West Africa Story: Fela! on Broadway

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

This, again, is delicate and contentious work, but the result largely avoids the BS that Jones knows the band feared. And the guys have come to embrace the challenges—and rewards—of trying to avoid it. "It is a whole other experience to do the music in this way," McLean says. "And, in some ways, I think, this show is more radical and groundbreaking than anything Antibalas did."

Johnson concurs: "Antibalas—there was no risk for a dozen people to get together at a club in New York and play, and we were lucky that people started coming and buying tickets, and we were able to get this opportunity," he says. "There's a huge risk to spending eight figures to put this thing up on Broadway that is, by any standard, completely against the grain of any conventional Broadway musical."

He's right, of course. About Fela! bucking convention. And about the risk.

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

We'll let Gordon Cox, a theater reporter at Variety, deliver the good news: "It seems like most of the people in the industry that I talk to think it's a pretty sure bet that the show's gonna get great reviews again." The bad news: That doesn't really guarantee anything.

These days on Broadway, nothing guarantees anything. The fantastic coming-of-age rock opera Passing Strange dazzled critics but couldn't sustain its 2008 run. And many productions fare far worse. The name on everyone's lips these past few weeks has been Brighton Beach Memoirs: classic Neil Simon play, well-regarded cast, opened October 25, got decent reviews, closed November 1. Musicals generally fare better, but Fela doesn't enjoy the name recognition in midtown that he might in London or Brazil. Or Hell's Kitchen.

Indeed, Fela!'s producers considered going abroad (and still might, depending), but for now, they're taking it straight to Broadway and, more importantly, vying to bring a whole new crowd with them. "I can't imagine that they're going after strictly a Broadway audience," says Time Out New York theater editor David Cote. "Because people who are willing to plunk down $70, $80, $100 for tickets, they don't know who Fela is, they don't know who Sahr Ngaujah is . . . if even Neil Simon can't stay afloat without a star, a new musical with an Afrobeat score is even more in danger, I think."

The simplicity of the math is daunting, from a limited-time-only 37 Arts run (300 capacity) to an open-ended gig at the Eugene O'Neill (more than 1,000). "I saw it Off-Broadway, and it was terrific, in that sort of intimate space at 37 Arts," Cote recalls, mulling over the transition. "I just have no idea how it's going to appeal to a wider audience. I don't know how it's going to fill that house eight performances a week."

Fela!'s producers recall their 37 Arts run fondly: "It was a small house," says Jim Lewis. "It was a party crowd. You came to party. That was the environment we really were looking for when Bill and I created a piece. We actually imagined it not in a theater, but rather in sort of a warehouse, a late-night rave, in which everybody could dance around and party—re-create the Shrine environment. That would've been our ideal setting. We don't have people sitting in chairs waiting to be entertained, expectations that come with a $120-seat ticket."

Scott Morfee, a producer at Barrow Street Theatre in the Village, has mulled over Broadway leaps of his own, including with his current, highly admired staging of Our Town. "I've had offers to move shows, which I haven't done," he says. "It usually comes at some sort of price, not the least of which is money." But he understands the call, even for those who might secretly desire a more late-night-rave environment. "If you're going to put on a big show, a big musical, it's getting impossible to imagine it in the 400-plus-seat business model Off-Broadway," he continues. "I did Adding Machine Off-Broadway. It's very difficult. And at some point, I think, most people say, 'Yeah, it costs more money, but if you're going to shoot the moon, you might as well go to Broadway.' "

And on the bright side, the no-stars-on-the-marquee problem, at least, is certainly surmountable. "If you look at some of the longest-running musicals of all time, you're talking about Les Miz, and Phantom, and Rent," says producer Kevin Davenport, who has worked extensively on both sides of the On-/Off- divide. "All those shows, you couldn't tell me who starred in them when they started. Les Misérables, nobody could even pronounce the title."

Three names who'll help ol' "Fella" on the name-recognition front: Jay-Z, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. Rumored for weeks to be jumping aboard as presenters, producers, and, perhaps more importantly, influence-peddlers in the ?uestlove (or, better yet, Oprah) vein, the megastar trio finally made the leap in a move announced, rather gleefully, on Monday afternoon. Fela!'s title is now preceded by "Shawn 'Jay-Z' Carter and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith to present . . ." That declaration was rather gleeful for good reason: Fela! now has perhaps just a slightly more eye-catching marquee (all three are on there), and opening night now figures to be a paparazzi-snaring zoo (all three will be there). With apologies to Antibalas, maybe this is the one reason Fela! might succeed.

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