by Eric Andrews-Katz -
SGN A&E Writer
FELA! THE MUSICAL
May 28 - June 2
Melanie Marshall has been associated with music practically her entire life. Since her early childhood in England, Melanie has been interested in the magical world that music can open and has set out to explore as much of that world as she can. Crossing the Atlantic, Melanie recreates the role she first performed in London, Funmilayo Kuti, the Nigerian activist and mother of Fela Kuti (1938-97), the man credited with bringing Afrobeat to the world. Now Melanie gets to bring the music and influence all over the world as she travels with the musical FELA!
Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences to becoming a performer?
Melanie Marshall: I'd say it was a lady named Mrs. Edith Rycroft. She was my first music teacher at primary school. She came in and was a complete breath of fresh air. She brought recorders, and an exuberance that was just unmatched in that we did choral singing, recorders, we did everything. She was so enthusiastic about singing and performing. From the age of six (when she came into my life) until today I can still remember the first day of singing; it was a piece called 'Jonah Man Jazz.' She was very much in charge of doing my first performance and when I did it, I realized that's what I wanted to do.
Andrews-Katz: Your background isn't really in theater. Can you describe some of your musical background?
Marshall: I went to the Royal College of Music with a foundation to study singing and piano. I've always done classical singing. Gradually, I started to sing jazz at college. When I went into musical theater, it was by accident. When I finished college I thought I would be doing recordings and concerts with my singing. I got a phone call for people looking to cast Carmen Jones (an all-Black version of Carmen). I auditioned and got it. I loved it! Then I went into Porgy and Bess and then did my first West End show, which was Kiss Me, Kate. I even got to sing at the royal wedding (Charles and Diana's). If you watch the video it's right after Kiri Kanawa sang - about an hour in - you can see my face.
Andrews-Katz: When did you first hear of Fela - either the man or the musical?
Marshall: They were one in the same time. In 2010 my friend Paul John Medford (a British actor/choreographer/director) rang me in May 2010. He said, 'I just saw your next job,' after he had seen the Broadway production. 'Just look at it on YouTube,' he said. After the first five minutes I was hooked and wanted to be part of the production. I had no idea of what my part would entail, but the first five minutes draws you in completely! That was it for me. The rhythms, the costumes, the sheer beauty of everything about it.
Andrews-Katz: How would you describe the music and influence of Afrobeat in the United Kingdom and then in America?
Marshall: It's worldwide! I use the analogy of a recipe. The base is a huge seasoned pot. Into the pot you put your veggies, your seasonings, your meat, your sauce, and keep stirring and adding and stirring and tasting & it just gets better. It's very intoxicating. It doesn't matter if you are a vegetarian or a meat lover, [the music] caters to everyone. It's very infectious in that you cannot help yourself and you must go back to that last (musical) morsel because all of your senses keep drawing you back. All of the Afrobeat is so intoxicating, so invigorating and something you just need to have in your life!
Andrews-Katz: What was your audition for FELA! like?
Marshall: Normally, you have just a pianist in the room. For the last two (of the three) auditions, there was a keyboard player, a drummer, a base guitarist, a guitarist, and a saxophonist. Straight away you have the complete feel of Afrobeat. You have that overall sensation of how the music should sound. It immediately puts you in a different mindset. My two main songs ('Trouble Sleep' and 'Rain') are heard a lot of me being off-stage. My character is dead before the show starts. There is one particular part of the show in Act Two where I do three glissandos. They are part of a ritualistic sound that Bill Jones wanted in this particular part of the show. Being a classical singer, my technique is the basis of everything I do. He almost wanted me to forget the technique and just make this sound from the bottom of my 'vocal register' up to the very top range. I sang the two songs and then it was just a matter of seeing how I could do these glissandos.
Andrews-Katz: In the musical you play Fela's mother, Funmilayo Kuti, a great influence on her son's life. How does she influence him in the musical?
Marshall: In every single way. The play takes place after her death. There was a raid on Fela's compound home (Kalakuta in Nigeria). Many atrocities happened there including family, friends, and musicians who were attacked and violated. His mother was thrown from a second-story window and it took her three weeks to die. She was a great influence being a strictly no-nonsense, stern, feminist woman who wanted a better life for the people who had no voice. She stood up to the authorities for them. She installed in her son the importance of being in Nigeria, being seen by the people, and doing things for the people. Because of the torture and torment and imprisonment that Fela experienced in his short 58 years of life, he wanted to leave Nigeria several times. His mother's voice haunted him saying he had to be there for the people. When the audience first hears me it's as if Fela is the only one hearing me. It's a very strong spiritual bond. The climax of the piece is when Fela visits his mother, spiritually, in Heaven.
