Interview: Star+Crossed – South African musical – storytelling as an agent of healing -how we use stories and fantasies to transmute a dark, barren world into something meaningful, mythic and beautiful

Star+Crossed – South African musical- première season

When and where: December 8-31, 2022 in the Artscape Arena, Cape Town
Starring: Isabella Jane and Earl Gregory
Direct booking link:
Duration: 90 minutes with no interval  

In order to move on, we need to confront our landscape of memory – personal and political- family, community and process how we are shaped by our narratives – or versions of narratives- historical, ‘real’ and mythical. This is at the core of a new South African musical, Star+Crossed, which was triggered by the story of Elizabeth Klarer who was born in South Africa, in 1910 (the year the Union of South Africa was established) and died in 1994 – the year of the first democratic elections. She claimed that she was abducted by an alien, had his baby and then came back to South Africa to spread good vibes. Her story inspired two Cape Town theatre companies (Abrahamse and Meyer Productions and VR Theatrical) to create a musical –which is a space for “healing through storytelling”. It features two (fictional) protagonists- Bess and Billy. Stop. Do not be diverted by perceptions of wacky and dismiss Star+Crossed as loony. It is an “interracial” love story, rather than “interstellar” story, “during the height of apartheid”, reflects Marcel Meyer from Abrahamse and Meyer Productions. He has written the book and lyrics for the musical. He says: “The musical has almost nothing to do with Sci-Fi or conspiracy theories, other than the historical claims Klarer made”.  The interstellar framing is a metaphor for an “interracial love story, during Apartheid”. It is about transcending barriers and differences and the limitations of the physical world and reaching for a “mysterious universe” which is “more comprehensible and bearable.”  Read on for more:

Inspiration and genesis of the musical

The musical has been inspired by the story of South African Elizabeth Klarer, who claimed that “she was abducted by an alien from the foothills of the Drakensberg, transported to his Utopian planet in the Alpha Centauri System, where she bore him a son, before returning to earth, to spread his message of love and compassion”. Where did you hear about this story?

Marcel Meyer: I came across the Elizabeth Klarer story while I was doing research for our musical, History Girls. One of my reference books had a series of essays about influential South African women and one of the essays was about Elizabeth. I stored the story in my memory bank not sure how to develop it.  Then I noticed two interesting dates – Elizabeth Klarer was born in 1910, the year the Union of South Africa was established out of four former British Colonies and 1994 the year she died, and the year South Africa is finally liberated.  The significance of those two dates gave me a framework and the inspiration for what the musical would be about: An unexpected look at the history of South Africa in the 20th century through the lens of one of our most unusual heroines.

The central conflict in Star+Crossed arises from a contest of narratives. Both Bess and Billy vie for our allegiance as they maintain their version of events is the most ‘truthful’ one. Bess, the fabulist, places extraordinary events into everyday circumstances. Billy, the journalist, believes in a factual recounting of life. While Bess tends to favour mythic elaborations, Billy continually places the action of the narrative in the context of larger, global historical events.

Early in the musical, the theme of transmuting trauma into mythology is established. Bess tells a mourning Billy that his deceased brother has been transfigured into a star. Billy counters with the Zulu myth of the Impundulu – The Lightning Bird. A mythic creature, equal parts black and white.

Mythological images abound – Bess, yearning to transcend the realities of earth likens herself to Icarus and Venus, while Billy likens Bess to the Zulu fertility goddess Mbaba Mwana Wasera and sees parallels between himself and Orpheus as he descends into the underworld of the Johannesburg mines to retrieve narratives of the mineworkers’ suffering.

Both Bess and Billy use storytelling as an agent of healing. A restorative tool that remedies past traumas and decodes a mysterious universe into something more comprehensible and bearable.

Truth and fiction colliding

The musical is loosely based on the Elizabeth Klarer story but you have fictionalised the story. The characters in your musical are Bess and her childhood friend, Billy. Insights into the narrative arc of your musical?

Marcel Meyer: Like our play, Contested Bodies which was inspired by the relationship between Doctor James Barry, Lord Charles Somerset and John, Barry’s African manservant, Star+Crossed is in no way meant to be an accurate biographical play – rather as the by-line suggests, the musical is “inspired by true and not so true events”. The musical is an exploration of truth. Star+Crossed explores how we use stories and fantasies to transmute a dark, barren world into something more meaningful, mythic, and beautiful. The musical centres on two unlikely people, Bess and Billy, finding each other in extraordinary circumstances while forging a profound connection that transcends, time, space, and South Africa’s oppressive apartheid laws.

