Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith may have been among the producers of the Tony-winning musical FELA! And Madonna, Alicia Keys, Mick Jagger, Sting, Kofi Annan and Michelle Obama may have been a few of its fans. But the man who conceived of the show and brought it to life is probably someone you’ve never heard of. Then again, you’ve also likely never heard of Nigerian musician and human rights activist Fela Kuti, on whom the show is based.
Stephen Hendel is the low-key attorney and former Goldman Sachs commodities executive who found himself in the surprising position of co-producing a Broadway musical that has toured the world and is coming to Charlotte in February. So what made an elite crowd fall for the Afrobeat music (characterized by a large band with many instruments, vocalists and a structure similar to jazz) and story of a Nigerian Hendel described as “the most important musician you’ve never heard of”?
“He used his music to take on a social purpose,” explains Hendel. “He sacrificed literally everything to speak truth to power. When Paul McCartney discovered Kuti’s music, he said he burst into tears because he finally understood what music was supposed to be.”
“His music was about something,” Hendel continues. “Jay-Z, who is much more than a pop star himself, found that idea very powerful.”
Yet few people outside his native Africa are familiar with Kuti. Hendel wanted to change that. After discovering Kuti on Amazon.com and finding his music and story irresistible, Hendel spent several years talking him up and trying to expose him to a wider audience. Hendel himself had no experience with Broadway shows, but his wife, Ruth, did. (Death of Salesman; Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels; and Driving Miss Daisy are among her producing credits.)
The Hendels’ entertainment lawyer introduced them to legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones, who had danced to Kuti’s music in the 1970s, but wasn’t familiar with his story. Jones, who became the show’s director and choreographer, and Hendel realized that squeezing Kuti’s turbulent life into a stage play was impossible. They focused instead on one dramatic period – the 1977 raid, reportedly by 1,000 government soldiers, of Kuti’s compound. The raid ended with the torture of Kuti and his wives (he had many), the rape of women in the compound and the beating and ultimate death of his mother. Such a tragic story wouldn’t seem to lend itself to what Hendel calls a “joyful” theatrical experience. Yet, it does. The tribal beat of the music makes you want to dance in your seat even when the song is “Coffin for Head of State” or “Sorrow, Tears and Blood.” The sound is jubilant, but the lyrics, often sung in Pidgin English – assail Nigeria’s corrupt dictatorships.
That FELA! would be a hit was far from a certainty. The show started Off Off Broadway – Brooklyn, to be exact – and there were no equity actors in the company, according to Hendel. The little show hit the big time when Questlove, a renowned drummer – formerly with the Grammy-winning band, The Roots, came to see it. He sent an email to his industry contacts the next morning to tell them he had “witnessed a miracle” on stage. The email read, in part, “it is 5:58am in the morning and i just got home. i witnessed a miracle tonight and it is a MUST you read this. and when i say miracle you have to think this on the level of sam jackson trying to convince john travolta in pulp fiction to acknowledge the miracle that just occured (them escaping death by *this* much) i didn’t escape death tonight. actually i believe i found life again.”
That email led to the Smiths (Jada and Will) ordering tickets. “Suddenly, FELA! was a sensation,” Hendel says. “We only had a one-month run and a limited number of seats. We were getting calls from Susan Sarandon, Chelsea Clinton, Prince, Bruce Springsteen. They all came, and most of them came multiple times.”
FELA! went on to be a darling of 2010 Broadway season and was nominated for 11 Tonys. Critics confirmed what the big-name actors and musicians had been saying. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley, wrote, “There has never been anything on Broadway like this ...”
There’s never been any musician like Fela Kuti, either. Hendel still seems awed by the musician/activist he stumbled on. “He’s the most courageous musician I’ve ever heard of,” he says. “He was arrested more than 200 times. He spent a year in solitary. He could’ve left Nigeria, yet he stayed and continued to make music.” Hendel is reluctant to give away the show’s ending, although he does say audiences are generally in tears – yet there’s a feeling of triumph. “It’s a very profound experience,” he says. “And there’s very little that’s adventurous on Broadway today. This is.”
FELA! will be at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center on Feb. 25 and 26. Tickets start at $25 and are available at carolinatix.org