worth the wait. It makes you laugh and cry and you know every word of every song. It’s an uplifting, feel-good show with a pertinent message in today’s world, of tolerance and compassion."
Global smash hit notwithstanding, there’s never any guarantee of success. "I wish I had a magic wand to show me what will work and what won’t," sighs Feldman, who has produced scores of musicals. A few — like Dreamgirls — have tanked at the box office, despite glowing reviews. "It’s a tough balancing act and you just have to pray you’ve guessed right."
The Durban-based KickstArt company has staged a number of quality contemporary musicals in recent years, including Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Cabaret. Now it’s tackling Kander and Ebb’s sexy musical Chicago, which is on at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at the University of KwaZulu Natal’s Durban campus until April 30.
Also imminent is a production of Funny Girl, at Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre (which has staged West Side Story, Rocky Horror and District Six in recent years), from April 18. The role of Fanny Brice made Barbra Streisand a star in the 1968 film based on the musical, and indications are that SA actress Ashleigh Harvey will nail it too.
The theatre’s executive director, Daniel Galloway, says it’s a love story and one of not fitting in — striking a universal chord.
"True classics are hard to come by and there is often a reason they are indeed, classic, and strike a resonance with an audience. Funny Girl is a powerful production for a leading lady in SA … Fanny Brice is one of the most challenging roles out there [and] Ashleigh knocks it out of the park. It’s as if she was born to play the role."
He agrees there is an appetite for nostalgia. "I think people sometimes want to escape. And if in that escape they are able to reflect too, then we as humans move closer, even if just a little, towards understanding one another. Some of the best retro musicals are as deeply relevant today as they were when they were created way back when – especially if a theme of shared humanity is woven into them."
Among the classic SA musicals being excavated from the vaults is Todd Matshikiza’s iconic 1959 "jazz opera", King Kong. It will play at the Fugard from July 25, with a search under way for the leading lady, to play shebeen queen Joyce, the role that propelled Miriam Makeba to international fame.
Galloway says: "It took [founding producer] Eric Abraham many years to secure all the rights in order to present King Kong. Much of that work was around ensuring that the spirit of the original will be celebrated, which is fundamentally important for us. Esme [Matshikiza, Todd’s widow] has been consulted and kept in the loop, as have all the original contributors."
He says it won’t be a "straight-up revival" but more of an "evolution", as certain elements in the musical’s book and score have had to be updated while "honouring the original".
Galloway believes the essence of King Kong has stood the test of time. "The themes are what unite us as human beings. The ways of presenting theatre may have changed in the past 60 years or so, but the story is what lies at the heart of it all — and, in this case, the wonderful, beautiful music and lyrics too."
He admits that being independent, with no external funding, the Fugard has "to let the budgets dictate our passions somewhat". But even government-subsidised theatres are counting rands in deciding what to stage.
Ismail Mahomed, chief executive of the Market Theatre Foundation, says the Johannesburg theatre is currently restaging Sophiatown because the musical is a prescribed school setwork.
He says this arrangement allows plays to remain on stage for longer periods.
He says the key to reviving work from the SA archive is to "put such work in the hands of a younger generation of creatives".
Audiences tend to buy in with enthusiasm, he notes, especially if a production is of impeccable artistic value.
"The reason for any audience member to come and see an excellent production of a 30-year-old SA musical is the same reason that an audience member would go and see a 400-year-old Shakespeare classic. Excellence does not necessarily have a sell-by date. Neither does relevance and re-imagination have a shelf life. Work can evolve in new ways to provide new meanings and new contexts," says Mahomed.
Speaking of context, the recent #FeesMustFall student protests have resonances in the revival of Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina!, on at the State Theatre in Pretoria until May. It’s been seen by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who inspired Ngema to write the hit international musical.
"For us, the emphasis is on celebrating 30 years of the musical with a brand-new cast [including 23-year-old newcomer Noxolo Dlamini in the title role that Leleti Khumalo immortalised]," says Mpho Molepo, business development manager at the State Theatre.
He says the response to Sarafina! has been "overwhelming — it’s amazing how brand Sarafina! is so big. And the learners who’ve been seeing it sing along. The music has carried on as part of popular culture. Also, as Mama Winnie pointed out, the words ‘freedom is coming tomorrow’ are as relevant as pre-1994. True freedom is still coming."
Molepo believes revivals are vital in celebrating SA’s impressive archive, "while producing new work of the same calibre too".
The importance of creating a balance between new work and old is echoed by Galloway: "It is, indeed, easier to convince an audience to come to something they have heard of before. But with every season that passes, we hope to reassure our patrons that it is worth taking a chance on something unknown."
By continually raising the bar, he hopes, "we will be doing our small bit in trying to develop a far bigger theatre-going audience in SA".