Fela and the fourth wall challenge
Last Sunday I had the privilege of attending a matinee of Fela! at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in New York. I can’t recommend the show enough. Telling Fela Kuti’s life story through a simulated night at his club/compound, The Shrine, the Broadway production isn’t just one of the best shows I’ve ever seen but also one of the best concert experiences. If you have even a shred of interest in the man, his music or good ol’ fashioned spectacle, you must see this. Don’t be that guy in “He Miss Road.”
The performers and set spill into every corner of the theater and virtually – no, in actuality – beg for audience engagement and participation throughout. There is even a moment in the first act in which Fela invites the crowd to storm the stage. This moment passes quickly and is done so subtly that I think most people, including the theater-savvy group with whom I attended the show, can easily miss it. It’s clearly a charged moment for the performers, though, as they need to wait a moment to see if the audience will respond – but also be able to play through seamlessly to keep potential awkwardness to a minimum. The musicians keeps riffing and if nobody moves the show goes on.
At the intermission, I asked one of the ushers if the weekend night crowds respond differently. Oh yeah, some of the audiences are there to paaarty. My Sunday afternoon brethren were a quieter bunch for sure. What a performing challenge for the actors & dancers in a tightly choreographed show to have such an unpredictable element built into the show!
Another way that Fela! tries to break through the traditional Broadway audience dynamic is through an insert in the program inviting audience members to drink throughout the show. The bar in the rear stays open and you are explicitly told its OK to have beverages at your seat. In the spirit of the show – and, well, because I can’t imagine going to a rock concert without a tasty adult beverage – I made my way to the back bar towards the end of Act I. Not only was I the only one in the theater to do so but the bartender seemed totally baffled by my presence, ignoring me even though I was her sole customer.
I don’t blame the audience for being confused. The marketing on the web and around town still follows the formula of most Broadway musicals; it won this many Tonys, blah blah blah. It makes me wonder how the show has decided to target its potential customers. Would it be better getting the startled tourists and traditional theatergoers who have been taught to sit there and passively enjoy the show; or make outreach to younger audiences – or even traditionally more participatory groups like those found in gospel churches. (Perhaps I’m so far away from this target that I can’t see the campaign?) As John Lennon legendarily said when he performed for royalty, “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”
So two lessons to take away. First, no matter how much a show gives permission, it takes a lot to get an audience out of generations of ingrained viewing habits. It’s hard to imagine a show with more energy, intelligence and pure uplift than Fela! – and still the crowd stayed seated until the curtain call. (Me and my friend hooted for an encore, which only seemed to confuse our section-mates. Isn’t that what you do after the set ends?) Second, if you’re going to see Fela!, try for a weekend night!
- Discount tickets for Fela!
- “By the end of this transporting production, you feel you have been dancing with the stars. And I mean astral bodies, not dime-a-dozen celebrities.” – New York Times
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