Day 13: The Problem with FELA!

A few months ago, we had the good fortune to see Book of Mormon, the highly lauded satirical Broadway production by the producers of South Park. It took me a few minutes into the opening song, Hello!, to realize that I was sitting in the same theater — the Eugene O’Neill Theater — where I had seen the electric FELA!

The experience of FELA! was quite different. When you walked into the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to see FELA!, you immediately entered The Shrine, the setting for dramatizing the life of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti.

Here is my piece on hair styling in FELA! for Stylebell:

As I enjoyed Book of Mormon in the same, but altered space, I wondered at the juxtaposition between the satirical Uganda of that musical and the sociopolitically charged Nigeria of Bill T. Jones’ production. Between the numbers “I am Africa” and “Water Get No Enemy.” If we consider these two musicals along with the spectacular Lion King , we have an interesting trio of Broadway shows that all stage Africa, each in very distinct ways.

While Book of Mormon and Lion King are by all accounts successful Broadway musicals, audiences aren’t always sure about what to do with FELA! Some feel that the Afrobeats, gyrating dance moves, and storyline are more in keeping with an African heritage festival than with Broadway.

Yet this sentiment highlights the important ways that FELA! is revising what is possible on Broadway. This musical suggests that, if different styles of music, dance, and storytelling can thrive on Broadway’s stages, so too can a different set of dancers, actors, writers, and producers.

Much like Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, FELA! is a problem musical for Broadway. It stages a disruption of sorts, challenging audiences to listen differently for new possibilities. It complicates and stretches notions of what stands as a musical, who can perform in musicals, and what may be portrayed in musicals.

Perhaps the question to consider now is what doesn’t Broadway fit into?

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3 Responses to Day 13: The Problem with FELA!

  1. sedefscorner says:

    FELA was the first musical I saw in many years. Previously I used to go to all the Broadway shows and then they lost their appeal somehow. FELA was original and I really enjoyed it. They have been doing the musical in a certain way for a long time now, I think it’s time for Broadway to broaden it’s scope and take some new inspiration from the diverse cultures that are present all around us.

  2. David K says:

    I saw Fela in Los Angeles, but I’ll consider it as Broadway anyway (There is a Broadway in downtown LA, too, and about half of “Broadway” shows in NYC are located on side-streets anyway, not on Broadway itself.) I have no problem with a show like Fela being on Broadway. I am not hung up on the conventional notions of what a Broadway production should be like. My problem was that Fela just didn’t engage me, other than I did like the music. It left me curious to learn more about Nigeria too. But I would rather have spend the time reading about Nigeria with Afro Beats in the background than seeing the show.

  3. Sujay says:

    Great post!!!, my comment would be that this should be titled, “The problem with Broadway!!!” I saw Fela off-broadway before they shortened the show a bit and took out the raw and more offensive edges to the show and Fela’s life. For example, the original show spent more time looking at his polygamy and his darker side. The original show encouraged people to move more, bring drinks inside the theater and dance (more than the one instance called for in the Broadway show).

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