America has no single musical figure as towering as Nigeria’s Fela Kuti. To West African music, Kuti is Elvis Presley, James Brown, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis.
“And Malcolm X too,” Aaron Johnson added from his home in New York.
Johnson is the musical director of Broadway musical “Fela!,” which comes to the Cutler Majestic Theatre Tuesday through May 6.
Unlike jukebox musicals culled from the catalogs of Billy Joel, Frankie Valli or ABBA, “Fela!” has no Top 40 hits to pull from. Before the show’s Broadway debut in 2009 and its success, including three Tonys, few knew Kuti’s music.
“When I got into Fela in college, there were only a couple of CDs you could get, a couple of Japanese and European imports,” Johnson said. “Now there are reissues and books, exhibits in museums, but it is still a challenge of this musical to reach people completely unfamiliar with this man’s great music.”
Johnson began working with Antibalas, an Afrobeat orchestra, a decade ago when only a handful of acts were working to revive Afropop. This made him director and choreographer Bill T. Jones’ first pick to help develop the show — since opening, stars including Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith signed on as co-producers.
From the beginning, “Fela!” was like nothing else. It was the maiden Broadway voyage for Johnson as a musical director and Jones as a director. Maybe it was those fresh perspectives that made the story so unique.
“This isn’t one of those ‘Oh wasn’t that wonderful, darling’ theater experiences,” said Paul-ette Ivory, who plays Black Panther Sandra Izsadore. “The show makes you feel like you’re in a nightclub in Lagos in the ’70s. The music is infectious. People will want to jump up and dance. It’s definitely revolutionary.”
While Kuti’s ground-breaking music and confrontational politics are well documented in