Archive for Fela
Every Broadway show is a crapshoot. No one knows for sure what audiences will like and what they won’t. Still, the odds seemed higher than usual against the new musical Fela! Its score—a throbbing mix of jazz, funk and traditional African rhythms known as Afrobeat—is as far away from the show tune as Lagos is from Long Island. Its book—the life story of the controversial Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti—isn’t the usual Broadway fare either. And there are no celebrity names in the cast. But Fela! has turned out to be a winner.
You can tell that by the fact that it’s selling out about 95% of its seats while shows that seemed surer bets have been closing left and right. Or by the way the audience members literally dance in the aisles at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where the show seems likely to enjoy a good run. Or by the smile that spread across the face of my niece Jennifer, who is only 30 but has been going to Broadway shows for over 25 years and is as jaded as they come. As the show ended, Jennifer turned to me with a grin. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, nodding her head and pumping her fists in time to the music as she echoed Fela’s trademark exclamation of approval.
For despite its potentially downer subject matter (Fela is jailed, his wives—he was married to as many as 12 of them at a time in real life—tortured, his mom, their country’s leading feminist, is killed) Fela! may be the feel-good show of the season. The music, performed by the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band Antibalas, is infectiously joyous, the dancing is amazing (a BIG shoutout to the tireless troupe of hip-shaking dancers), many of the jokes provoke belly laughs and the show plays into the fascination with Africa that is currently influencing fashion and art (click here to read a New York Times story about the trend).
I first saw Fela! when it played at the 37 Arts Theatre in the fall of 2008 and was wowed by it even though, at three hours, the show was waaaaay too long and its story more than a bit confusing. The credit for its now streamlined success has to go to Bill T. Jones, the Tony-winning choreographer for Spring Awakening, who not only conceived, directed and choreographed Fela! but hired Lillias White to sing the hell out of the songs given to Fela’s mother and persuaded the rapper-mogul Jay-Z and the movie star-moguls Will and Jada Pinkett Smith to invest in the show and lend their names to it as over-the-title producers. Jones has also promoted the show relentlessly (click just about anywhere on the internet, TV or radio to read or hear him give his spiel or click here ).
What I most loved when I saw the show at 37 Arts was the star-making performance by Sahr Ngaujah as Fela. As I said in my review back then (click here to read what I said) I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Fela sings, dances and narrates the entire show (no one else even speaks). It’s an exhausting job. So Ngaujah now shares the role with Kevin Mambo. My heart sank when I saw the insert announcing that Mambo was playing the part the night Jennifer and I attended the show. But while it’s true that Mambo may not have Ngaujah’s charisma, he’s no slouch either.
The man sitting across the aisle from me rushed in just before the show began. He carried an expensive-looking brief case and wore an expensive-looking suit. I took him to be a lawyer or a lower-level, not-getting-quite-a-billion-dollars-bonus investment banker. He boogied at every opportunity (there are moments when the audience is invited to stand up and dance along) and even snuck in a few extra wiggles while in his seat. I wager that if you could find him and ask him, he’d say that Fela! offers as good a bet as they come, a fine return on your ticket-price investment.
Broadway & Me: news and reviews from a theater lover with a point of view.
A lot has been happening on Broadway these last few weeks. Here are the biggest of the announcements:
Bye Bye Birdie has offically announced that it will play its final performance on Jan 24. Though technically an extension of its limited run, many had expected this expensive production to run much longer, and producers are definitely walking away with losses.
RUMOR: Michael Riedel of the New York Post is saying things aren’t looking good for Broadway’s Ragtime: “Officially, the producers say, ‘there are no plans to close at this time.’ Unofficially, it’s likely to close Jan. 3 at a total loss, several production sources say.”
Though not Broadway, this one is a big blow for NYC theatre. Altar Boyz, the longest running Off-Broadway musical to open in more than a decade (the 9th longest of all time), will play its final performance at New World Stages on Sunday, January 10th at 7:30 PM.
Million Dollar Quartet will officially begin previews at the Nederlander Theatre on March 13, 2010 and open on April 11, 2010. The Broadway production will be independent of the Chicago company, which will continue there. Broadway casting has not yet been announced.
All About Me, which had announced an opening in a few months at the John Golden Theatre, will instead take over Henry Miller’s Theatre now that Bye Bye Birdie is vacating.
