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By DIEP TRAN
What happens when you take the story of King Kong, subtract the gorilla, add an M.C., and turn everything into a musical comedy? You end up with Kong Kong, a new musical written by Randy Weiner, Alfred Preisser, and DJ Cold Cut.
Weiner draws parallels between the classic tale and the actual history of hip-hop. For instance, he sees a connection between explorers journeying to Skull Island in search of the wondrous Kong and the "record executives whose job was to constantly find the latest thing to amaze the world."
The record label owners in King Kong are three Jewish brothers who venture into the south Bronx circa 1978. Their King Kong is a rapper, and he's creating a sound no one has heard before. It's a sound that some consider "the heartbeat of the universe," to borrow a term from Faye, Kong's love interest (and an obvious homage to a certain film actress with a healthy set of lungs.)
By tying the history of hip-hop to the King Kong narrative, "Alfred and I are trying to make something original, mythic, and bigger than any one story," Weiner says. (He and Weiner have been developing the show for 15 years.) "It's this idea of the artist being the life force. These hip-hop artists, they were making music that was so passionate and exciting, and thanks to these record labels, this music spread out and took over the entire world."
Weiner is aware that turning Skull Island into the Bronx might raise a few eyebrows, considering the racial connotations of the original 1933 film. "There's a lot of baggage around the myth of King Kong, so we wanted to address that and explore the racial dynamics between the Jewish record execs and the African-American artists," he says. "Alfred and I aren't afraid to be provocative."
This mix of old and new, black and white, is reflected in the musical's score, which blends Broadway-ready showtunes with hip-hop beats. When the Gold Brothers of Gold Records introduce themselves, they sing a <i>Wonderful Town</i>-esque musical number complete with high kicks. When the trio, plus Faye, enters Kong's club in Bronx, the bass starts thumping and the breakdancing begins.
King Kong is Weiner and Preisser's third collaboration, after 2009's Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe and 2011's Caligula Maximus Weiner is the owner of the Box nightclubs, and he's also a producer of the immersive Sleep No More. Preisser was the founding artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem. He says, "We're motivated by the need to connect with people and make people feel joyful, and to elevate and entertain."
Weiner adds, "Alfred's very sophisticated. He likes to elevate. I'm happy enough to entertain."
To which Preisser immediately responds: "What I mean by 'elevate' is: You walk out of the theatre and you feel more alive than you did when you went in. That's enough elevation for me!"
As part of SummerStage, funded by the City Parks Foundation, King Kong is being performed for free in various parks in the city, to an audience across a wide range of ages and income levels. Its upcoming engagements include St. Mary's Park in the Bronx and Marcus Garvey Park and East River Park in Manhattan.
"SummerStage is the most democratic form of putting arts in front of people that you can imagine," Preisser says. "Theatre has become really expensive for a lot of people in New York. What City Parks does is get music and artistic content in front of everyone. Anyone can go to a park and hang out. In a perfect world, we would have a relationship to theatre that's not up on top of a hill."
[Here's a complete list of upcoming performances of King Kong.]
Diep Tran is a writer and editor based in New York City
Photo by Michael Seto