Bess is the character inspired by the historical Elizabeth Klarer. Billy was my invention. A composite of two characters in the historical narrative of Elizabeth Klarer – her sister and the Zulu farm worker Ladam, both who saw something in the night sky with Elizabeth when she was a young child. Ladam explained the sighting to Elizabeth in the context of Zulu mythology.

By creating Billy, I had a character the same age as Bess whose narrative could be intertwined with hers but offering the audience a very different perspective of what your life was like if you happened to be born with a black skin in the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Their names also pay tribute to two major characters in the musical canon -Bess is a reference to the leading lady in Gershwin’s masterpiece, Porgy and Bess and Billy is a nod to the leading man who also goes to heaven in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

Story through song and music

Is the story sung through the libretto – songs -or is there also dialogue?

Marcel Meyer: The musical is partially sung through, with sections of spoken and underscored dialogue. Because of the extremely heightened nature of the narrative a large portion of the show is sung. Audiences are more willing to suspend disbelief in lyric theatre than in more naturalistic mediums like film or realistic drama. Because this story is so fantastical music seemed to be the perfect medium to explore this tale. Music seduces us in a way that words can’t on their own.

Star-crossed lovers

Insights into the title?

Marcel Meyer: Star+Crossed takes its title from Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare’s timeless story of two star-crossed lovers. The title hopefully, sets up an expectation that the musical is to be a love story. But Star+Crossed is in fact two love stories: the published intergalactic romance between a South African woman and an alien from another planet, and a second covert, interracial love affair during the height of apartheid.

Time, space, context – ‘waiting room’ of Heaven in 1994

Time frame and set design: You have said that this musical, “transcends, time, space, and South Africa’s oppressive apartheid laws.” Can you expand on that and give insights into the stage design- setting? Utopian planet and South African landscape?

Marcel Meyer: Because both Bess and Billy are writers and storytellers the set is a stylized representation of an open notebook on which images of their narratives can be projected. The musical spans almost the entire 20th century and various locations across South Africa and Europe so the scenic design needed to accommodate this vast historical and geographical panorama.

The musical also draws on conventions found in Japanese Noh Drama, where a spirit is trapped and only through a reckoning with the past can the spirit be liberated. To honour this inspiration, we wanted the set to have the austere simplicity of Japanese Noh drama, this most famous form of classical Japanese musical theatre.

The premise of the musical is that we are in the ‘waiting room’ of Heaven in 1994. Both Billy and Bess are deceased, and their spirits can’t move on until they have truthfully reckoned with their past. So, the musical moves briskly between the afterlife and remembered episodes from Bess and Billy’s past. A neutral set with projections seemed the best way to facilitate this.

The aesthetic for Star+Crossed reflects a similar gentle, poetic, ephemeral, nakedly exposed visual world so beautifully realised in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town or Schmidt and Jones’ The Fantasticks.

Nothing about the show aims to be realistic. The feelings, the emotions, and the conflicts that the characters deal and grapple with during the show are painstakingly real, but the presentation and environment in which these emotions, situations, and characters ‘live’ is always highly poetic and deeply theatrical.

This is a piece of theatre where song, storytelling, magic-realism, fact, fantasy, and fiction all collide and conjoin to create something that is equal parts profound simplicity and fantastic complexity.

Designing Star+Crossed

Insights into the costumes please?

Marcel Meyer: Because both Bess and Billy are spirits at the start of the musical and because their recollections trace them from childhood through to old age my imagining is – that once you pass away your spirit takes the form of you at your most vibrant and beautiful –hence our gorgeous leading couple.

Billy and Bess are costumed in the garments they were wearing on the night the disputed event in their past took place – 1948. Bess is immaculately dressed in a black Christian Dior-type ‘New Look’ dress – the dress she wore to Billy’s father’s funeral in 1948.

Billy neatly sports, a dark grey pinstripe double-breasted suit, horn-rimmed glasses, and a pair of perfectly polished two-tone ‘floor-sham’ shoes, so iconic of South Africa in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Intergalactic aesthetics

Insights into the lighting design and projection design: One thinks of A Space Odyssey and Star Trek in terms of intergalactic aesthetics. Tell us about Star+Crossed?

Marcel Meyer: Both Kirsti Cumming (projection design) and Faheem Bardien (lighting design) are top artists in their respective fields, and they have outdone themselves with their incredible contribution to this production. Because of the intended simplicity of the scenic design – we have given both Kirsti and Faheem a blank canvas to ‘paint’ on with projections and light. Kirsti has created the most exquisite set of collage-like images and visuals to represent the various settings and historical events while Faheem has created one of his most poetic and ethereal lighting designs for this musical.

