Mounting a big-budget Broadway musical about an African composer that most Americans have never heard of is a risky proposition, even under the best of circumstances, but the producers of Fela! have made choices that make success seem even less likely. Are posters of a faceless woman in a colorful skirt really the way to sell it? Isn't it weird that the show's lauded original star, Sahr Ngaujah, will only alternate in the role on Broadway? And why not capitalize more on the support of Jay-Z and Will Smith?
Let's start with the artwork. Fela! is about the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and had an acclaimed off-Broadway run. But you wouldn't know either of those things from looking at the posters around town featuring a woman's back and a bright skirt. The theory behind the artwork seems to be: use skin and flashy colors and they will come. As marketing theories go, that isn't such a solid one. Just because your title treatment is similar in color to The Lion King's title treatment doesn't mean you'll be a hit like Lion King. Like wearing a certain cologne won't instantly make you a hit with the ladies. You need something more to attract people.
You might need Sahr Ngaujah. Ngaujah wowed critics off-Broadway and much of the show's press was built around him. Off-Broadway the show's schedule was six or seven performances a week and Ngaujah went on each one. On Broadway, where there are eight performances a week, Kevin Mambo will "alternate" in the title role. Now, Broadway has a history of allowing leading ladies to play a reduced schedule. Currently Kerry Butler plays six performances a week in Rock of Ages, taking Sundays off. But two leading men alternating without a set schedule? It happens at Billy Elliot, but there the title character is a child. The last time I remember adult males alternating performances was the 2002 Broadway mounting of La Bohème. The opera featured a rotating set of lead couples, but it was part of the gimmick--which cast was better, the red, white or blue (as the sets were dubbed)? With Fela! we have a show that was built around one actor, who very well may not be on at a given performance. There is no indication as to when Ngaujah will perform. Is that fair to ticket buyers? And do the producers have faith that Mambo will be as good as Ngaujah? This is a show that needs word-of-mouth. A large part of its appeal off-Broadway was Ngaujah's performance. It's hard to imagine it will be the same without him.
While the aforementioned issues are significant, they are not irreparable: ads can be changed and Mambo could be as great as Ngaujah. Plus, the production is showing signs of life. Recently, in the midst of Broadway previews, the musical's spokesperson announced that the show will now be billed as "Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith present Fela!," akin to the Oprah Winfrey treatment that was so beneficial to The Color Purple. This is a huge step in the right direction. But they still have to do more with the names--change the posters around town to include them, change the marquee, change all of it. Go further to make the show seem like an event.
It remains to be seen whether Fela! can survive its producers' blunders and triumph on Broadway. Hopefully it will--it's something different. Broadway could benefit from the infusion of dancing feet and drum beats.