“Fela!” the musical phenomenon that won three Tony Awards, including Best Choreography for director Bill T. Jones, comes to the Academy of Music, Broad & Locust Streets, from March 20 through 25.
Produced in part by Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, along with hip-hop mogul “Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, “Fela!” a spectacular celebration of music and dance, is the true story of Fela Kuti, the charismatic and fearless Soul Rebel that created the musical genre known as Afrobeat, and used that music as a weapon against the “corrupt and oppressive military dictatorships that rule Nigeria and much of Africa.”
The production stars Sahr Ngaujah, who created the title role on Broadway and earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal. Several members of the original Broadway cast are also featured.
During a recent exclusive interview, the esteemed Bill T. Jones, co-founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, explained how he was drawn into the story of Fela Kuti, a colorful yet controversial character. “I have to give credit to our lead producer, Steve Hendel, who is married to a woman who does a lot of producing on Broadway, so she sees a lot of things, and he has this enthusiasm. He fell in love with the music of Fela Kuti. He loves world music, but Fela Kuti and the message of Fela Kuti was very moving to him, and he said that this was the greatest music of an unknown composer that he could think of. He thought his mission would be to bring it to a new generation, a new audience, and the way to do that would be through live theater.”
United by an attorney that they share, Jones and Hendel began to give the piece on Fela Kuti serious consideration. “[My attorney] has been trying to get me to do more things like this since he saw me do Derek Walcott’s “Dream on Monkey Mountain” at the Guthrie Theater in 1994,” said Jones. “Over the years we’ve had a lot of projects that have come through, some were near misses, and he asked me if I wanted to do [‘Fela!’]. I said, ‘Oh yes! I know Fela’s music.’ But I wanted to meet Steve, and Steve came to see my work, and he said, ‘I think you’re the person to do this.’”
Jones, who was one of five recipients for the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, maintains that the show at the Academy of Music will be true to the original Broadway production and said, “The décor will have changed somewhat, but everything else will be there brilliantly.”
Jones also disclosed that “Fela!” has a Philadelphia connection in that The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was instrumental in getting the show produced.
“He was amazing!” said Jones. “I don’t know how he got to the Off-Broadway production, but he came, and he was blown away by it. He sent out an email to 1,500 … some amazing number of people, of which one of them was Jay-Z. So he was a big booster of the show, and we love him for that! I think he was the one who was responsible for Spike Lee coming out, and it became a sensation.”
Jones is confident that the excitement that “Fela!” generated on Broadway will spread Broad Street.
“Come with a group of people that you love to be with, because it’s a really fun show!” he said. “But they should also know that Fela was an unusual character in that, we have people who consider themselves political pop artists, but we don’t have those that have paid the price that Fela has paid. You look at the world right now, and people all over the world fighting for their freedom from dictators, fighting for their rights to determine the use of their resources — Fela was already on that. He was a bad boy! He’s definitely like the rock star in that way. His mother said he was ‘twice born stubborn.’ He wanted to do things his way, but that’s what it took, in a way. So if you’re interested in the new direction of Broadway, you want to come and see something that is unlike anything that’s on Broadway, that has a very moving story of a real person who can inspire you to make change, Fela is that person. He really was about change, and there’s a lot we can learn from him.” For tickets, call (215) 893-1999 or visit www.kimmelcenter.org.