GATHERING THE STARS
Magic, miracles and a production that touches the very heart of hope and loss
The entertainment industry was dying while the world sat and watched its creations, says theatre and song veteran André Hattingh. As industry professionals left the stage forever during two years of pandemic, she was moved to write a poem, and then a song. The music video that emerged is released this week.
It seemed to André Hattingh as though the stars in the sky were being switched off, one by one, as the pandemic dragged on and on. Eventually, she wrote a poem, trying to capture her grief in words. Ultimately it turned into a song – a Broadway-style showstopper full of drama but also hope and love. This weekend she released the song and video to rapturous applause from the South African showbiz community.
The veteran star of stage and song penned a tribute song titled Gathering the Stars and written in true Broadway-style, to pay respect to the 143 stars of the South African entertainment business who have left us since the pandemic began. It’s a phenomenal roll call, and their names appear throughout the video.
“My song is in memory of these people and also to pay tribute to a theatre world in dire straits,” she told Maverick Life.
The names include actors Shaleen Surtie-Richards, David Butler, Patrick Shai, Mary Twala, David Clatworthy, Graham Weir and Michael Atkinson, theatre veterans Dawn Lindberg, Roy Sergeant, John Slemon, Gerrit Schoonhoven and Brian Astbury, musicians Joseph Shabalala, Barney Rachabane, Steve Fataar and Jonas Gwangwa, and playwrights Welcome Msomi, Maishe Maponya and Stephen Gray.
They’re the tip of the iceberg of loss felt by the community. (See the end of the story for the full alphabetical list.)
“Up till now, 143 well-known people in the entertainment business have passed away almost unnoticed due to the lockdown rules,” Hattingh told Maverick Life this week.
Theatre is a tough business even in normal times, and it is well known that actors, musicians and other professionals, once they can no longer work, often end up in dire straits – forgotten and struggling to make ends meet.
Hattingh, a veteran actress and singer of note, who I first knew in the 1980s when she was the star of Pieter Toerien’s production of Tomfoolery – a revue of Tom Lehrer’s thigh-slappingly funny songs – wrote the song a year ago and is releasing the video on Wednesday 30 March, roughly two years since the start of the South African lockdown.
“I remember being in shock at the time, hearing of one friend after the other leaving us. The helplessness I felt not being able to go to them when they were ill or suffering or depressed or even just say goodbye and to see the family.
“The result is that many of us feel there has been no closure to all for these wonderful talents that are lost to us.
“I felt I had to do something, so I wrote a poem. Lockdown has brought out the ‘poet’ in me and I have been posting many poems on Facebook. Many people have enjoyed them and it has been a kind of therapy for me.”
Gathering the Stars started life as a poem. She posted it on Facebook, as she does most of her poems, and somebody commented, “Hey, André, this sounds like one of your songs.”
“I guess this was in my mind when one evening, standing in the kitchen, reeling after hearing of yet another friend’s passing, the chorus came to me:
We’re gathering the stars
The show will still go on
After you’ve gone
you’ll still linger on
In the hearts that you’ve won.
Her partner, playwright Anthony Akerman, heard her singing it and said, “Hmm, I think you should do something with that song.”
“So that’s what I have been doing for a year. First I wrote more verses and Tony Bentel, my pianist friend, played it with me. I had a simple video to show around. I sent it to a friend in the video business for corporates. She loved it and said we should collect all the stars we could find and do an extravaganza singing it at Montecasino. As you can imagine, this was a logistical nightmare during Covid.”
Plan B was to write a script for a handful of actors.
“We could create a kind of feeling of an Off-Broadway type song being sung by a band of out-of-work actors. It really seemed to be a great idea. I thought perhaps we could link it in with a form of fundraising for Daphne Kuhn of The Theatre on the Square. She loved the song and was prepared to offer us her theatre. But the logistics of trying to raise money for actors or the theatre was too great, so we left that.”
Covid and its social complications put paid to other plans too. In the end, the project was stripped down to a style that is often most effective on the stage: a singer, a piano and a camera. Having watched the video, I have no doubt that a big, busy production risked losing the heart of the song and her trenchant delivery of it.
Hattingh had asked a friend, the musician Steve Spangenberg, for advice.
“He agreed it needed a pianist with a Broadway feel and just me. I decided to go on my own with a piano. Tony Bentel unfortunately wasn’t available to do the shoot but introduced me to the present guru of piano, Kevin Greenberg.
“The magic then started happening or, as I call it, miracles.
“We phoned Joe Arthur, the great musician, conductor and producer, for some advice about the recording and he came on board himself. So we have been able to record a wonderful track with him.
“Then I had to find someone who would be prepared to do the filming and production without a cent. The great director-cameraman Dominic Black came on board. I have had super friends, agent Mairi Cameron and choreographer (production manager, etc) Yolanda Kimber, to help me get the whole thing together.
“The cherry on top is that Daphne Kuhn has given us her theatre to film. She was the one person who was on board from the beginning. So here we go. We are ready to fly.”
Hattingh sees the song and video against a broader backdrop than merely our own entertainment industry.
“This video I hope will have another inbuilt message for the world. Not only will it be a tribute to the 143-plus people in the entertainment business who are no longer here, but also to help to create an awareness of the plight of this industry.
Everyone should ask what they did during lockdown. Their answer would definitely include watching everything we could on YouTube and Netflix, Showmax and DStv. Our industry was dying while the world sat and watched its creations.
“Theatres have suffered and are still suffering as our restrictions have not been lifted yet. Only half houses are allowed to be sold. They don’t do this to restaurants and airports and political rallies. No, we have been singled out to take the brunt.
Our Minister of Arts and Culture has been sorely lax in doing his duty.
“Also, the money that was allotted to showbiz and artists very often landed in the wrong hands or was given to famous pop stars who were already rich. Our artists had to protest at the ministry for weeks to be heard. We wanted to know where the money went. ”
In conclusion, Hattingh says with resonant poignancy: “It’s time our story was revealed. Also the fans and audiences around the country, who feel lost that they too haven’t been able to say thank you or goodbye, will have some closure with this little video of a song born in my heart and danced in my kitchen.”
Here is the full alphabetical list of the stars whose lights have gone out since the pandemic began:
Bongza Maestro Thusi
Charles ‘Big Boy’ Maja
Dees Derek Rooi
DJ Devan Singh
Dr Sam Phillips
Dr Steve Kekana
Edwin van Wijk
Emanuel AK Lorntjie Kruger
Joh B Rerrier
June Kraus-von Trebitsch
Marna Gey van Pittius
McDonald Ndodana ‘Mac’ Mathunjwa
Mojalefa ‘Mjokes’ Matsane
Mpho Wa Mookapile
Mpumi Sanctified Khumalo
Nomasonto ‘Mshoza’ Maswangayi
Noxolo ‘Noxee’ Maqashalala
Oupa Snakes Mashiya
Portia Lebogang Mashego
Prof Bhekisizwe Peterson
Prof Mzilikazi Khumalo
Themba Dredz Mbuli
Tony Jeffrey Nene
Vinolia ‘V-Mash’ Mashego
Walter Jazzman Kotu
Zamile Christopher Gantana
Zoleka Helesi DM/ ML