Fela, The Musical

There is much that is surprising about Fela! The Musical. One surprise is that it happened at all. A gritty portrayal of Nigeria’s foremost revolutionary firebrand is not an obvious subject for musical theatre, let alone a smash hit on Broadway, where Fela! played to sold-out houses for nearly eighteen months from autumn 2009 to early 2011. To cap it all, the show was an authentic, immersive experience which was the next best thing to being at the real life Afrika Shrine.

The secret of Fela!’s success is that it was put together by aficionados. Producer Stephen Hendel, a New York commodities trader, discovered Afrobeat when on an impulse he bought a copy of the CD compilation The Best Of Fela. The album changed Hendel’s world. He became obsessed with creating a show telling Fela’s story and passed his enthusiasm on to the multi-award-winning African American choreographer and artistic director Bill T Jones.

Hendel and Jones spent five years developing Fela!. They centred it around the infamous army attack of February 1977 when 1,000 soldiers ransacked Kalakuta Republic, beating and brutalising Fela, his mother and the other inhabitants before burning it to the ground. Musical authenticity was ensured by casting Brooklyn’s world-class Afrobeat ensemble, Antibalas, as the onstage band. More inspired casting followed with Sahr Ngaujah as Fela and Abena Koomson as his mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti.

“The only acceptable excuse for not going to see this show is if you’re DEAD!!!” blogged The Roots’ Questlove after attending the off-Broadway premiere in 2008. Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, David Byrne and Charlize Theron were among other celebrities posting similarly enthusiastic endorsements. Overnight, Fela! became the hottest ticket in town.

During its on-Broadway run, Fela! won three Tony Awards and the soundtrack album was nominated for a Grammy. The subsequent US and world tour included passionately well-received performances in Lagos and a sold-out three month run at London’s National Theatre.

A concert version of the musical continues to tour. One day, hopefully, Fela! will return to the stage. Meanwhile, memories can be kept alive with Knitting Factory Records’ CD Fela! Original Broadway Cast Recording.