‘Fela!’ and the risks of a firebrand

At the start of the new musical “Fela!,” protagonist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti welcomes the audience to a concert at what was known in Lagos, Nigeria in the late 1970s as the Shrine, an enclosure of corrugated tin and barbed wire.

Re-created on the Eugene O’Neill Theatre stage, the Shrine throbs with scantily clad dancers and carries the scent of rebellion. The Nigerian military boot has just come down hard on the pop star and his followers in his self-declared “Republic of Kalakuta.”

“It’s so good to see so many of you here . . . considering how dangerous this neighborhood is. And how dangerous we are,” says actor Sahr Ngaujah asFela, with an insouciant wink, toking on a doobie and prowling the stage. “Nigeria is just too dangerous.”

“I call for the overthrow of the government and they lock me up,” says Fela. “Two hundred times they have dragged me into court. Two hundred times I have come fighting back. Like Muhammad Ali. Rope-a-dope.”

But it’s clear the danger zone surrounding Fela is occupied not only by Fela’s followers -- and the show’s audience that stands in for them -- but also by the creators of the Broadway musical itself.

‘A sacred monster’

“Fela scares the hell out of me, [he was] a sacred monster, a megalomaniac who was all razor blades and coffee,” says Bill T. Jones, the Tony-winning (“Spring Awakening”) modern dance choreographer who brings the Nigerian human rights activist and pop composer to the Broadway stage a dozen years after his death from an AIDS-related illness.

“But I was also afraid of him as a subject of a popular work,” Jones adds. “I just didn’t think that a white middle-class audience would be interested in a story of an African pot-smoking firebrand who made music with songs that were loud, long and aggressive.”

Jones, who is also directing and has co-written the musical’s book with his longtime collaborator Jim Lewis, will discover whether or not the show has commercial appeal after “Fela!” opens tonight.

Critics were almost unanimous in praising the part-concert, part-fever dream conjured up by Jones and company during its off-Broadway run in September 2008. Also receiving raves was the show’s star, Ngaujah, who on Broadway will alternate the marathon role with Kevin Mambo.

Celebrity clout

“This is music that gets into your bloodstream, setting off vibrations you’ll live with for days to come,” wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times.

Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have not been able to resist, either. The celebrities are adding their clout to the project, lending their names and bringing a substantial investment to the show -- not unlike what Oprah Winfrey did for the musical of “The Color Purple.”

Musicians from James Brown to Paul McCartney have credited Fela as being an enormous influence as well. Yet despite the good reviews and powerful friends, “Fela!” seems to be something of an outlier in an era of jukebox musicals and movie-to-musical adaptations, though not quite as exotic as it might seem at first.

Fela was the son of an Anglican minister and a pioneering feminist and spent much of his early life outside of Nigeria, first in London, then in New York and Los Angeles. It was while living in the latter that his simplistic “power to the people” philosophy evolved, mostly at the behest of the beautiful women for whom he would have a lifelong weakness. (At one point, he married 27 females of his commune and then just as arbitrarily divorced many of them.)

But the woman who was most influential -- and whose character provides the emotional arc of the musical -- was his mother, Funmilayo (played by Lillias White), who was killed when the Nigerian police raided the compound in 1978. Like her son, she was a thorn in the side of the corrupt, oppressive Nigerian regime.

The creators of “Fela!” were determined not to do a biographical musical. Jones says, “This is not an imitation -- it’s phantasmagorical, dreamlike in aspiration.”

And Lewis adds, “What attracted us was the opportunity to examine the role of the artist to society, the responsibilities and obligations and costs which come with that. We want to present what a political firebrand might look like for our time as well as the ‘70s. Fela took anger and turned it into a form of entertainment, comic and musical, like a Richard Pryor or a Stokely Carmichael did.”

The project has been developing since 2002, when Stephen Hendel, lead producer of “Fela!,” got the musical rights from the pop star’s estate and immediately thought of Jones and his avant-garde approach.

Framing devices

“We both agreed that we wanted to challenge the audience, to give them a visceral emotional experience that was nonlinear, not spoon fed,” Hendel said. The creative team didn’t think of Broadway as a destination at first. There was some consideration to presenting it in a warehouse or, says Lewis, in a “late-night rave setting” where it might attract a younger, hipper audience.

But as the show developed -- at the same time that shows like “Spring Awakening” and “In the Heights” were winning acceptance on Broadway -- the hope germinated that a wide cross-section of people might respond to what they considered a compelling story and a new sound.

They also chanced on certain framing devices -- the use of collage, projections, fantasy -- that could clarify and smooth the rough edges of a contradictory, problematic personality.

One device separates the two acts through the concept of an imagined movie, “Black President.” Fela, in fact, did make a movie with that title, and he did run for president of Nigeria, though his name was removed from the ballot by the government.

Drawing parallels

“The film was destroyed by the military and there were no copies, at least we couldn’t find one,” says Lewis. “The way we use it is to idealize Fela’s rise to fame and power, as most movies do, and then in Act II to explore the dark period of what actually happened and the consequences of his actions: ‘Is it worth continuing the fight, especially when you put everyone at risk, your mother and your followers, to do so?’ ”

Jones is no stranger to that question, though he acknowledges that the stakes are not as high for “a modern dance choreographer in this big, fat country of ours.”

Some of his collaborators draw parallels between Jones and Fela’s uncompromising artistic drive. Hendel said, “The instinct to compromise is not in Bill’s vocabulary.”

“Compromise is in the vocabulary of any mature, healthy adult,” Jones says. “ ‘Live fast and die young’ was a favorite mantra in my youth. And it may sound pretty good on a record album. But if you love people, if you love art-making, you will find a way to be around, you will not self-destruct. And without compromise, you will self-destruct.”

Fela, Jones says, “never really spread his wings in a way that a more measured artist would. But he was a lesson to artists out there: Do what you have to do. You can have as much freedom as you are willing to pay for it. And you will pay.”