Fela is not your usual Broadway play

Musical offers glimpse into revolutionary's life through music

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By LA RISA LYNCH

The three-time Tony Awarding-winning Broadway musical Fela took its inspiration from an unlikely place - a record album jacket.

Fela tells the story of outspoken Nigerian revolutionary Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who used music as a politician weapon to rail again the oppressive military-controlled Nigerian government. The bio-musical steps away from the traditional formulaic Broadway production to present Fela Kuti's story in a vivid, entertaining style.

With a live band performing Fela's pulsating hit songs, colorfully dressed dancers and poignant singing, the musical excites the senses and stirs emotions. Fela, which runs through April 15, plays at the Ford Oriental Theater, 24 West Randolph St.

While the musical has received much acclaim, co-producer Stephen Hendel drew inspiration for this retelling of Fela's life from a decorative yellow and red album cover. Hendel happened on the CD while scrolling through Amazon.com more than a decade ago. An avid music buff, Hendel's interest was piqued.

"I just bought a CD," he said of the then-titled The Best Best of Fela Kuti. The popularity of the musical prompted the CD's re-release under the title "Best of the Black President."

"It sounded like something that would be worth listening to," Hendel said.

At that time, Hendel didn't know that a mouse click would lead the Wall Street commodities trader to produce the play. But when he heard Fela's music, it was something he never heard before.

Hendel called the music "intoxicating," "sexual" and "melodic." Fela was a pioneer of Afrobeat sound, a blend of Yoruba music, jazz and funk all rolled into one. Over his lifetime, Fela released nearly 70 albums before he died of AIDS in 1997.

"For me it was the greatest music America hadn't heard, and the one musician America has forgotten," Hendel said.

Fela used his music to unashamedly decry government corruption and military oppression. His diatribes became a thorn in Nigeria's side and Fela paid for it dearly, suffering brutal beatings at the hands of the military. His home was bombed and he was arrested 200 times. Fela's family also paid for his activism, a trait inherited from his mother, also a pioneering figure in Nigeria's feminist movement. In a raid of Fela's home by the military, Fela's mother was thrown out of a second-floor window. She died from her injuries a few days later.

"He became the voice of the people, and he used his music to speak for the people against injustice and oppression from the military," Hendel said.

Fela led a poignant life, and the musical needed to reflect that, Hendel explained. The musical production is accompanied by an Afrobeat band, Antibalas, and is choreographed by renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones, whose work garnered Fela a Tony Award in 2010.

In 1969, Fela came to the United States and was influenced by the Black Power movement. He married 27 wives all in one ceremony and lived in a commune where he declared it independent from the Nigerian government.

"He had an outrageous lifestyle," Hendel said, "but part of the outrageousness [comes from] being the only person in the country... who the people looked to, to stand up for them and who has the reputation of having unlimited courage and no fear."

Because Fela was an artist who sacrificed everything for his beliefs, Hendel was convinced that Fela's story had to be told. It took two years to develop the musical before it played off-Broadway.

Jay-Z and Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, signed on to co-produced the show.

After its 15-month run on Broadway, Fela embarked on a worldwide tour where it played in Lagos, Nigeria. Hendel admitted some trepidation about performing the musical in Fela's home country, where he "was written off as a dissident."

Hendel noted reservations subsided when Fela's countrymen realized the whole world was talking about him.

"We were concerned about how Nigerians would respond to Americans telling their story and there's no Nigerians in the cast," he said. "We made no pretense of telling a Nigerian story. We were telling the story because it was a human story and a universal story."

To learn more about the musical, visit the website www.felaonbroadway.com.

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