Riddle this: what's more unlikely than the fact that the current toast of Broadway — which has garnered gasping raves from the New York Times, among others — is a musical about a Nigerian agitprop pop singer that even most hipsters have never heard of? How about the fact that it owes its existence to a Caucasian commodities trader from New England?
Not only is Steve Hendel the co-creator of Fela!, but this unassuming white guy from Boston is potentially the catalyst of an Afrobeat renaissance that has already excited Jay-Z, Jada Pinkett and Will Smith, and Roots drummer ?uestlove, all of whom have signed on as producers.
"Around 2001, I got a record called The Best of Fela Kuti, and I couldn't stop listening to it," says Hendel, who was born in Boston and moved to New York after spending most of his childhood in New London, Connecticut. "After that, I got a couple of books and studied his lyrics, and I thought it was the greatest music I had ever heard. It just struck me how it was so different."
Now at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in Times Square, Fela! (co-written by Hendel and his Tony Award–nominated wife, Ruth) is many times the spectacle that Hendel imagined when he began conceptualizing it five years ago. What started as a daydream evolved into a long-term project with renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones (who since signing on for Fela! has added a Tony Award — for his work on Spring Awakening — to his trophy-laden mantle), then into a heralded 40-show run off Broadway, and now into the season's surprise cultural phenomenon.
In bringing Fela! to fruition, Hendel faced two particular obstacles. First, he had never produced a musical; his previous experience in the arts was limited to writing a play about the Chicago Seven. Still, things fell into place, as his outsider perspective led way to authenticity. Though Hendel recruited such seasoned talents as Jones and co-conceiver Jim Lewis, he blatantly avoided Broadway formulas by also involving improbable collaborators. Most notable, in a move that works as well on Broadway as it did off, Hendel tapped Brooklyn Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas — rather than an acclaimed music director — to channel Fela's deeply complex catalogue.
The second pitfall Hendel faced was that few Americans had any clue who the West African legend Kuti was (the rebel musician-griot passed away from AIDS-related complications in 1997). But Hendel used that potential snag to shape his project, too. "When people leave the theater," he says, "I want them to ask themselves: 'How have I never heard about this guy?' 'How have I never heard this music?' 'How did I not know about what goes on in Nigeria?' "
So far, it seems that Hendel has succeeded — and not just in exposing new audiences to Fela's personal, political, and poly-rhythmic identities.
"I won't lie — the positive reviews are exciting," says Hendel. "But even more important is that I believe that Fela himself would probably approve, and I'm only basing that on the reaction of his sons, friends, and daughters who have seen it."