Development of an interstellara metaphor for the interracial love story

Can you comment on taking a story- which many people might say – conspiracy theory whacko – and then developing that into a compelling narrative which inspires “love and compassion”?

Marcel Meyer: As I hinted at in my answer about the choice and meaning of the title – the musical explores two romantic narratives – the one that made Elizabeth famous – the interstellar one – and then my invented love story to try and make sense of the famous one.  The musical purports the theory that the true love story was an interracial rather than interstellar one, and to deal with the trauma of what that relationship meant during the height of apartheid Elizabeth transmutes the interracial affair into an interstellar one.

It also highlights the fact that the South African public were more likely to accept and believe a white South African woman had made love to an Alien than they would accept the knowledge that her lover was a Black South African man. In essence, the interstellar love story is a metaphor for the interracial one. This is also the reason I chose to develop this story as a musical. If you sing about loving an alien, it seems more palatable and believable than speaking about it.

Musical theatre relies on larger-than-life characters and Elizabeth fits that bill and then some. It was vital for me that the audience have compassion for her rather than deriding her as a whacko or nut-job. Her music seduces us to go with her fantastical tale.

 Scoring Star+Crossed

Composer, Wessel Odendaal is responsible for the musical direction and orchestration. The album will be released on digital platforms. Can you give insights into the score? I think of Star Trek, Star Wars etc- all American franchises. This is a South African story. Can we expect influences from the South African continent and the SA Songbook?

Marcel Meyer: All the music and lyrics are original and were written to serve the dramatic narrative of this play. Wessel has written the most incredible score – lush and romantic, yet dense and complex and sweepingly soaring. This is music that soars to the stratosphere and beyond – fitting for a musical that deals with an interstellar romance. Wessel drew inspiration from impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy and from contemporary musical theatre composers like Adam Guettell, Jason Robert Brown and Michael John La Chuisa, while maintaining his own distinctive sound and identity, and paying homage to the play’s South African setting. We are also incredibly blessed to have two of the greatest voices in local musical theatre, Earl Gregory, and Isabella Jane, singing this score. Just to hear these two magnificent performers sing this score is worth the ticket price.

Storytellingnarrative of loss that brings our two lovers closer and closer together

Can we circle back to Sci-Fi, conspiracy theorists and contrails and what-what. The Elizabeth Klarer story was a jump-off point, in creating this musical. Star+Crossed is not a South African version of Star Trek.

Marcel Meyer: The musical has almost nothing to do with Sci-Fi or conspiracy theories other than the historical claims Klarer made. It is an exploration of how such fantastical tales are born – and my suggestion is such stories are born out of deep personal loss. Running parallel to the love story in the musical is a narrative of loss. Each celestial visitation in the musical marks a personal loss for the characters:

  • Hailey’s comet in 1910 marks black people losing citizenship in their own country with the formation of the Union of South Africa
  • The first sighting in 1918 happens when Billy is mourning the loss of his brother during the sinking of the SS Mendi
  • The second sighting takes place as Bess and Billy lose each other – with Bess leaving the country to go to Europe
  • The third sighting occurs when Bess and Billy again decide to go their separate ways
  • The Abduction happens on the day when South Africa is utterly lost as the National Party takes power and one by one the apartheid laws are implemented. Billy is also suffering a huge loss on a personal level, mourning the death of his father.
  • With Hailey’s comet in 1986 Billy loses his life but on a positive front the Apartheid regime starts losing its grip on power in South Africa.

It is this narrative of loss that brings our two lovers closer and closer together. They share these losses. Something in this shared experience of loss makes for a deeper compassion, love and understanding of the other person.

Personal, political, versions of truth and myths: Star+Crossed– the musical -Isabella Jane (Bess) and Earl Gregory (Billy) in the South African musical- première season in Cape Town, December 8-31, 2022, in the Artscape Arena. “The musical spans almost the entire 20th century and various locations across South Africa and Europe…”, explains Marcel Meyer of Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, which is producing the musical, with VR Theatrical. Meyer has also written the book and lyrics. “Mythological images abound – Bess, yearning to transcend the realities of earth likens herself to Icarus and Venus, while Billy likens Bess to the Zulu fertility goddess Mbaba Mwana Wasera and sees parallels between himself and Orpheus as he descends into the underworld of the Johannesburg mines to retrieve narratives of the mineworkers’ suffering.” Image by Fiona MacPherson

Star+Crossed– the musical -image of Isabella Jane and Earl Gregory, by Fiona MacPherson. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: