King Kong: Musical theatre for a new world

Scotland editor Scott Purvis looks at the exciting musical theatre productions premiering Down Under

A scene from <i>King Kong</i> on stage
A scene from King Kong on stage

“We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster” states Hayes in Peter Jackson’s ape-numbingly long adaptation of one of the most iconic films in cinema history, King Kong.

And it’s not too difficult to apply these fated words to musical theatre as it is in 2013: it’s a genre which is at times something of a monstrous beauty, shackled by the clichés of the jukebox musical and tethered to the conventions of what was new when Oscar Hammerstein II was learning the piano.

Like the world around us, there are fewer new vistas to be conquered in theatre, fewer boundaries to be explored. But every now and again, a Christopher Columbus of musical theatre sets off on an epic journey to discover the silks and spices of uncharted lands and take the audience experience to fascinating new frontiers. These are songs for a new world.

Whilst the 80s and 90s belonged to Broadway and the West End, Australia has been surprisingly successful of late in the world of big budget musical theatre. From Hugh Jackman to Russell Crowe, the boys from Oz are taking home the wonga.

Priscilla has been Queen of the Desert and a reigning monarch in the commonwealths of the Sydney, the West End and Broadway since 2006, and the recent production of Love Never Dies showed the creative potential of that nation, reinventing and improving a show which had been all but written off by the world’s press. And with tours and residencies of Wicked joining international centres of big budget musical theatre like Berlin and Tokyo, this is a good time to be an Ozian.

And the new world of Australia has recently produced something potentially finer than the wines for which it is celebrated – the newly opened musical version of King Kong, a production which looks set to break free from its Melbourne residency at the Regent Theatre and conquer the world through a long arena tour.

This overwhelming spectacle of this upcoming production makes most shows look like a pantomime at the local church hall. Here, a six-metre, one-tonne silverback gorilla, controlled by a team of thirteen men, rampages across the stage, surrounded by noise and light and moving more fluidly than Liza Minnelli did during her last appearance at the Royal Albert Hall.

Another Australian at the helm of this fantastic new journey into the unknown is Marius de Vries, a composer best known for his work on Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, who has written the score of King Kong in collaboration with Sarah McLachlan, Massive Attack and Justice. The result is a heavy and heady mix of atmospheric electro synth pop and anguish-filled piano ballads which make the heart pound with excitement and ache with romance.

The centre-piece of the banquet table of tracks and animatronics offered for the media to salivate over during the recent press launch was a performance of “Full Moon Lullaby” by Esther Hannaford. The number, performed by Fay Wray’s character, silhouetted against a beautiful backdrop of moonlight, has future classic written all over it, echoing the sonorous dirge of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s “Memory” and matching it in lyrical splendour.

In the moments before the beast was revealed to an excited vaudeville in the 1933 film, his captors described Kong as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” When the red-velvet curtain parts in Melbourne and the animatronic ape descendant of that icon of cinema is revealed, the audiences of the world will look to Australia for a breath of this exciting new world of theatre.