Published Oct 25, 2011The multiple Tony Award-winning Fela! makes its first in-the-flesh appearance in Canada with a premiere at Toronto's Canon Theatre tonight (October 25). And even though the musical first made its debut in 2008, Sahr Ngaujah, the man who plays the Nigerian Afrobeat legend, confidently asserts that both he and the play are going strong.
As the creation of Stephen Hendel, Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis, Fela! recounts Fela Kuti's youth and rise to fame as the main exponent of the funky and politically charged musical hybrid. The play started off-Broadway in 2008 and has won people over in successively larger venues, thanks to financial support from Jay-Z and Jada Pinkett Smith. Since winning three Tony awards in 2010, the musical has toured the world and was broadcast internationally in cinemas earlier this year.
Speaking to Exclaim!, Ngaujah says he isn't surprised the play has done so well.
"It seemed that if we could unite all our forces to go forward then we would," he declares. "Each successive jump to new audiences has brought a new feeling to the show. Broadway, for example, you have people coming to a show and they've heard about Fela and they're wondering what the show is all about, or they've heard about the show and they want to see it, or they're walking through Times Square and they see the sign for the show. So there's a whole bunch of different people but within a New York context.
"The type of enthusiasm you see in New York is the type of enthusiasm we saw in London. The British from the outset [are] a bit more reserved but they were they went beyond their character in that regard. There were also Nigerians in the house in London -- now we come to a conversation to people who experienced Fela and people who didn't -- there's a different cultural experience. In Lagos Nigeria itself [where it played in April], that was a completely different situation as well. Those people know Fela's music. When we sing the first three lines of the song, those people are singing it back to us."
That's energizing for Ngaujah, even after inhabiting the role for so many years.
"For me, one of the things I find really exciting has to do with how Fela would relate to his audience. We built into the show moments where this interaction takes place, because this was quite common in Fela's club when he's having a concert. One of the things that makes it not old or stale is that the audiences are always different, which creates a different dynamic for the performers and the musicians on stage. It is exciting and it's a wonderful challenge."
Fela! plays Toronto's Canon Theatre from October 25 to November 6. More information, including ticket and schedule information, is available here.