Can 'Fela!' energise West End musicals?
Bill T Jones and Sahr Ngaujah talk to Caroline McGinn about the hit Broadway production of 'Fela!' and why the West End needs to take a leaf out of the New York book
Why can't the West End make new musicals like Broadway does? This week the National Theatre imports 'Fela!', a 'soul-scorching mash-up of pounding African dance, political protest and intoxicating Afrobeat' that, according to our friends at Time Out New York, is 'more than a musical; it's an ecstatic phenomenon'. What current London musical merits that verdict? There's plenty that's fun, but the '80s film remakes, ageing American imports and band tributes make Shaftesbury Avenue and its environs look about as fresh as a car-boot sale.
The life story of Nigerian singer and activist Fela Kuti contains enough original material for 20 shows, though it's hard to imagine a major West End producer putting money into one. Kuti liked to perform in Speedos while smoking a large spliff; married 27 of his dancers in one day; staged a cultural insurrection against Nigeria's military rulers from his legendary Lagos club, the Shrine; and lost his mother after government soldiers stormed his compound, whipped his followers and threw the elderly feminist out of a window.
'Fela!' was directed, choreographed and developed Off-Broadway by avant- garde dance legend Bill T Jones, at the instigation of one Stephen Hendel, a New York commodities trader who fell in love with Fela Kuti's music when he discovered it on Amazon. 'We built eight stand-alone scenes around Fela Kuti songs,' recalls Jones, 'but as we worked on it we realised it was getting really big and we couldn't make a go of it if we just played it like performance art, in a funky house in some super-hip neighbourhood in Brooklyn.'
Independent support was key. The Roots drummer ?uestlove saw it on its brief Off-Broadway run, raved about it on Twitter, then persuaded Jay-Z to come on board as a producer. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith followed suit and it headed for Broadway, where it won three Tonys and, says its star Sahr Ngaujah (who will be backed by a British cast in the National's production) attracted an audience which was 'about as diverse as you could imagine. One white guy who saw the show told me he had a Japanese couple one side, a Nigerian couple on the other, a family with young kids in front, and, a few rows back, Madonna.'
'Fela!' sounds like fun. 'It starts with something we call the underground spiritual game,' says Jones. 'You have to stand up to play. It's a body game that would happen two hours in to the drinking and the sweating in a Fela concert. But we pop it on the audience straight away. Maybe some people should have a drink before the show! But this is a choice we're making: we can exchange something in performance that pop idols exchange with their audiences and still be serious theatre.'
It's not the first time in recent years that an innovative new musical has shaken up audiences on Broadway. Jones's first foray into the mainstream was as choreographer for 'Spring Awakening', the 2006 teen-angst rock musical that won eight Tonys but struggled to replicate its success in the West End, where it closed five months early. 'Tickets are cheaper here in London,' says Jones, referring particularly to the quality subsidised theatre that makes the city such a mecca for theatre-makers (the Atlantan-born Ngaujah, whom 'Fela!' has made into a Broadway star, spent 2003-2004 working at the Bug Bar in Brixton, putting on a monthly arts evening at the Ritzy Cinema). '“Spring Awakening” was packed at the Lyric Hammersmith - kids were loving it - but when it moved to the West End it either didn't have time to build these audiences or they just lost the kids', says Jones.
As for 'Fela!', Jones hopes that the National will draw in 'the audience that goes to see “Hamlet” and some of the large Nigerian community in London: it says a lot about the health of theatre in your country that “Fela!” will be playing in rep with “Hamlet”.' It's true that London theatre's mixed economy, where the subsidised sector feeds ideas into the commercial sector and the commercial sector pays cash back from big transfers like 'War Horse', has produced an eclectic and highly successful body of work in recent years. But although we've sent Menier-powered revivals like 'La Cage aux Folles' to Broadway, there has been no great new West End musical since the phenomenally successful 'Billy Elliot'.
It's telling that the best new musical in London (David Greig's 'Midsummer', coming back to the Tricycle in November) was developed on a studio-scale by Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre - and, though perfectly formed, is too small for a big stage. At a recent press conference, Nicholas Hytner argued that the National's subsidised budget was effectively 'R&D money… which in any commercial organisation would be ringfenced'. Rumour has it that the RSC's new musical, 'Matilda', could be something very special. But, in a theatreland which has become accustomed to the subsidised sector taking the risks - and where Broadway innovation doesn't always translate - maybe the National should branch out from the straight theatre and new writing which other houses also do so well, and develop London's own homegrown 'Fela!'.