From Broadway to broadcast: London staging of musical ‘Fela!’ comes to Angelika screens tonight

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  |  Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

When Stephen Hendel first approached out choreographer Bill T. Jones about directing Fela!, Hendel’s hoped-for musical about the life and work of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, Jones had absolutely no experience on Broadway.

But that was OK — neither did Hendel.

“I’d never produced a musical — not any theater show — before. And this was the first time [my wife] Ruth and I had lead-produced before, though Ruthie is a Tony voter. And the show was out of left field from the mainstream fare on Broadway,” Hendel says by telephone from New York.

This week, the culmination of their efforts will be seen by the largest audience ever, as Fela! airs as part of the National Theatre Live series of stage productions filmed for moviehouses opens at the Angelika, starting tonight.

The path was one of mutual enthusiasm by relative novices. Hendel was put in touch with Jones through a mutual acquaintance. Hendel had already spent several years trying to generate interest in his idea for a non-narrative musical overloaded with dance and tribal rhythms. And Jones was very interested.

“I could see he was really, really brilliant and that many of the themes — of an artist in society, of being a political artist and being a black man — were all issues will had spend him career exploring and living. We agreed when and if I got the rights [to the music and story], Bill would direct and choreograph the show.”

It took nearly a year for that to happen. In the interim, Jones got an agent who secured him choreography duties on an off-Broadway play called Seven. One of the hopefuls was not cast, but Jones loved his energy. He would eventually originate the role of Fela on Broadway.
Jones, for his part, made an impact as well, winning an Tony Award for choreographing Spring Awakening and becoming a hot property in the theater community. And Hindel got him started. (Hendel himself has continued his theater work, co-producing American Idiot, another outside-the-box, Tony-nominated musical from last season.)

The journey from New York stage to London stage to, this week, movie screens across the world, was a surprisingly natural progression.
“We opened on Broadway and got amazing reviews, and the National Theatre [in England] came to see it. Nick Hytner, their artistic director, called me to talk about bringing it to the Olivier Stage in London, so we created a production for the National,” Hendel says. He then learned that the National was beginning its second season of broadcasting stage works from its and other London stages to movie theaters across the world.

Hendel was in. The version airing this week at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano was shot with nine cameras at the London shortly before Fela! closed its original Broadway run earlier this month. That means the broadcast is the only way an American can see the show for the time being.

“It’s like having the best seat in the house every minute, only you get things you can’t see sitting in a Broadway house,” Hendel says. And it is just one more way people in the U.S. can experience a musician Hendel has long loved but most people have never heard of.

“People thought we were crazy [doing the show] — who’s ever heard about Fela Kuti and would want to see a show about a Nigerian they’d never heard of?” he says. “It has been a big challenge making audiences aware of what it’s about and why it’s so entertaining and important. We want people all over the world the see the show and why we’ve spent eight or nine years working on it. It’s been a total joy and a total thrill.”

Still, Hendel says the cinema version does not replace seeing it live, which he hopes will happen; he is planning to announce soon a U.S. and international tour to start mid-2011.

Until then, though, the Angelika’s the place to be.

Fela! airs at the Angelika Mockingbird Station Jan. 19 and 20, and at the Angelika Plano Jan. 22 and 23, at 7 p.m. Visit AngelikaFilmCenter.com for details.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Tony Awards recap

Sean Hayes both hosted the Tony Awards Sunday night and was a nominee for his performance in “Promises, Promises,” but he also was a sassy lightning rod for politics. Hayes made the least news ever last March when, just before his Broadway debut opened, he officially came out as gay. (In other news, the sun set last night.)

Hayes was then the target of a weird thinkpiece in Newsweek (by a gay author, no less!) who claimed that when gay actors come out, they ruin the illusion that they could be straight for audiences; Hayes was singled out as not convincingly playing a hetero man in the musical. His co-star, Kristin Chenoweth — who also has appeared on “Glee,” another target of the article — was vocal in her disdain for the piece.

Without addressing the article directly, Hayes began his hosting duties with a Tipper-and-Al-style prolonged lip-lock with Chenoweth that seemed to establish, for home audiences, that kisses look real when the actors are good. Despite my criticism of the cast recording, these actors are good.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

NYT: Bill T. Jones' 'Fela!' coming to Dallas

In January, I interviewed out choreographer Bill T. Jones prior to his company’s performance of “Serenade/The Proposition,” which took a look at the history of Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of dance. He couldn’t make the show because he had another work on Broadway. And just last week, that show, “Fela!,” scored big Tony Award nominations including one for best musical and another for Jones’ choreography. The show is part concert, part dance and part musical and tells the story of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

Today, The New York Times mentions that the producers of “Fela!” have plans to take it on the road, and it looks like Dallas is on the itinerary.

The producers of “Fela!”, the story of the Nigerian activist and musician which opened last November at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, plan to take it abroad and to Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Tempe and Washington. Overseas, look for engagements in Amsterdam, Melbourne, Paris, Rotterdam, Sydney and Toronto. Those stops for “Fela!” are in addition to an already-announced special engagement at London’s National Theater this November.

—  Rich Lopez

Tony nominations have some gay

The Tony Award nominees were announced this morning. Not in the list was Cheyenne Jackson for his role in the revival of Finian’s Rainbow, but there were some other gay-notable inclusions. Among them:

Fela!, the dance musical conceived by choreographer Bill T. Jones, led the pack with 11 nominations.

• The revival of La Cage aux Folles also got 11 nods. Out actor Robin DeJesus, who co-starred in the North Texas-shot indie Fat Girls and was nominated two years ago for In the Heights, was cited as best featured actor. The production also got nods for stars Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge, as best revival and seven other awards.

• Sean Hayes — Jack from Will & Grace — got nominated as best actor in a leading role in a musical for his Broadway debut in the revival of Promises, Promises.

• Levi Kreis, the gay musician making his Broadway debut playing Jerry lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, was nominated as best featured actor in a musical.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones