The current musical adaptation of King Kong playing at the Broadway Theatre is the first serious attempt to adapt Merian C. Cooper’s famous film to the Broadway stage. However, King Kong (in name at least) has been part of the musical stage for at least 60 years. At the Billy Rose Theatre Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts we preserve several earlier King Kong musicals. Not all of these included giant apes on stage, but each show the influence the character has had on popular culture since he first appeared on screen.
Program for 1959 South African Musical
In 1959, a “jazz opera” titled King Kong opened in segregated, apartheid-era Johannesburg, South Africa. The musical was a dramatization of the story of a South Africa folk hero, a boxer named Ezekiel Dhlamini who called himself “King Kong.” After killing his ex-girlfriend in a brawl with street gang, he plead guilty and asked for the death penalty. He was given 12 years in a labor camp where he died by suicide. The musical adaptation was composed by Todd Matshikiza, a black man living in Johannesburg where, according to the program, he had a “full-time job selling razor blades,” with a lyrics by Pat Williams, a white woman who had worked as a theatre critic before turning to scientific writing, and a book by a white lawyer from Cape Town whose practice had fallen on hard times when he lost many of his wealthy white clients after earning a reputation for defending black citizens. The musical transferred to London in 1959 where it ran for two years. There were talks to bring the show to Broadway, but a production never materialized. The Library preserves the original cast recording, sheet music, a folder of newspaper clippings from various cities, the original London program, and a souvenir program from the original Johannesburg production.
Libretto for the 1975 Off-Broadway Musical, Ape Over Broadway
In 1975, cabaret performer Steve Ross, comic and writer Andrew Herz, and actor and composer/lyricist Bill Vitale created a comic giant-simian musical titled Ape Over Broadway. The musical featured a tap-dancing ape and Borscht-belt schtick (“JANE: You can call me Ophelia. / GOTHAM: Ophelia? / JANE: Of course, I won’t answer to Ophelia, ’cause my name is Jane.”). The musical ran for 11 performances at Off-Broadway’s Bert Wheeler theatre in 1975 and the Library preserved four copies of the libretto, a photocopy of the program, and a poster.
Richard Nelson’s Lighting Design for Censored Scenes From King Kong
In March of 1980, Censored Scenes from King Kong, a musical by Howard Schuman and Andy Roberts, ran for three performances on Broadway. The musical was a transfer from the London fringe adaptation of a never-aired BBC television program, and many of the original reviews snarkily observed that the BBC had made a better decision than the Broadway producers who brought it to the stage. The show tells the story of a conspiracy theorist who believes the original movie version of King Kong featured a sex scene, and his search for the missing footage leads, if the reviews are to be believed, to a wacky set of adventures leading to a twist ending. Sadly, the script and score are not preserved in our collections, but we do have a few photographs, reviews, the original Playbill, and Richard Nelson’s original lighting design for the production at the Palace Theater.
Notes for Abandoned 1990s Musical Version
Roy Somlyo who worked closely with producer Alexander Cohen on many shows, has a file in his papers that includes plans for an $11 million spectacular production of King Kong to be produced by advertising executive George Gordon. The file includes several production budgets, outlines of the musical, and notes on a presentation to potential investors in Atlanta, Georgia. A résumé for James Goldman (book writer of Follies) and a proposed treatment by Marnin Charnin (lyricist and director of Annie) are also in the folder.
Souvenir Program for the Australian Show that Preceded the Current Broadway Musical
Although there are a fair number of trans-Atlantic transfers of musicals from and to the United Kingdom, and from the U.S. to Australia, fewer musicals make their way from Australia (despite a thriving industry in Melbourne and Sydney). Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Boy From Oz, and the current Broadway production of King Kong are among a few of the exceptions. King Kong opened in Melbourne in 2013, with a book by The Light in the Piazza author Craig Lucas and a score by a variety of musicians including Sarah McLachlan. The show was a hit, but the producers seem to have worried that it would not translate well to New York. The transfer to Broadway was postponed, and during the run up to the 2018 opening The Bridges of Madison County, Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman joined, and then left, the project. The souvenir program from Australia suggests that though the score and book may have been largely different, the spectacular puppetry of the title character remained more or less the same.
Doug Reside is the Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Curator for the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.