Fela!'s journey to the stage began back in 2000, when Steven Hendel, a New York commodities broker and music fan who had invested in Broadway productions along with his wife, Ruth, was shopping on Amazon.com.
"It was one of those, 'If you like this, you might like this' things," Hendel says by phone from his office in Manhattan. He can't recall what led him to The Best Best of Fela Kuti. Hendel had never heard of Fela, but he can't forget his reaction when he listened to the music of the world-beat bandleader, often spoken of in the same breath as Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and James Brown.
"I started listening to the music and reading these amazing liner notes about his funeral, with a million people on the streets in Lagos, and his band playing for 24 hours with his coffin on the back of an open truck. And I thought, 'My God, who is this?' "
As Hendel listened to Fela and learned, he became more passionate about the mythic figure, who was frequently arrested for assailing the Nigerian military government over corruption and has been criticized himself as a power-mad misogynist who married 27 women in a single ceremony.
"I kept saying to myself, 'This is the greatest music I've ever heard,' " Hendel recounts. "And the greatest story of an artist standing up for human dignity and sacrificing everything for his commitment. And no one knows it."
Hendel got his lawyer working on acquiring the rights to Fela's life story. One day, the lawyer told Hendel he had the ideal person to direct and choreograph the show - Bill T. Jones, "a genius avant-garde dance choreographer who wants to get involved in theater."
Jones had danced to Fela's music in the 1970s, when he directed the cutting-edge American Dance Asylum troupe in Binghamton, N.Y. Lois Welk, the Philadelphia dancer who codirected the troupe with Jones and Arnie Zane, introduced Jones to Fela's music when she brought in an LP of roiling Fela funk that she had borrowed from the library. "Everything was sung in pidgin English or Yoruba," Jones recalls. "[Fela] was clearly African, but he didn't look like an African man. He had the jumpsuit, the style, the horns, which suggested James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone. It was exciting, but still confusing."
The choreographer signed on, and worked on the book to the musical for two years. "It's a work of imagination," Jones says. "And Fela was a great amalgamator. He loved Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, and James Brown really excited his imagination. He was a postmodernist, I suppose you would say."
Jones, who has won Tonys for his work on Fela! and Spring Awakening and returned to the stage this year in his John Cage-inspired dance piece Story/Time, spoke as he was being driven into New York to work on a developing project called Superfly: The Musical.
He has called Fela a "sacred monster." That's because Fela "was a megalomaniac," according to Jones. The artist once fenced in the Shrine, his compound in the Nigerian capital, Lagos, where Fela! is set, and declared it a sovereign nation.
"He could play every instrument onstage and was the visionary behind it all, but he would sometimes address his musicians in the most abusive terms," Jones says. "On the other hand, he's sacred because every culture should have an agitator like that."
Educated in England, where he went to study medicine, and later exposed to the black-power movement while in the United States, Fela "was highborn, but he taught himself to speak pidgin, to speak Yoruba so he could communicate with the market women and men," Jones says. "He had the confidence of the people, and that was sacred. And the music is enduring, like Beethoven or Duke Ellington. There's something sacred in a pure artistic expression that transcends its era."
Fela! has deep Philadelphia connections. Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots went to see the show, which featured then, as it does now, the Brooklyn Afrobeat band Antibalas, during its Off-Broadway run in 2008. "Afterward, he wouldn't leave," Hendel recalls. "He went backstage, he wanted to meet the entire cast. He wouldn't leave." That evening, ?uestlove wrote a 1,500-word mash note to Fela!, calling it "the most 'uncut funk' production EVER!" and sent it to his music-business friends.
Soon, the show had lots of celebrity visitors, including Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, who contributed enough money to become name-above-the-title producers. For the second half of the Broadway run, the key role of Fela's mother was played by Philadelphia R&B diva Patti LaBelle.
Both actors who will portray Fela in Philadelphia have a history with the Afrobeat pioneer's seething yet sophisticated music.
Ngaujah grew up in Atlanta listening to his father play music as a part-time DJ for "Ethiopian parties, Nigerian parties, Ghanaian parties," he told the magazine Jungle Drums in an interview. "Everyone used to listen to Fela, so I was listening to Fela, too," added Ngaujah, who was shooting a network TV pilot in Hawaii and unavailable for this article.
Osakalumi grew up in the Bronx and actually met Fela when he showed up to talk business with Osakalumi's father, who ran the Makossa record label. "He moved with a lot of energy," Osakalumi recalls. "A very powerful, charismatic person."
The role of Fela, he says, is physically taxing, with the lead actor on stage for all but 10 minutes of an aerobically challenging 21/2 hours.
"The show has music and dance and songs and costumes and bright colors," he adds. "But the real hook, in my opinion, is that it's a human story."
That story resonates as much now, in the age of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, as it did in the '70s, the actor says.
Last year, in what Osakalumi described as "an amazing experience," the show traveled to Fela's Nigerian homeland. "When we went to Lagos, people would say, 'Fela is still alive.' And it's true: His spirit is still alive."
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.