The Nigerian musical and political revolutionary Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a larger-than-life figure, an artist who defied cultural norms and years of attacks from his country’s brutal dictatorship. He is a unique and powerful but unlikely figure to be the subject of mainstream American entertainment.
And yet Fela! — the hit Broadway musical playing Tuesday through Sunday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts — has been wildly successful, bringing Fela’s name and ideas to a much bigger audience than he ever reached during his touring peak in the ’70s and ’80s.
The show’s creators are almost as surprising as their subject — suburban Jewish businessman Stephen Hendel and avant-garde choreographer Bill T. Jones, who would seem to have nothing in common with their subversive, marijuana-loving, polygamous inspiration. But he has enabled them to tell a revolutionary story in a ground-breaking way.
“This was a story that no one knew and that we could tell any way we wanted, and in a way that was outside what the American musical had become,” says Hendel, a commodities trader who is Fela!’s producer and originator. “A story of struggle and overcoming obstacles and standing up for the universal cause of social justice and human dignity.”
Hendel was overwhelmed when he first heard Fela’s music in 1999, two years after the musician’s death from AIDS in 1997. “It’s so thrilling and overpoweringly beautiful, sensual and hot,” he says. “His lyrics are so meaningful … he was using his gifts to speak truth to power.” Hendel’s only theatrical experience was escorting his wife, a Broadway producer and Tony Awards voter, to musicals he found pleasant but bland. He became obsessed with the idea of producing a show about Fela — which his wife’s experienced compatriots said couldn’t be done.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Hendel says. After several years, a friend suggested Jones, a modern dance choreographer famed for his sharp intellect and history of tackling socially charged subjects. As it turned out, Jones knew Fela’s music. He agreed to be choreographer and director, intrigued not just by the possibilities of bringing Fela’s story to life but by the challenges of winning over mainstream audiences to Fela’s intense music and politics, and working outside the abstract realm of modern dance.
“Many people who come from my generation of performance makers or dance makers, we really were not concerned with narrative,” says Jones, 61. “Going into commercial theater and Fela!, the question was how can you tell a story and at the same time absorb the ideas that have obsessed me all these years? ... My idea was to keep it as free as you can, but make sure you’re able to ride an audience, to keep them going forward.”
Fela Kuti was a complex, extraordinary figure. His parents fought for Nigerian independence from British colonial rule, but Fela was a musician before he was an activist — though that too was a form of rebellion. When his parents sent him to study medicine in London in the late ’50s, he quit to make music, absorbing jazz, James Brown and Cuban mambo and combining them with African styles and rhythms to create a dense, urgent music he called Afrobeat. Visiting the United States in the late ’60s, he met a female Black Panther who changed his ideas about politics and race (a key moment in the show).