Now this is the show that should have won the 2010 Best Musical Tony. The show tells the true-life story of Nigerian musician and revolutionary Fela Kuti, one of the most fascinating figures in all of music. It’s technically a Jukebox musical, but it’s not your typical Mamma Mia-model example of the form. Indeed, it is the most sophisticated and artistic Jukebox show seen on Broadway since 2007’s Lovemusik, while utterly outstripping that work as an actual piece of theater. While the story certainly doesn’t lack for conflict, the book is oddly structured and a bit thin, but since the show is more presentational than narrative in structure, this actually suits its unique theatrical approach.
The marvelous score is drawn from Kuti’s actual body of music in his own invented genre of Afrobeat, which blended a variety of styles including African rhythms, Jazz and Funk into a never-before-heard mix of sounds. Standouts include the wildly energetic opening “Everything Scatter”, the practical demonstration of the influences that come together to create Afrobeat, “B.I.D. (Breaking It Down)”, the mournfully beautiful “Trouble Sleep”, the meditation on a Nigerian proverb “Water No Get Enemy”, and the inflammatory international hit to which Kuti owes most of his worldwide fame, “Zombie”.
Nearly all of the score is composed of actual Kuti compositions, though some of the lyrics have been somewhat rewritten for dramatic purposes. But the show’s eleven-o’clock number, an epic ballad called “Rain”, had to be written specifically for the show. To the writing team’s credit, it still sounds like genuine Afrobeat, even if it has more of a power ballad vibe than any of Kuti’s actual compositions ever did. Most importantly, it’s also a fantastic song that makes for an incredibly thrilling climax to the show’s emotional arc, especially as performed by the great Lillias White in the show’s original cast.
The dazzling, lightning-fast, kaleidoscopic choreography permeates the piece, capturing a spirit of life-affirming, defiant celebration and creating an utterly unique theatrical experience that ranks as one of the freshest things seen on Broadway in the modern era. Peter Filichia, a critic I normally respect, complained about the show’s forceful attempt to elicit audience participation, but evidently he’s never been to a Reggae concert, let alone an Afrobeat one. Exhorting the audience to dance in the aisles and participate in extensive call-and-response routines is an inherent feature of nearly all African-rooted genres when performed live, and to exclude that element would be to exclude the very spirit the show is trying to capture.
This was a far better and more interesting show than Memphis, and it received well-deserved critical raves, but it was just too ‘special’ for the Tony voters, who have historically been notorious for their suspicion and dislike of theatrical ‘caviar’. Still, the show has returned to Broadway for later engagements after its original run and generally shown all the signs of being a genuine sleeper classic. In any case, it was still easily the best new musical of the’09-’10 season, and the Tony committee’s unwillingness to recognize that was a failure on their part, not this show’s.