West Africa Story: Fela! on Broadway

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

Too bad. But they've got their hands full here, and Fela! has got their hands full with them. "Working with Antibalas, a lot of them are real snobs, about—they don't like theater," Jones notes with a smile. "They don't like it. They don't like it. And I had to convince them . . . what do we have to add that a really well-constructed Afrobeat concert does not already have?"

A linear Broadway show narrative, for one, which Fela! at least flirts with, which entailed radically altering and adding to Fela's arrangements, melodies, and, in some cases, lyrics to explicate and push the story along. Delicate work, with an omnipresent threat of cheeseball sacrilege. "There's almost nothing that I can propose that they don't try," Jones says. "But they're critics. They're critics. And when there's too much crap—I'll say, 'BS'—going on, they'll let me know. But they're tough collaborators, very generous, very loving."

That theater snob thing is not entirely true. McLean, Fela!'s associate music director, grew up on 55th and Tenth in Manhattan, and will allow that groundbreaking gospel musical Mama, I Want to Sing! "had some serious flavor"; furthermore, back in his high school days, "Les Miz was my shit." He's relaxing (briefly) now with Johnson in a nearby Italian restaurant one recent evening, in the few precious hours between afternoon rehearsals and another showtime; both guys recall Antibalas' introductions to the Fela! producer brain trust (which sought the band out) as rife with, to say the least, skepticism.

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


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Apparently, the boisterous-voiced guy who grilled Jones about his intentions was Gabriel Roth, a major early Antibalas player (guitar and production, primarily) who now focuses on the Dap-Kings and his fledgling Bushwick-based Daptone Records empire, but still has enough influence over his old band to have figured heavily in the preliminary Fela! talks and rehearsals. "Gabe is the purist," Johnson says, admiringly. "He's kind of the conscience, even though he doesn't play with Antibalas anymore. Gabe is kind of on our shoulder." And Jones's shoulder, too—Johnson says that the director repeats that "What do you want from Fela?" story a lot, still sorting it out.

"I think it was hard for me, as a real heavy Fela enthusiast," Roth recalls of those initial rehearsals. "There were certain things about Fela's personality and his opinions and the way he did things that were somewhat more chauvinistic. . . . He wasn't somebody you could imagine ever singing a traditional girl-meets-boy love song."

Thus, Roth bristled initially at Jones's suggestions to slow down and sweeten the original source material. "I didn't want to betray Fela's intentions, or his music—feeling that if we did kind of a slow, textured love poem, that was disrespectful, to the man's memory and his legacy. . . . It has nothing to do with my ideas of romance. It has to do with what Fela was about. I didn't want to be revisionist about it. I didn't want to try to paint Fela as a pretty picture."

Roth notes that he saw Fela! Off-Broadway, liked it a lot, and plans to see this new iteration soon. Plus, even at the time, Jones handled the what-do-you-think-you're-doing here question pretty well. "His answer to me was not a bad one. His answer to me was that he was not doing a biography, he was not doing a literal translation of Fela's music or his personality, he was not trying to be accountable to Fela, he was not trying to honor his memory. He was doing an impressionistic piece. He was doing a Bill T. Jones piece. It's not a Fela piece—it's a Bill T. Jones piece inspired by Fela. Which I think is a good, honest answer. It made sense to me. But it was also kind of a point where I didn't really want to be on board for that."

Though Roth wasn't interested, other members of Antibalas were sufficiently intrigued to deputize Johnson as music director and push the project (slowly) forward. At first, that job entailed "following Bill around with a pencil and paper and writing down his ideas that he was screaming out in the spur of the moment," he recalls fondly. Deputizing McLean in turn as his associate and co-arranger, they set to work. Both are quick to note that they looked directly to the source when asked to concoct any new melodic material; a new vocal line, say, might be derived from the original song's sax solo, often provided by Fela himself with technically wayward but emotionally rhapsodic flair. (Fela brandishes his sax frequently during the show, but, contrary to many critics' suspicions, it's all pantomime: Longtime Antibalas cohort Stuart Bogie provides the fireworks.)

Lyrically, "a lot of the process was also working with Bill and Jim to translate, to make it more accessible," Johnson adds of Fela's slang-filled, pidgin approach to his largely English lyrics (see the song title "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am"), wincing ever so slightly on the word "accessible." "Which is understandable. And, in some cases, they just straight-up wrote some new lyrics, to serve the story." And so, for example, Fela's mother bellows, "It's our country now!" repeatedly during "Trouble Sleep," just to drive her defiance home.

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