How Bill T. Jones Turned Radical African Music Into the Broadway Hit Fela!

It's easy to take for granted that Fela! would be a smash Broadway musical — that it would make its big-stage debut to critical acclaim (“music that gets into your bloodstream,” said the New York Times), that it would garner a slew of 2010 Tony nominations, and that it would revive interest in the music of the late Nigerian singer Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Let's get serious, though.

The Fela! that's touring and on view at San Francisco's Curran Theatre was, says director and choreographer Bill T. Jones, the product of many months of “trial and error.” It was also many years in the making. Jones first took in Fela's songs during college in the early 1970s — a time when Fela's liberation music was more associated with black nationalism than Broadway possibilities. Almost four decades ago, no one serious about Fela's Afrobeat — not Jones, not other fans, not Fela himself — could have foreseen the popular appeal of Fela in a theater setting.

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