On my way to the bathroom during the intermission of Tuesday night’s showing of "Fela!" I was accosted by the show’s lead producer, Stephen Hendel.
He had overheard me saying that I didn’t know why the musical was being revived on Broadway for a run of just 32 performances.
A commodities trader with the money to lose putting on a big-budget musical, Hendel has earned a reputation as a straight shooter. This was something he quickly demonstrated, explaining that the current revival was motivated by an awareness that a "special" cast could be assembled for the show -- but only for a few weeks.
This presentation includes the most gifted performers the producers found during its previous incarnations in New York, London and out on assorted tours.
So, while the show has been trimmed by perhaps 10 minutes (from a previous run time of two and a half hours) and some of the dance numbers have been spiffed up, otherwise it’s the same musical about the life of Nigerian democracy activist and rock star Fela Kuti that opened on Broadway in 2009.
The book, the sets, the dances and the music have changed almost not at all.
And Hendel is quite right about the cast. If you can see it -- as I did -- with the charismatic Sahr Ngaujah playing the title role, Melanie Marshall as his mother and Paulette Ivory as Sandra, his lover, you’ll see an astonishing ensemble that matches great dramatic talent with three superb voices. (Should you be looking to buy tickets, do be warned though that Ngaujah alternates at times with Adesola Osakalumi. Hence, while Osakalumi is said to be excellent as well, you may wish to see if you can find out which performer will be on stage the night you’re seeking out.)
Obviously, this is welcome, and if you love pop music you’re likely to love the show. For not only is the cast top-notch, but the music is varied, energetic, passionate and, not infrequently, beautiful.
Previous press criticism on "Fela!" focused on Kuti’s role in developing the "Afro-Beat" style of music that attracted interest during the 1970’s. Kuti’s records sold plentifully and influenced producers like Brian Eno and performers like David Byrne.
But Kuti’s music was more than just a mix of guitar-based funk and jazz, Afro-Cuban beats and traditional West African chants. Kuti had many influences, including traditional Christian hymns and American pop, and he wrote in a wide range of musical styles. In fact, what may be the best song in the show, "Trouble Sleep," is a highly melodic ballad that, if orchestrated differently, could have been written and sung by Neil Diamond.
What is present, however, in Kuti’s music that is missing from Diamond is a political consciousness. This awareness was driven by his rage at the military dictatorship that replaced the relatively benign British colonial rule with torture, wholesale corruption and martial law. In opposing this new order, Kuti became a principal enemy and target of the regime even as he became a pop celebrity.
The political dimension of Kuti’s life frames the show and gives it heft and substance. Yet the story of his life is told without any cohesion or structure, and "Fela!" is in many respects little more than a dressed-up concert or one-man show in which the principal character attempts to educate the audience through direct address.
One of the show’s two book writers is its choreographer, Bill T. Jones. Those who have seen Jones’ work as a dance director know his skills at this are not inconsiderable. But he and his co-writer, Jim Lewis, write like dancers. The supporting characters are barely developed, and they never speak to one another. Moreover, there is only the sketchiest of plots, and the ending doesn’t conclude the story or connect the dots.
Hendel, who is credited as a co-creator of the show, defended this aspect of the musical to me by observing that most standard book musicals feature contrived plots and situations. This is true, of course, but isn’t this an argument for not hiring real writers, folks capable of producing something of a higher quality. A number of the best dramatists and screenwriters both young and old are now writing the books of musicals. Think of young talents like Itamar Moses or more veteran ones like Rick Elice and Terrence McNally.
Might that not have been a better path?
What the audience is offered at this revival of "Fela!" is an evening of exceptional music, very fine acting, singing and dancing and a scattershot introduction to the politics of post-colonial Africa.
All this is well worth seeing.
But even Kuti’s own story is very incompletely told here. Audiences may leave thinking that Kuti was killed by the Nigerian military, when, in fact, he died of AIDS. Similarly, the show runs away from treating his wildly polygamous personal life in any fashion but with arch amusement. That his 18 wives and countless children may not have been well-served by his hedonism is a subject that is not even glanced over.
"Fela!" is a far better and more interesting show than "Memphis," the musical to which it lost out in the Tony race two years ago. Like its hero, though, it is not only very brave and remarkable but, even now, highly imperfect.