Producer Ken Davenport has announced that Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, which had been scheduled to begin previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in September 2008, is now aiming for a Broadway bow during the 2010-11 season. The revival will be directed by Daniel Goldstein. No casting has yet been announced.
PS Classics and Nonesuch will team to release the new Broadway cast album of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. The cast of the Trevor Nunn-directed revival will record the album Jan. 4, 2010. No release date has yet been announced.
The cast album for the Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow will be available on Feb. 2, 2010 (though the disc will be at the St. James Theatre three weeks before that). The new Broadway cast album will be produced by PS Classics.
Broadway’s Memphis has recorded a cast album with Delray Records. The national release will be announced shortly, but in the meantime fans may purchase it at the Shubert Theatre where the musical opened in October.
Broadway casting announcements
Corbin Bleu of High School Musical fame is going to play the role of Usnavi in In the Heights starting January 25th. Regarding the casting (which has met with a lot of nay-saying online), Lin-Manuel Miranda had this to say:
Javi is amazing. Jon Rua is too.
Michael Balderrama makes the drama ring true.
They’re big footsteps; I wrote a really big shoe.
This one is Lin-approved: Mr. Corbin Bleu.
Producers have announced that the Broadway production of Sondheim on Sondheim, opening April 22, will star Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton and Matthew Scott.
Kelsey Grammer has signed on to star in the Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles, as Georges. He will star alongside Douglas Hodge, who will continue in the role of Albin, the drag queen star, which he played to critical acclaim in London. The revival opens on April 18, 2010 at the Longacre Theatre.
Matt Cavenaugh will play his last performance as Tony in West Side Story on Dec. 13. His understudy Matthew Hydzik will resume the role on Dec. 15.
Broadway’s Mary Poppins welcomes Valerie Boyle to the role of household cook Mrs. Brill Dec. 4 and Tony nominee Jonathan Freeman to the company on Dec. 12 at the New Amsterdam Theatre.
Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams will join the musical Chicago on Broadway starting Feb. 8. Williams is slated to star as Roxie Hart in the production until mid-April.
Grammy-nominated cast albums
Wicked sets a new record
Wicked hit a major milestone Thanksgiving weekend, becoming the first Broadway production to report sales of more than $2 million for a single week.
Musicals on the Silver Screen
Variety is reporting that “Shakespeare in Love” director John Madden is in talks to direct the film version of My Fair Lady with a screenplay by Emma Thompson. Keira Knightly and Daniel Craig have been rumored to star in the Cameron Mackintosh and Duncan Kenworthy produced movie musical.
Tony Award-winning actress Donna Murphy (Passion, The King and I) has joined the cast of the new Disney animated musical Rapunzel. Murphy will voice the role of the witch, alongside Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi. Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken will compose and Byron Howard and Nathan Greno will direct.
Amateur rights available
Musicals on Time’s Top Ten of Everything list
Time Magazine unveiled its “The Top 10 Everything of 2009,” rating news, entertainment, pop culture and more. Ragtime, Finian’s Rainbow and Fela! all appeared on the “Top 10 Plays and Musicals” list and Marion Cotillard on the “Top 10 Movie Performances” list for her turn in the film version of Nine.
New equity leadership
Actors’ Equity Association announced Dec. 11 that Mark S. Zimmerman has resigned as president, effective immediately. Equity’s vice president Paige Price will now carry out the duties of the president until a new president is elected.
Dreamgirls concludes its Harlem run Dec. 12 prior to embarking on a national tour. The production, starring Moya Angela, Syesha Mercado, Adrienne Warren, Margaret Hoffman, Chaz Lamar Shepherd, Chester Gregory, Trevon Davis and Milton Craig Nealy was directed by Robert Longbottom (Side Show, Flower Drum Song, Bye Bye Birdie), who co-choreographed with Emmy-nominated hip-hop artist Shane Sparks.
Fela! opened on Broadway to fairly positive reviews yesterday, the show’s producers, Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, have brought some name recognition to a largely unknown and lively group of artists, most of whom transferred over from the Off-Broadway version of the show.
The critics all agree that Fela! offers up something new – though whether those audiences will love the offering or not is up for debate. Here’s what they said:
NEW YORK TIMES
Anyone who worried that Bill T. Jones’s singular, sensational show might lose its mojo in transferring to Broadway can relax. True, this kinetic portrait of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a Nigerian revolutionary of song, has taken on some starry producers — including Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith — and shed 15 or 20 minutes since it was staged Off Broadway last year. But it has also acquired greater focus, clarity and intensity. In a season dominated by musical retreads and revivals, “Fela!,” which stars the excellent Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo (alternating in the title role), throbs with a stirring newness that is not to be confused with novelty. Read the full review.
