Today, with a BWW Exclusive First Listen is a critique of Broadway's most highly-praised and most Tony-nominated new show of the year, the smash-hit Afrobeat musical by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis, FELA! So, is it as electrifying and exciting as the critics found the show to be onstage? Does it even come close to replicating the show's addictive energy? Let's find out...
FELA! Original Broadway Cast Recording
A musical about music is a much more complex concept to pull off onstage than it may at first appear or seem to be. Even more complicated than that Herculean task is re-creating the inimitable sound of one of the foremost pioneers of world music in the 20th century, particularly on a cast album. To say that the creators of FELA! have succeeded would be faint praise, indeed. Much like the effortlessness - or is it just seemingly effortless given the cast's exceptional talents? - with which the show imparts its celebration of life message made real in the music of Kuti, so, too, does the show come alive before our very ears when listening to this glistening, glittering gem of a cast recording. Whether or not you have any particular affinity to Afrobeat music - or even cursory knowledge of it - you are in good hands here thanks to the always alive, endlessly electrifying cast album that will soon be available for you to peruse yourself come June 8th. That day cannot come soon enough, particularly given the paltry selection of new scores on Broadway this season and the subsequent lackluster cast albums we've been given. Leave your preconceptions at the door: this is what the power of music can do in a live theatre setting, enlivening and energizing the audience on ecstatic highs on the powerful wings of veritable musical Manna. FELA! onstage is largely about the possibilities of storytelling in a theatrical milieu and the cast album more than successfully completes the same task in capturing the score on disc. Let this praise whet your appetite, the careful and precise preservation of the score on this cast album speaks and sings for itself on every single track.
Complete credit for making this show work so exceptionally well on disc goes to Rob Sher, who can now place this album alongside his definitive recordings of FOLLIES and GYPSY as the best cast albums of the last twenty years. Without question. Indeed, this cast album is a success almost entirely due to the two men with strangely similar sounding names: Sher and Sahr. Just as Sahr is the star of the show onstage, Sher reveals himself the star of this disc. To make a truly effective album of this score that even echoed the energy of the stage show would have been enough to satisfy fans, but Sher has gone well above and beyond that and created a cast album from the ground up. Every element is the better for it. I mean, in all honesty: how uninteresting would unexpurgated musical sequences with their inherent repetition have been on disc? Particularly, on repeat? We should thank our lucky stars this album is a shred as good as it actually is - and what it is is far, far removed from merely "good". It's great. And much, much more.
We are immediately enveloped and immersed in the electric blues, to quote a phrase from that other Free Love Generation musical HAIR, as we are welcomed to The Shrine by Kuti himself in "Everything Scatter". Sher's work is all-around exquisite, from the very first moment to the last. So is Sahr. From even this first song and the following monologue, "B.I.D.", - read: yabi (Nigerian word for monologue) - Sahr commands our attention with his persuasive charm, engaging energy and astounding musical abilities honed to perfection on this confectionary album. "High Life"/"Yellow Fever" establishes the sounds of the show that we will soon explore in even greater depth. And, presumably, delight in the process. Speaking of which, Broadway legend and Tony-winner for THE LIFE, the beyond-compare Lillias White, treats us to the next track: a spine-tingling and sumptuously sung "Trouble Sleep" making her presence in the show - and on the recording - fully known. There are few stars of White's stalwart talents onstage and in one mere number and a few select appearances here we soon realize how much she has been missed since her last stage appearance. "Teacher" is evocative and eerie; appropriately ghostly given its leanings. Kuti continues his autobiographical anecdotal interspersions throughout and hereafter. Soon comes the movie in his mind come real in "Lovers". Perhaps not since HAIR has the Free Love Generation been so illustratively illuminated for those of us too young to have been there and to have participated in it. Truly, this cast album goes a longer way in introducing the musical genius of Kuti to a new generation than any scratchy original recording of his own ever could. At times, we are compelled to feel as though Sahr N'gaujah is the actual embodiment of Kuti his portrayal is so well-judged and specific. (NOTE: I studied Kuti's music quite extensively in college and consider myself relatively well-versed on his life and career in music, all things being revealed to you, dear readers). "Upside Down" details Kuti's experiences in America and it is at this point in the score that the subtle brilliance of the careful work done on this score reveals itself in full.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was the self-proclaimed "Black President of Nigeria" and it seems as though every part of the music of Africa and the African descendants' music in America informs the score of FELA! Seemingly every genre is touched upon of the so-called black experience. There is blues, r&b, even a bit of rap and hip-hop influence subtly apparent in the delivery if not so much in the orchestrations and instrumentation itself as that would be anachronistically inappropriate given the time-period of the show. The percussionists and players on this recording are expectedly and evidently experts at getting the absolute best sound out of many of these at-times rudimentary and unreliable instruments that are played with aplomb and precision on this recording. This is not easy music to make, but you would never know that from the pulsating, powerful poise that this recording maintains for its entire eighty-minute running time.
