A most happy Fela!

Bill T. Jones takes on the life and music of an Afrobeat giant.

BLUE MAN GROUP Sahr Ngaujah, right, leads the pack in the title role of Fela!

BLUE MAN GROUP Sahr Ngaujah, right, leads the pack in the title role of Fela! Photograph: Monique Carboni

Director-choreographer Bill T. Jones has tamed vast spaces (the Louvre in Walking the Line), incorporated extensive multimedia trappings (video testimonies in Still/Here) and wrangled huge casts (62 dancers in his seminal Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land). But in the sprawling new biomusical Fela!­, about the late Nigerian Afrobeat icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Jones may face his biggest hurdle yet: telling a story.

“The dance audience is much freer, much more accustomed to reading my work in a more individualistic way,” says Jones, lithe and still conspicuously buff at 56. “You can be nonlinear in dance.” The trick with musical theater, he has realized, is that “you have to make your peace with storytelling, with a form in which the script comes before everything else. Even the music has to be subordinate to that. We push the envelope quite a bit in Fela!, but in the context of a journey that people can understand.”

Jones has worked in the mainstream theater before: He won a Tony for his Broadway debut as choreographer for Spring Awakening, and created the dances for Will Power’s Greek-myth remix The Seven at New York Theatre Workshop. But Fela!—with a book he coauthored with Jim Lewis (Chronicle of a Death Foretold), and a relentless, eclectic score melding Kuti’s distinctive sound with other African traditional and pop strains—represents Jones’s biggest splash outside the dance pool to date.

The foray began as a for-hire gig six years ago. The choreographer happens to share an entertainment lawyer with theater producer Stephen Hendel, an Afrobeat enthusiast with a notion that Kuti’s life and music would make good stage fodder. Still, it’s unlikely that Fela! would have Jones’s name on it if it hadn’t become personal. “Fela! was a project I was delivered, and at first I was aloof from it; it was just a show I was going to do,” he admits. “Since then I have become greatly enamored of the show­, and of him.” The “him” here is Kuti, a sui generis artist-activist who, from the late 1960s until his death from AIDS complications in 1997, stood athwart the postcolonial corruption of his native Nigeria, and had a scandalously good time doing so.

Jones feels he has discovered a kindred spirit. “There’s something rebellious and belligerent in the art that I love, which is something we must not take for granted,” he says, warming to his subject. “There’s a tendency to look back at the ’60s in a tone of apology, as an irresponsible time—as if we all know better now. I say that’s bullshit. The ’60s was a time when all that we hold dear in our democracy was really brought to a boil. Since then we’ve retrenched, and you can see the results now, listening to two presidential candidates speak at an evangelical church. Fela! is about keeping things at a boil.”

To keep the show churning with nearly nonstop live music, the producers turned to the collective Antibalas, a staple of Brooklyn’s thriving ethnopop scene, which has toured the world since 2001, faithfully recreating the Afrobeat sound. There was a mutual learning curve here, too. “This is not commercial music at all,” says bandleader Aaron Johnson, who doubles on keyboard and trombone. “The producers would get nervous any time there was more than three minutes of the same musical figure.”

Of course, folding in sonic layers over a long, thick groove is essential to the Afrobeat aesthetic, which to Western ears can suggest the minimalism of Steve Reich, and whose influence can be heard on early-’80s albums by Talking Heads. But if Johnson and Antibalas won the argument over the music’s shape, they conceded some stylistic ground in the name of variety and color.

“We’re doing things in this show that Antibalas would never have thought of doing with this music,” Johnson says. Indeed, the huge onstage ensemble includes such traditional African percussion as talking drum and djembe, which Fela himself eschewed, and four-part vocal harmonies for female singers—sounds, says Johnson, that Fela “surely heard and drew on, but never used himself.”

“Fela only ever wrote one song for a woman to sing,” Jones observes. That wouldn’t do for a show in which Kuti’s legendary late mother, Funmilayo, looms so large, and not only vocally. If Fela’s music has been translated, edited and rearranged, then, it is only in the service of narrative. Even the subject, it seems, must yield to the storytelling.

Fela! opens Sept 4 at 37 Arts.