The political messages do not detract from the terrific work by the cast, the overriding musicality and outstandingly sensuous dance performances. “Fela!” is a unique Broadway experience that leaves the audience on their feet and wanting more. Read the full review.
Fela!‘s choreography is … livelier and more sophisticated. Executed by a dynamic cast, it’s the perfect companion to Kuti’s supple tunes and pulsing grooves, served with virtuosity by a band conducted by Antibalas’ Aaron Johnson. Delivering exuberant storytelling through song and dance, Fela! achieves something closer to the essence of great musicals than many more conventional shows have of late. Read the full review.
Will the average Broadway matinee lady be comfortable participating in a practical demonstration of how to tell time with her ass? That’s exactly what takes place in “The Clock,” a particularly frisky sequence of “Fela!” in which the entire audience is on its feet learning from the able-bodied dance corps what Swiss-movement booty work is all about. And it’s just one of countless ways in which Bill T. Jones’ wildly loose-limbed journey into the throbbing heart of Afrobeat breaks bold new ground in musical theater. Read the full review.
The Shrine may have gotten a lot bigger, but the religion of Fela! has not grown less electrifying. Just over a year after Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis’s musical about Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti had its cramped premiere Off-Broadway at 37 Arts, it’s now blasted into the Eugene O’Neill, where its creators – and its superstar producing team, which includes Jay-Z, Will Smith, and Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith – are intent on proving that a bigger hall is just as apt a venue for its political-party aesthetic. They got it half right. Read the full review.
The upcoming Broadway transfer of Fela, which opens November 23, will star Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo alternating in the title role, Lillias White (Dreamgirls) as Funmilayo and Saycon Sengbloh (Hair, Aida, Wicked The Color Purple) as Sandra.
The rest of the company includes Corey Baker, Hettie Vyrine Barnhill, Lauren de Veaux, Nicole Chantal de Weever, Elasea Douglas, Rujeko Dumbutshena, Catherine Foster, Aimee Graham Wodobode, Rasaan-Elijah Green, Abena Koomson, Ismael Kouyate, Gelan Lambert, Farai Malianga, Shakira Marshall, Afi McClendon, Adesola Osakalumi, Jeffrey Page, Daniel Soto, Iris Wilson and J.L. Williams.
Lillias White (The Life, Barnum, Dreamgirls, Cats, Once On This Island, How To Succeed In Business, Chicago) will join the cast of Broadway’s Fela as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s mother. As previously announced, Sahr Ngaujah, the actor who starred in the title role Off-Broadway, will repeat his performance in the show’s Broadway run, set to open on November 23.
A couple new shows are officially headed to Broadway…
Fela!, based on the life of African composer and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, played Off Broadway last fall for a limited engagement to great success. Spring Awakening’s Bill T. Jones directs, with a lot of the same cast lined up for the fall 2008 Broadway run at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Previews start Oct 19, Opening night is Nov. 23.
Also announced yesterday was Trevor Nunn’s London revival of A Little Night Music, which is on its way to the Jujamcyn Theatre. According to a casting notice, all roles are open for the Broadway run and dates are still “tentative.” Carolyn Humphris, Tom Murray, Lynne Page, who all worked on the West End production will be joining Nunn in NYC. The London cast stars Hannah Waddingham as Desiree, Maureen Lipman as Madame Armfeldt, Alexander Hanson as Fredrik, Kelly Price as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Jessie Buckley as Anne Egerman.
It appears that the Kennedy Center’s Ragtime is eyeing a Broadway run, under the supervision of Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who directed and choreographed the D.C. production and music director James Moore. It will be produced on Broadway by The Kennedy Center, Kevin McCollum, Emanuel Azenberg, Max Cooper, Maberry Theatricals, Jeffrey Sine, Scott Delman, Roy Furman and Roger Berlind. No dates have been announced and the audition notice claims that all roles are currently available.
In cast album land…
The cast album for 9 to 5 will be released on July 14 by Dolly’s own record label.
And according to USA Today, the cast recording for Rock of Ages is doing very well in digital land – entering the digital albums chart at #34 charting at #193 on the Top 200. The non-digital version will be released in stores on July 7, pre-order it now!