"Expensive Shit" is a ribald and slightly risqué song that is funny enough to justify its controversial content. This show is joyful, first and foremost and imparts the joy of music to the lucky listener. This is not a downer. Thank goodness. We've had enough depressing scores (as a result of the actual musical content more so than their intended dramatic content) this season to last a lifetime. "I.T.T (International Thief Thief)" is in many ways the catchiest and most ingratiating entry in the first act and you'd be hard pressed to wish to get it out of your head soon after hearing it even once. As if you'd only want to sample this exceptional delight just once. Act One ends with the arresting "Kere Kay" and it is in this song that the other women in Kuti's life - and the astoundingly talented ladies of the ensemble lead by a sensational Saycon Sengbloh- get their chance to shine as White had earlier and does again here as her glorious instrument closes out the act on a surreal, sensitive and spiritual - in more than one sense - note.
Act Two begins with the disruptive, dissonant "Water No Get Enemy" and "Torture" clueing us into the fact that all is not well in Nigeria. Far and away Kuti's biggest hit, perhaps the only truly successful crossover song of his career to date, is the exhilarating "Zombie". Everyone - and everything - about this selection is the exact opposite of "undead". It positively bursts alive and the subtle studio trickery and speaker sectioning-off only adds to the fun of the experience - here and elsewhere. We always feel like we are there, live, at the moment, with Fela performing just for us. No higher praise can be paid to a cast recording than to say it perfectly replicates the stage experience. This cast album does not only that but does even the original - once thought untouchable - Kuti recordings one better. And the saxophone has never sounded sexier than it does here.
The album continues with "Trouble Sleep (reprise)" and we soon realize that even with success, Kuti was not satisfied. He sought to make his music have a larger message than mere music for enjoyment. The ghostly apparition of his mother makers her reappearance at this point, and perhaps not since Patti LuPone in the recent revival of SWEENEY TODD has a musical theatre leading lady been so scary and near-terrifying. Not to say she is unsympathetic, for she surely is in White's winning portrayal, but there is a definite overriding sense of menace in her presence. Maternal love - ghosts or no ghosts - can be a very scary thing sometimes, it seems. At least to Fela. As he himself says in the next track, - "Na Poi" - "I am not an easy man, I can easily be hard on my women." But, he soon relates, "these women are my queens," when referring to his many wives. Yes, he was a polygamist, which provides ripe opportunity for a female chorus on the level of NINE. Lucky we, particularly thanks to these lustrous and luscious-sounding ladies as we hear on this track and many others. The evening's events take a dramatic turn with the sad, sorrowful, angry "Sorrow, Tears and Blood" surely the theatrical centerpiece of the show and cast album. Perhaps it is unintentional, but I even sensed a bit of Sergio Leone film-style guitar accompanying the many ghostly effects of the recording. So, too, is there a bit of Simon & Garfukel's "Sounds of Silence" as the rain surrounds us in a sensitive but thrilling coup du cast recording. I even sensed a bit of psychedelics coming through from time to time, adding to the mystery and magic of the musical moment. One thing is for sure: the rain mirrors the tears you are sure to cry after experiencing this elegiac episode. Characters - Fela in particular - quickly gain perspective on the intervening events of the story and a newfound inspiration and reinvigoration reveals itself in them and propels the story forward to its conclusion in the "Dance of the Orishas", climaxing with Fela falling into his mother's arms. As you will with the rest of the show given its theatrical gist, make what you will of this man-made-metaphor and moments depicting him and those in his life. Once you do that, like me you may then find yourself marveling at them.
In her striking tour-de-force, "Rain", White proves yet again why she is among the best Broadway has to offer - on a particularly tricky song, both technically and dramatically. The results are wondrous and affecting. Few performers could make this material work this well, no question. White makes the near-impossible seem effortless. The show reaches its inevitable conclusion with "Coffin For Head of State" and the cast album manages to capture the overflowing emotion of the singular moment that song depicts (as to not give too much away about the plot). Even in his greatest grief, Kuti could cast a positive spin on it and find the joy life can provide to us if we merely look for it. "Gentleman" is the feel-good, bombastic and boisterous closer to a unique and unforgettable score on a perfectly produced and performed cast album. I could say more and lavish more praise upon all concerned, but what's the point? If you buy one cast recording this Broadway season, let it be FELA! Original Broadway Cast Recording. You'll thank me. I am thankful that we at least have one exceptional cast recording for the annals this score-poor season and this is it.