West Africa Story: Fela! on Broadway

A fantastic new musical will soon find out just how fantastic it has to be to survive

For a new musical with no cartoon-character tie-in, no jukebox of smash pop hits, and no boldface celebrity stars to thrive on Broadway in the waning post-apocalyptic months of 2009, the performances most crucial to success aren't necessarily given by the folks onstage, or behind it, or regarding it from the luxe front-row seats reserved for patrons and investors. Look instead to the same-day discount TKTS booth—more specifically, the eager, increasingly bundled-up young helpers who lurk nearby to soothe and summarize, cheerfully proselytizing for the daunting list of shows from which you (or your mother, or your grandmother) must choose. If the show can't sell itself, it's up to them.

And so, on a slightly blustery November weekday night, a handful of curious potential theatergoers stand before those oddly alluring red LED boards full of titles, showtimes, and percentage discounts, mulling it over. Some names are familiar (West Side Story, the deathless Phantom), and those that aren't are at least somewhat self-explanatory (Memphis, Ragtime, Shrek). The helpers will gladly reel off a brief, upbeat, loosely rehearsed spiel for each of 'em.

A curious potential theatergoer inquires about Fela!

Sahr Ngaujah, as Fela
Photos by Chad Griffith; wardrobe: Sue Stepnik & Susie Ghebresillassie
Sahr Ngaujah, as Fela
Antibalas
Antibalas

Like Mamma Mia!, the exclamation point gives Fela! a little extra kick, though the sonic country of origin this time is not Sweden, but Nigeria. The summary spiel, as delivered by a few different summarizers, hits the key points: Musical biopic. (Sort of.) Fela Kuti (they pronounce it either "Fey-la" or "Fella"; stick with the former). 1938–1997. Singer, saxophonist, frontman, and inventor of dance crazes (not really) and the somewhat self-explanatory genre of Afrobeat, a wanton mash-up of African highlife, jazz, funk, soul, classical, and traditional Yoruba music (they might not have said all that, but it's definitely the case). "Lived a crazy life." (Absolutely.) Fire-breathing rabble-rouser who was arrested in his home country more than 200 times (probably) and took 27 wives on the same day (he called them "Queens," but yeah). Great music (including a song called "Expensive Shit" that isn't even remotely metaphorical) and equally incendiary dancing (the last show advertised in Times Square to feature this much gyrating posterior belonged to a much, much seedier era).

One summarizer leans in conspiratorially.

"Big marijuana supporter."

Mamma mia. Plus, a few weeks later, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, alongside none other than Jay-Z, are announced as producers. Sounds like a ringer. A monster hit. Even with no cartoons or top 40 hits or boldface divas. But those shows face annihilation these days, too; if Spider-Man himself is stumbling, then God save us all. Fela!, which opens at the Eugene O'Neill Theater on November 23, could just as easily have a question mark. See it now. Before it unfairly blows over—or justifiably blows up.

In late September, the Fela! brain trust throws a short, sweet press fete at 37 Arts, the Hell's Kitchen theater that housed the musical's initial eight-week Off-Broadway run a year ago. That run attracted a great deal of attention. Sahr Ngaujah played the starring, titular role with an unquenchable vivacity and virility, stalking the tiny stage with cocky charisma as a troupe of scantily clad dancers (his Queens, primarily) flailed joyously to a Fela hit parade (he cranked out more than 30 records in the '70s alone) deployed by Antibalas, the wildly beloved and (very roughly) Brooklyn-based collective arguably more synonymous with modern Afrobeat than even Fela's own currently active bandleader sons, Femi and Seun.

Loosely structured as a late-'70s concert at the Shrine—Fela's own nightclub and theoretically autonomous compound, surrounded and eventually overrun by the corrupt Nigerian government—the show cherrypicks his massive discography (start with Zombie and Gentleman if you're unfamiliar) and details his headstrong and often painful evolution (musical, political, personal). The result was far from a linear, coherent narrative exactly, but as an event, as an immersive experience, as a party, it had overwhelming, life-affirming allure.

The result was rhapsodized by both professional critics (important) and vital tastemakers like Roots drummer and future Jimmy Fallon bandleader Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson (more important). After taking in a performance, ?uestlove dashed off a 6 a.m., 1,300-plus-word, heavily CC'd, widely forwarded e-mail declaring Fela! a "miracle," "the solar eclipse of creativity," "the BEST MUSICAL EVER CREATED," and thus something everyone needs to see "IMMMMMMMMMMEEEEEDDDDDDIIAAATLY."

This, too, attracted a great deal of attention. The upgrade to Broadway proper was immediately rumored, and rumored to be immediate, but several minor nuisances (a global economic collapse, for one) delayed the leap. But all the major players (now including ?uestlove, brought on as an associate producer) have reconvened behind the initial production's one potential marquee name: Bill T. Jones, the longtime dance-world deity whose choreography for Spring Awakening won him a 2007 Tony Award; for Fela!, he serves as co-conceiver (alongside Steve Hendel and Jim Lewis), book co-writer (with Lewis), choreographer, and director.

And host, of September's press party and reintroductory gala, held several weeks shy of previews but featuring a handful of raucous, full-contact numbers from the still-mutating production. As we enter, the double-digit Antibalas-derived ensemble, a strutting whirlwind of deft percussion, sly guitars, and jolting horns, is vamping away as the dancers stretch and mingle on a skeletal, unadorned two-tier stage. Two dancers practice running up the aisles and taking the small staircase to the stage, competing for the deftest, most casually graceful ascent, gliding surely up and down and back up again. Soon, limbs (and posteriors) are flailing wildly as the ensemble re-creates Fela!'s most frenzied moment, the band launching from "Yellow Fever"—a laid-back, hypnotic shuffle that supports a full-company chant of "Original/No artificiality," every syllable blessed with its own exclamation point—to a bombastic, double-time, djembe drum–heavy dance-off that's exhausting to even look at, with Jones himself dancing ecstatically at the edge of the stage, as amped as anyone on it.

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