The Afrobeat star Fela Kuti might have seemed an unlikely candidate for a Broadway musical.
But theatrical producer Stephen Hendel, a passionate fan, was determined to create a biographical show about the man, a musical with both artistic and mass-audience appeal.
He brought the idea to the right person: Bill T. Jones, the leader of the innovative Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company
and a Tony Award winner as choreographer for the musical “Spring Awakening.”
The resultant vibrant 2009 theater piece, “Fela!” — coming to the Paramount Theatre this week — shook Broadway out of its commercial family-musical torpor.
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“Steve didn’t want a conventional Broadway director, but someone who could give Fela (as he was widely known) the treatment he deserved,” Jones recalled by phone recently. “He felt Fela was the greatest musician nobody heard of. I’d been listening to him since the 1970s, and he’s a staple among great jazz and pop musicians, but he had no presence in the world of musical theater.”
Fela did, however, have quite a backstory.
The flamboyant composer and multi-instrumentalist pioneered the blending of jazz, funk, psychedelic rock and African rhythms into an exciting, intoxicating
Afrobeat brew. He was an outspoken political dissident against the military regime in his native Nigeria. He was also a macho polygamist who had 27 wives; he was a marijuana lover whose pot habit rivaled Jamaican pop idol Bob Marley’s; and he had an enormous ego.
He was arrested and jailed repeatedly by the Nigerian authorities — often on charges (including conspiracy to murder one of his own band members) that Fela claimed were politically motivated. In 1977, his Lagos compound was burned down, and his activist mother killed, in a Nigerian army raid.
How to convey Fela’s saga (he died in 1997
of AIDS) to a Broadway crowd? How to evoke his musical genius and political courage, but not sidestep the less savory, more contradictory aspects of his hedonistic life?
“We felt people needed to know in the first half of the show what a brilliant person this is, who he was, why he’s important, and make that emotional connection with him,” said Jones. And his character? “I was not in a position to judge Fela. Let’s assume you went to a concert of his, and he revealed himself to you. You can take what you need and leave the rest. First and foremost, he was an artist.”
The framework for the musical Jones and co-writer Jim Lewis devised is a late-1970s concert that Fela gave at The Afrika Shrine, his Lagos nightclub. Riffing off and through the feverish Afrobeat numbers are nonlinear biographical incidents and musings, inspired by Carlos Moore’s authorized biography, “Fela: This Bitch of a Life!”
But the bedrock of the piece is Fela’s infectious music — complemented by Jones’ fevered choreography and executed by hip-swinging dancers who sometimes encourage the audience to get up and groove along.
“It took over four years to clear all the music rights with Fela’s family,” said Jones. Members of Antibalas, a Brooklyn-based Afrobeat tribute band that performs many of Fela’s compositions note for note, were brought in to perform, as well as oversee the musical direction and arrangements.
“The band wanted to play the shows exactly as Fela would,” said Jones. “ But I wanted to deconstruct the music, change some of the instruments, because Afrobeat is really music for dancing. There’s no relief from the groove, and that groove can become deadly in a theater if it’s not relieved by storytelling.”
After a years-long gestation and many changes, “Fela!” was unveiled in a short pre-Broadway 2008 run at New York’s 37 Arts. Though some critics felt the script was weak, Variety reviewer David Rooney pointed out that the show “aims to be less traditional musical theater than cathartic experience, lacing its communicative passion with infectious euphoria, rebellious anger and heartfelt despair.”
After more revisions, “Fela!” moved to Broadway in 2009, aided by an infusion of cash and cachet from celebrity co-producers Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith.
In the Disneyfied precincts of Broadway, the show’s white-hot music, carnality and revolutionary politics were (to my mind) a glorious anomaly. But “Fela!” ran just 18 months — though it earned Tony Awards for choreography, costumes and sound design, and many other Tony nominations, had a strong run in London, and has been on tour since last January. (The show had a brief return engagement on Broadway last year.)
The cast coming to Seattle includes Michelle Williams (of Destiny’s Child), and British soprano Melanie Marshall (as Fela’s mother, Funmilayo). Adesola Osakalumi and Duain Richmond alternate in the demanding title role.
Though the elaborate set had to be condensed for the tour, Jones promises this “Fela!” is as much of a thrill ride as the Broadway version. “The music is still as hot as ever, the performers are just as committed, what’s onstage is beautiful as ever. Some things changed out of necessity, some out of maturity.”
The prolific Jones is back making dances for his company, and he’s the artistic director of a dance organization, New York Live Arts. Despite all of the compromises, lag time and financial pressures of working in the commercial theater world, he isn’t done with Broadway.
“I’m considering a musical based on the movie ‘Super Fly,’ ” he noted. “I’ve been working on it for about four years.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org