“I want people to leave with the feeling that we can triumph together”: how to make Mandela the musical | Musical comedies

A musical about the life and times of Nelson Mandela seems a risky proposition; in the past, musicals about politicians have met with mixed success. Stephen Sondheim’s Hit killers dramatized the lives of the men and women who tried to kill American presidents, but his Everyone can whistle, a satire on a corrupt mayor, was a first flop. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice made a worldwide hit of Avoidedon the life of Eva Perón, but 1600 Pennsylvania Avenuea show about racism and the White House by the distinguished team of Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner, ran for seven Broadway performances.

Undaunted, South African songwriter brothers Shaun and Greg Dean Borowsky developed mandela the musical for seven years. The result, with a book by Laiona Michelle (who wrote little blue girl about Nina Simone) and additional music by Bongi Duma, opens at London’s Young Vic this month, with Michael Luwoye, who played Hamilton – another hit show about politics – on Broadway.

In the rehearsal room, its American director, Schele Williams, who lives in New York, seems remarkably calm – and utterly convinced that telling Mandela’s story through a musical is a serious and believable undertaking. “When I met Shaun and Greg, I could see the passion that oozed from them. They had such a clear reason for wanting to tell the story – and it had nothing to do with a grand business idea.

“They are two white South Africans who would have grown up with a very different life and understanding of their country and their people but for Nelson Mandela. They wanted to tell this story of humanity. They are the best stories to do in musicals because we can see inside the soul in a way that is elevated because of the music. Music is what connects us the most.

When Williams first got involved in 2018, the show contained dialogue, but it’s now entirely sung. “We did a concert version at Lincoln Center in New York and realized that there was a level of gravity that existed when Mandela was singing. In spoken scenes, it was like it dropped, no not because of the actors, but because we all have an impression of what he looks like.The way to navigate Mandela in the world on stage in a believable way was to change the way we hear him.

A promotional image for the musical Mandela. Photography: Emilio Madrid

The musical begins in 1960 at the time of the Sharpeville massacre, when 249 unarmed South Africans protesting the country’s pass laws were killed or injured by police. It ends in 1990, when Mandela was released from prison and continued the long march to freedom that culminated in the dismantling of apartheid and his election as the first black president of a free South Africa.

By shedding light on a less familiar part of Mandela’s story, Williams hopes to deepen our understanding of his role in the struggle to end apartheid. “When people think of him, they think of the statesman, the man who was always wise and always knew what to say. What we find is a young man who changed his ideology on the way to fight – and the consequence of that was 27 years in prison. We look at the personal sacrifices he made. He couldn’t be a father or a husband.

“There aren’t many people I know who would say, ‘I have to save my people, my country. That means I can’t raise my children or bury my son. There aren’t many people in this world who are ready to die for their principles and for the freedom of their people.

Nelson Mandela after his release from Victor Verster prison, 1990.
Nelson Mandela after his release from Victor Verster prison, 1990. Photography: Ulli Michel/Reuters

“All I ever wanted to do was tell stories that no one else wanted to tell,” continues Williams, who is one of the founding members of united black theater, an organization dedicated to protecting “black people, black theater and black lives” in communities across the United States. To bring this one to life, she assembled a team of British, American, and white and black South African collaborators, a rehearsal room vision of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation.

For some, history is very close to home. Gregory Maqoma, the renowned choreographer, grew up in Soweto and his childhood memories are full of the sights and sounds of apartheid, of soldiers standing in his school checking that only the approved curriculum was taught to black children, burning tires and burning buildings. “It’s heartbreaking to revisit it in some way,” he says. “But I take all the trauma and let it show up in the work.”

For Maqoma, creating a physical language that represents the way the South African people have become part of the struggle, forging their own revolution around Mandela and his comrades, was “extremely daunting”. “You are dealing with the story of an icon. But often when we see someone as a political icon, we forget that they are still human, that they feel as much love and pain as we do.

Some people in South Africa today feel that Mandela’s legacy is less substantial than they had hoped, that economic inequality leaves too many of the black population in poverty. But for Maqoma, its meaning is clear. “My mother has love for Mandela, my father was part of the African National Congress [Mandela’s party] and that love and affection goes to me too,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for people like Nelson Mandela, there was a great chance that our country would go up in flames.”

Rehearsal of a dance routine for Mandela's musical
Rehearsal of a dance number. Photography: Andy Hall/The Observer

The musical has the support of the Mandela family and more specifically their granddaughter Nandi Mandela and great grandson Luvuyo Madasa. Both are descendants of Mandela’s first marriage to Evelyn Mase. “Nandi Mandela is the mother of the show,” says Williams. “Nothing was off limits for us and she was incredibly supportive of the way we tell the story. She was also very generous in saying that Mandela was not the movement: his comrades were also important.

One area to navigate is the character of Winnie Madikizela-Mandelaa heroine during the early years of her husband’s imprisonment when she herself was imprisoned, beaten and held in solitary confinement, but who led her own reign of terror in Soweto in the late 80s and later found responsible for “gross human rights violations” by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“I’m here to connect the dots and understand how she went from A to B,” Scottish actress Danielle Fiamanya said of the role. “It’s important for me to be able to portray the story and show its journey from the beginning; things have a beginning before they have an end and we need to tell people how she suffered and endured and what a warrior she was. It is an unfathomable life.

Fiamanya was impressed with how the team came together to create a show inspired by real lives, but which also possesses the communicative qualities of art. “The room is bigger than all of us and it compelled us to come together from day one to perform something authentic.”

Maqoma agrees. “Telling the story with the utmost honesty and sincerity,” he says, “for me was key to this project.”

Luwoye Fiamanya as Nelson and Winnie Mandela.
Danielle Fiamanya as Winnie Mandela, in rehearsal with Michael Luwoye as Nelson. Photography: Andy Hall/The Observer

What does he hope audiences take away from the show? “I think we’ve lost so much humanity. It’s easy to make decisions based on economics and we’ve forgotten what makes people wake up every day. I just want people to walk away feeling that we’re still human, that we need each other, that we can hold hands, and that we can triumph together. That’s what I hope. »

As for Williams, she is delighted that the play ended with its premiere in London, a city that played its own role in the anti-apartheid struggle. “It should be here,” she said. “There are more South African expats here than anywhere else. And when I stand outside South Africa House I remember all the images I saw of these protests and the massive gatherings that the British people held [protesting against the white South African regime].

“The British people were amazing. The government was the last to board. It was the people; they started sanctioning products on their own. For the people who marched outside South Africa House day in and day out to come and see this story, it would be an honor.

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