West Africa Story: Fela! on Broadway


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!

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.

Speaking of exhaustion (and seeing as he’s onstage for nearly the entire show), Fela’s role is now split on a night-by-night basis between Ngaujah and Ruined‘s Kevin Mambo, starring alongside Lillias White, who plays his serenely radical mother, Funmilayo. To cap off the press soiree, White tears into “Trouble Sleep” (a/k/a “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am”), the most gorgeous song in the Fela catalog, here transferred from his mouth to hers and refashioned as a bone-chilling, show-stopping Afrobeat power ballad. This, to say the least, was highly improbable.

“Isn’t that a lovely song?” agrees Jones, chatting afterward and praising Hendel for persuading him to overlook that improbability. “I think Steve is the moving force in all of this. Would I have done a piece on Fela? I love his music. Danced to it a lot in the ’70s. But I don’t think I ever thought of it as something that I could work with.”

Hendel, producing his first Broadway show, was apparently not dancing to Fela in the ’70s, but somehow, Fela found him anyway. “You know, I wish I could even remember,” he says, chatting over the phone a few weeks before opening night. “It was 10 years ago. Somehow, I found the music, and once I found the music, I was overwhelmed by the music. I thought it was some of the most sinuous, sexual, complex, powerful, resonant, exciting music I’d ever heard.”

Which makes re-creating it amid the oft-antiseptic lights of Broadway a perilous task, of course. “The very first day I worked with Antibalas,” Jones notes, “somebody turned to me and said [boisterous voice], ‘Why do you want to do this show? What do you want from Fela?‘ Suspicious. ‘You want to make a Broadway show about this underground fighter?‘ I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ He would’ve understood it. He was a very entertaining guy. And he wanted to get his message out to a lot of people.”

That message has now been distilled to four words (“Energy, Power, Passion, Revolution”) and slapped on posters and billboards in midtown and beyond, that distillation perilous in itself, rendering a complex and controversial figure with the subtlety of a Che Guevara T-shirt. Though, to be fair, Fela seems like he’d have been way more fun than Che Guevara, and Che never cooked up the most sinuous, sexual, complex, powerful, resonant, exciting music you’ve ever heard. But even that wouldn’t matter if a bunch of guys from Brooklyn, and increasingly beyond, weren’t around to help re-create it. As much ecstasy as the original run generated onstage and off-, there remain 10 million reasons Fela! might fail. Antibalas is the one reason it might succeed.

Early in Fela! comes an extended musical sequence titled “B.I.D.”—as in “Breaking It Down”—that attempts to summarize, as briskly and casually and non-pedantically as possible, the various international ingredients that comprise the musical style he came to invent. Some theatergoers might generally find such sonic etymology fascinating; others, decidedly, may not.

But the sequence—featuring an a cappella Yoruba chant, the gorgeous choral hymns of Fela’s grandfather, horn-saturated Nigerian highlife, Sinatra-style nightclub crooning, emphatic American jazz, insouciant Latin jazz, and “the guitars . . . those dirty guitars” of Mr. James Brown—blows by

with such verve and vibrancy that it barely feels like the mini-lecture that, upon reflection, it reveals itself to be, one necessary for anyone unfamiliar with Fela at the onset. It quickly and masterfully solves the Who Is This Guy and Why Is He Important problem, and though a few archival videos assist in that process, the bulk of the credit goes to the boys in the band. “Not highlife,” Fela informs us with swelling pride, as they glue all those elements back together and flaunt the sultry and infectious new style that results. “Not James Brown. Afrobeat.” Perfect.

“In Bill’s mind, we are the protectors of this music,” says trumpeter Jordan McLean, who joined Antibalas the night after its first gig, at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem in spring 1998. Founded by Martín Perna—a 23-year-old Brooklyn high school teacher and original member of retro-soul crew Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings—Antibalas spent the next decade-plus adding members (it’s now, more accurately, a collective, shuffling 30-plus players in and out) and serving, in the minds of a great many more fans and collaborators, as the protectors of this music. That applies to their intensive study of Fela’s work, their increasingly frequent high-profile collaborations (with TV on the Radio, the Roots, Paul Simon, Public Enemy, and several members of Fela’s bands, Africa 70 and Egypt 80), and the four albums’ worth of their own contributions to the Afrobeat canon: “Indictment,” off 2004’s Who Is This America?, is a fantastic Bush-era protest song, lithe and lethal.

And now, here they are, on Broadway, regaling perhaps quite a few Bush voters. Here are some of them, anyway—Perna, who now lives in Austin, Texas, and travels extensively, isn’t involved in Fela!, and the 10-man onstage crew, initially featuring a few names who’ve never played with Antibalas before (including both guitarists, Oren Bloedow and Ricardo Quinones), will sub players in and out frequently as tours and side projects beckon. (Incredibly, the band just announced a December residency at the Knitting Factory, every Thursday, late-night, of course.) But that activity will now be at least somewhat curtailed: Fela! music director Aaron Johnson, who joined Antibalas in 2000 and plays trumpet and keyboards in the show, notes that the band turned down an offer to play with Phish during their recent three-day Halloween spectacular in Indio, California.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Though it’s safe to say the Clock isn’t going anywhere, the rest of Fela! is still at least somewhat in flux. Two days after my preview, the early second-act tune “Shuffering and Shmiling” is cut entirely, partly due to time concerns, partly because there were too many mellow tunes in a row coming out of intermission, and the sooner you get to “Zombie”—one of Fela’s biggest hits, and here perhaps the biggest showcase for Jones’s explosive choreography—the better. This last-minute futzing, though, is unlikely to affect the show’s core exuberance. McLean recalls a friend’s reaction after that press party: “She said, ‘It doesn’t look like they’re pretending to have a good time.’ Which I think is huge. ‘Cause we went and saw—I’ll name names—we went and saw Memphis, and I thought it was a really good quality, very quality performance. Very professional Broadway presentation. I feel like they were all pretending to have a good time. They were pretending—they were acting.”

At its best, no one onstage at Fela! seems to be acting, including Fela. “Some people say I would never perform again,” he crows at the onset. “But here we arrrrre.” He doesn’t mean “on Broadway,” but he might as well. Later, at the show’s conclusion: “Music is our weapon. We are going to be here tomorrow. And the day after that. We will be here forever.” You want to believe him. So you do.

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