In some ways, the musical theater’s history resembles the history of other forms of theater in reverse. At the start of the 20th century, the spoken play had reached the taut, tightly structured form, perfected by Ibsen, that was to prevail in the commercial theater through the early 1950s; from Strindberg on, most innovative playwrights struggled to pull its tight structure apart. The musical, in contrast, started the century as a loose, free-form style with a basis in variety entertainment, which each succeeding generation of musical-theater writers tried to tighten still further.
Neither effort has been entirely successful: Writers of drama found that the more they discarded the old-fashioned play’s tension-raising elements, the quicker they lost their hold on the public’s attention. Creators of musicals, contrariwise, kept having to invent new ways to sneak into their ever-tighter form the digressive diversions the public craved from a song-and-dance show. At the beginning of the 21st century, we are almost back where the 20th started: Playwriting, having almost deconstructed itself to death, is rediscovering its old rules; the musical, having nearly strangled itself on the exactitudes of the “integrated” form, has sprawled out again into extravaganza.
Despite having been tightened and trimmed since its Off-Broadway run last year, Fela! (O’Neill Theater) is wall-to-wall extravaganza. Dealing with one of the great heroes of African popular music, Nigeria’s Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938–1997), the show that choreographer-director Bill T. Jones and his colleagues have assembled samples all the current ways of liberating a musical from the burden of conveying a tightly woven story through song. (Also, read Rob Harvilla’s take here.) At various times, it’s a pop concert, a biomusical, a trip through one songwriter’s catalog, a docu-musical supplying flashes of its hero’s political involvements, a dance concert, a multimedia blitz, and an interactive dance party, with the cast parading through the aisles and the audience asked to stand up and ticktock their hips.
That lengthy list explains much of the press and audience approval for Fela!. Unlike many recent shows, it boasts one of the old-style musical’s better qualities: its density. Within the limits of its chosen musical style, unfamiliar to Broadway but widely appealing in the larger world, Fela! offers many different satisfactions to different sorts of people. This is rather an achievement, given that, for all its extravagant divertissements, its substance is essentially that of a one-man show—”and then I wrote” complicated by “and then they arrested me,” with “and then we danced to” sprinkled on top.
The rebel son of an elite, educated family, Fela Kuti was a complex, contradictory character—part dropout, part hedonistic superstar, part satirist, part radical protester, part contentious gangsta, and part neo-traditionalist. He preached Africa-for-the-Africans while battling the corruption of Nigeria’s all-African military junta, just as his mother had battled its British colonialists. He repudiated Westernization while fusing Western influences into his “Afrobeat” music, which he played on that most Western industrial-era instrument, the saxophone. And notoriously, though the show fastidiously declines to weave such a bring-down motif into its feel-good fabric, Fela was Africa’s most celebrated AIDS denier, deriding condoms as unnatural and asserting that the disease was a Western-invented myth till the day he died of it. (The painful details can be found in Mark Schoofs’s “A Tale of Two Brothers,” part of his Pulitzer-winning Voice series on AIDS in Africa. )
You learn little from Fela! about this many-sided, troubling figure, whose tremendous effect on world music continues to resonate. Ostensibly set at a defiant farewell concert performance after the military authorities have invaded and torched his residential compound, brutalizing and killing a number of people, including his mother, the show veers through once-over-lightly autobiographical reminiscence, a greatest-hits recital, spectacular dance numbers by Fela’s sidemen and the line of leggy beauties he called his “queens” (the famous occasion on which he married 27 of them in a single night is briefly re-created), and even a foray into the land of the dead, where Fela (Sahr Ngaujah) receives spiritual counseling from his mother (Lillias White).
White, woefully underused, gives the show such elegance and star wattage as it has; Ngaujah’s authority and nonstop energy supply the motor that keeps it running. Matching him in the energy department when required, the dancers are spectacular in their flamboyant acrobatic feats. And the band, asked to play almost constantly throughout, is sublime. What was wrong with the Off-Broadway edition, however, is still wrong here: For all the fierce enthusiasm that Ngaujah brings to the evening (presumably equaled by Kevin Mambo, who plays the strenuous role at selected performances), the end result still seems scattershot and disconnected, a scrapbook with high points rather than a theatrical event.
Dreamgirls, newly revived at the Apollo, ought to be Fela!‘s formal antithesis. In director-choreographer Michael Bennett’s original 1981 production, Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s backstage chronicle, narrating the vicissitudes of a Supremes-like girl trio, was one of the musical theater’s most seamlessly woven events, fusing story, song, and spectacle with nonstop cinematic urgency. The characters leapt toward you intensely, while Bennett’s innovative, constantly shifting stage pictures kept pulling them back into quasi-abstract images. The dynamic tension was palpable and unforgettable.
Robert Longbottom’s new production, sadly, won’t erase any memories of Bennett’s. Visually ineffective despite its fancy digital displays, and featuring loud, one-dimensional performances, the new Dreamgirls loosens the show’s grip till it might seem to be just another extravaganza, though the writing still grabs you. Only Chester Gregory, spectacularly effective as an egocentric r&b star, breaks through the production’s built-for-touring torpor.
Some ever-fresh songs by the Gershwins, in their brassily youthful original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, gave the City Center Encores! concert staging of Girl Crazy (1930) its occasional moments of liveliness. Here, too, except for Marc Kudisch as a secondary slimeball, the cast all came off as road-company replacements; Ana Gasteyer supplied Merman-like loudness but no feeling or flair, and Jerry Zaks’s staging was merely efficient, sloughing off the rare chance to gauge the post-extravaganza, pre-“integrated” musical at its best.