David Kramer’s new musical is one to watch
Cultural icon David Kramer’s eagerly awaited new musical, Langarm, is one to catch, and cause for a quickstep down memory lane
The doorway to the world of David Kramer’s imagination is in a special place among the melkhoutbome (white milkwood) that he planted at the bottom of his garden more than 25 years ago. He’s always liked the trees (protected in SA) and their presence even inspired him to imagine building a tree house a few years ago.
What materialised instead was "a place in the trees", a ground-level writing room which, while depriving wife Renaye of her view of the sea, has become the space where more of the famous Kramer magic happens.
In fact it’s where most of his new musical, Langarm, was written in the early hours of the morning, while sleep eluded him.
"I found that a very good time to write, coming out of a dream situation into a very peaceful, quiet, dark space. I enjoyed that," he says. It feels almost as still, on the day we meet for this interview, with Kramer wearing his trademark black hat, on-trend checked blazer, black polo neck and pants, accessorised with brightly coloured striped socks and red laces in his black vellies. He was relieved to note that the socks were a matching pair as he’d got dressed in the dark!
Set in 1965, the Langarm story develops around the decision of a jilted groom-to-be to partner a young dancer at The Swaziland Ballroom Championships. It’s a move calculated to have a dig at his ex, and means crossing the legally enforced racial divide of the time. The musical is named after the term given to ballroom dances and dance bands from the 1930s onwards by the coloured communities of District Six and the Cape, and Kramer says the Langarm music is inspired by those bands. Tempos are varied, though, with much of the dance sequences incorporating Latin-American rhythms, and a waltz and a vastrap among some of the first songs completed.
"At one point I thought I needed two really good ballroom dancers to play the leads, but through the auditions I realised what I really want are two good singer-actors; and a chorus of really good dancers, so hopefully that will satisfy the ballroom dance fundis among us," says Kramer.
I wonder how adept he is at partner dancing. "I like dancing, but only to my own steps," he smiles. "I dance on stage, or I used to, but I’m just too spontaneous and not disciplined enough for partner dancing.
"If I were to do anything I think Argentine tango is the kind of dance I would like to know how to do."
The show’s narrative isn’t a true one, but it will resonate with a lot of people, he explains. "It’s the kind of story I like telling. It’s not a mainstream story. It’s a part of our history that’s been pushed under the carpet. I always feel that I want to shine some kind of light into what happened … it was an incredibly traumatic time for some people."
The artist’s way
Kramer is the ultimate storyteller. Every word he utters is as measured, as deliberate, as those he puts on a page. And those carefully chosen words, accompanied by equally well-considered song notes, have brought him enormous success.
With a professional career that spans an official 40 years, 35 of which have been in theatre, he’s actually been doing this for much longer. Born in 1951, he remembers performing for his family when he was five years old.
"My grandfather had given me a little ukulele, and I was doing the kind of Elvis stuff as a kid. My big interest as a teenager was poetry. That’s kind of where the storytelling starts. Describing things with words. Trying to capture the essence of moments."
Kramer went to art school, which explains his skill at shaping and painting the figurines he uses to visualise his Langarm stage set. It was there that he learnt "to observe, to look, to see things for what they are rather than for how you imagine them to be".
In the early days Kramer’s writing was a way of working through personal trauma, even though it might not have been obvious.
"Unlike other pop songwriters, I don’t write about how I feel. My songs are an external description of the world in which I find myself. I write about characters and places. So growing up in a mad world [during apartheid] when everyone said, ‘This is not mad, this is quite normal’ — that was the trauma. Not quite understanding why I saw it so differently."
His studies at Leeds University in England, from which he graduated in 1974 with an honours degree in textile design, helped by exposing him to people who saw the world very differently to those in the Boland where he’d grown up.
The release of his album Bakgat! in 1980 (banned by the SABC because of its political satire, the use of "coarse" language and the mixing of languages) marked the start of his recording success. His appearance in the long-running Volkswagen advertising campaign from 1983 further entrenched his popularity.
"The man on the bicycle with the red veldskoene became a household image, and I became entrapped by that. I needed to find a way out," says Kramer. "I needed to move away from this persona that I’d created for myself that was getting me down, actually."
So he decided to challenge himself with telling a musical story. He took a sabbatical in 1986 during which time he released a more overtly political album called Baboon Dogs and decided to write a musical about District Six. When he began to understand the political implications of what he was trying to do as an outsider, Kramer knew he needed a partner with insight.
His subsequent meeting with Taliep Petersen led to the launch of their hit musical in 1987, which Kramer says "changed a lot of things — for me. District Six — the Musical was an unexpected success. I’d just come out of an enormous success curve with my own work, so I wasn’t expecting to go back into another one. I thought it was going to be quite low-key. We went on to do more and more."
That success curve ensured a 20-year partnership, during which time Kat and the Kings became the first musical from Cape Town to be staged on both Broadway and the West End where it won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 1997. Ghoema, which won a string of awards in 2007, was their last collaboration. Petersen was murdered in December 2006.
With District Six, however, came the opportunity to nurture and launch rising stars. "We had to go and find Cape Flats talent — and they weren’t coming out of drama school," says Kramer. "I wouldn’t say I taught them how to act, but I showed them how to present on stage. The kids who started with me as nine or 10 year olds are now professionals in the business.
"Taliep saw himself in those young people. He had a dream and in some ways his dream came true and he wanted to create dreams for other people."
Actors today who want to be in a David Kramer show must be prepared to do their own research, use their own imagination and bring something of themselves to their character.
"This is what I say to actors. When I write, I act. I’m sitting at my desk and I’m acting like a mad thing. I become that person. The gangster. Or the female singer in a band or whatever she is. And then when we get into the rehearsal room I want the actors to become writers."
I get emotional listening to him, hanging on his every word as he gets more and more animated. Kramer laughs, saying he wishes he knew how to do that — make people cry (for whatever reason) when he needs to.
But he does know. The box-office records say it all. And Langarm has everything it takes to be another hit.
• Langarm will be on at the Fugard Theatre from November 20, www.thefugard.com.