West Africa Story: Fela! on Broadway

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

But while they waited for possible celebrity deliverance, Fela!'s other producers were preoccupied with the artistically thorny issue of how linear, conventional, and concise the revamped show (now featuring an upgraded set with movable band risers and such, but nothing ostentatious) needs to get. At its windiest, the 37 Arts iteration ran three hours; at least a half-hour has disappeared since, but a time-sensitive vigilance remains. "The length of the show has always been a matter of more controversy than I think it should be," Hendel notes. "The show will have a length that is similar to other Broadway shows. . . . We will not be asking the audience for more of its attention than we're entitled to or they can give, by cultural training." (Lewis puts it even plainer: "Broadway audiences want to be home by 11 o'clock.")

The show's narrative—or possible lack thereof—is of even greater concern. Roughly, Fela travels from Nigeria to London to New York City to L.A. and back again, absorbing an education both musical and militantly political (he eventually declares himself "Black Power Man" and tries to run for Nigerian president), setting up a deeply subversive and oft-unsettling second act featuring torture, his marriage to the Queens, the storming of his compound (complete with video projections describing multiple acts of grisly police brutality), a traumatic death, and, climactically, a surrealist, visually sumptuous communion with the Orishas, or Yoruba gods.

Several songs have been added to tie this all together. "Lover," though based on a real late-'60s Fela tune, has been lyrically augmented and refashioned as a duet with Sandra, an L.A. friend and early love interest credited with hipping him to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and all that would entail: Though sweet and richly melodic, it has a meet-cute frivolity ("Will you be the one to set my heart on fire?") at mild odds with the rest of the show, ending as it does with an adorable variation on what some folks in our news media might call a Terrorist Fist-Bump. (You might even call it a traditional girl-meets-boy love song.) And the entirely new "Rain" (music by McLean and Johnson, lyrics by Jones and Lewis, bravura torch-song maelstrom by Lillias White) brings the surrealist Orisha scene to a bombastic close; in the Off-Broadway version, it was called "Shine," but as Lewis notes, there's already a song called "Shine"—in Billy Elliot.

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

Finally, there's the issue of how to handle Fela himself—the man and the myth. The Queens issue, perhaps wisely, is mostly played for laughs in a goofy mass-wedding-photo scene, though that arrangement had, of course, far more serious and transgressive overtones. ("The nature of his relationship with the multiple wives is very complicated," Hendel says. "In many respects, he was a protector for these women.") Other issues were too thorny to tackle. An onscreen title card notes that Fela died in 1997, but omits the cause: complications caused by AIDS, a disease he denied existed.

On a far lighter note, the musical's central conceit—that we're witnessing his last concert at the Shrine, as he now fears for his and his family's safety—is somewhat invented. "It's a fictional Fela," Lewis says. "This is not a Fela that's real. This is our image of Fela as a political artist. And we had to take a number of liberties, obviously—what his personality would be like. Who knows if Fela ever had these self-doubts? He certainly wouldn't have let on. We've clearly created a fictional character in order to create a theatrical piece. But we're asking questions that we hope have real reverberations."

For ticketholders at early previews of the Broadway Fela!, the main question to reverberate is, How big of an ass are you willing to make of yourself while trying to do the Clock? Hopefully, a huge one. Arriving immediately after the "Breaking It Down" mini-lecture, the Clock is the point in the show in which Fela orders everyone in the house to stand and learn to shake their hips, ideally jutting out their asses in specific directions at his command, corresponding to the hands on a clock: "3 and 9!" he yells, and you jut repeatedly right to left; "12 and 6!" and you jut repeatedly back and forth, ideally not inadvertently colliding with the stranger in front of or behind you. By the time he's calling out "419!" (the Nigerian criminal code for fraud, incidentally), some people have gotten really good at this, but most, delightfully, have not.

It goes without saying that this looks hilarious, folks of wildly varying ages, ethnicities, and temperaments all jiggling semi-metronomically, nicely summing up the awkward but eventually possibly transcendent process by which Fela! and Broadway are attempting to acclimate to each other. During one preview, folks actually head down the aisles to get closer to the stage for the Clock, like it's a rock concert. Two young white women talk strategy: "It took me three years," the expert one tells the struggling one.

Is it hard, from Fela's perspective, not to crack up at all this? "Maybe if Sahr was looking at it, it would be funny," says Ngaujah with a laugh, ringing in during one of his off days. "From Fela's perspective, it's really nice to see everybody give it a go, and I have seen a few funny situations working out of people's hips. But ultimately, it's just really nice to see so many people actually try. That's the coolest thing, really. Because people will stand—it's one thing for people to stand up and just kind of stand there and stare at the stage. But when we see these old chaps really tryin' to move those hips, it's really—it's fresh. I really like it a lot."

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