Andrews-Katz: How did you research and prepare for the role of Funmilayo Kuti?
Marshall: During the auditions for the job, we were told to read This Bitch of a Life by Dr. Carlos Moore. It's the basis for the musical. It wasn't a matter of hearsay - it was [this] author who actually spoke to Fela and his associates. When we started rehearsals in London we watched a lot of video and studied the information given us just so we could get a complete and utter understanding of the people we portrayed. This is not just a musical; this is not a fictional story. This is someone's real life with real events. It was important for me, not only as an actor and singer, but also from the directors to have the full grasp of whom we were portraying. The most wonderful thing about this show is that it really is about six degrees of separation. Somehow, there is always somebody either in the audience, in the taxi, somewhere (and once you hear that Nigerian accent) just go up and ask, 'Did you know Fela?' There is always somebody who knew the family or worked with Fela. It's incredible. His three eldest children have been to the show and [we] have that stamp of approval from them - that is the real applause. It's a very humbling experience. This is my best role to date. I don't regard it as work. I regard it as a performance, but in a way that it's beyond just something I get paid for doing. I actually can't wait to get back on stage and perform this role!
Andrews-Katz: Since you have played this role on both sides of the Atlantic, what differences have you noticed between English and American audiences with their reactions to the show?
Marshall: In England we are very reserved. During the audience participation, we had to encourage people to stand. It's very different in this country. The audiences are energetic. Actors feed off the energy from the audience and it's a wonderful feeling to have that. In America, Toronto, and even Amsterdam, it's pestiferous [sic]. Whatever we asked of the audiences there, they did.
Andrews-Katz: What are some of the challenges in playing a role based on a living person?
Marshall: I suppose that just having that confidence in yourself of knowing that you are portraying with the grace and dignity that she commanded while she was still alive. The way I've been directed automatically makes me feel that way anyway, and because I bring a different way of singing the role (through my classical training), it transforms me, not just through the music, and I then bring my operatic twist to it. And it seems to bring another layer to her character.
Andrews-Katz: How can people who have never experienced Afrobeat identify with the music of Fela?
Marshall: Think of James Brown. Think of Frank Sinatra. Think of all the great musicians in every single genre of music. Put it all together, throw it up in the air, and make a completely different sound that is so significantly belonging to one person, and that is Afrobeat. Fela used the mantra 'Music is the weapon' - [he was] a very nonviolent man, and that was his way of telling his story and portraying his feeling and angst about the government. Anything he wanted to say he wrote in the lyrics. Obviously, we can't sing all of his songs (in 2.5 hours) but we do sing the significant songs. 'International Thief Thief' was a song railing against the rich and the poor and how big that divide was. He wrote that song back in the late '70s or early '80s and it's still significant now. All of his songs come full-circle. They are in English, or pidgin English, and you might lose some of the lyrics, but if you look up the lyrics of 'Zombie' or 'International Thief Thief' or 'Trouble Sleep' or 'Water No Get Enemy,' all of these songs which are beautiful but carry a significant message of hope, of complaint, of sorrow, blood, and tears. There is something in Fela's music for absolutely anybody! Come with an open mind to the show, and I promise you won't be able to sit in the theater without wanting to tap your foot or snap your fingers - it's all very infectious. You will laugh, dance, sing, and cry and go through every gamut of emotion.
Andrews-Katz: If you could play any role, regardless of gender, what role would it be and why?
Marshall: I'm doing it! It's because it is a strong, no-nonsense woman who was revered by her fellow country people, very strong, and even though I'm not politically minded, to have such an influence on her son (who would then become so influential in Nigerian politics and worldwide music) - can only be a good thing!
Melanie Marshall made her Broadway debut in the 'special return engagement' of FELA!, which ran from July 12 to August 4, 2012. The musical originally opened on the Great White Way November 23, 2009, and received 11 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. It won three, including Best Choreography, Best Costume Design, and Best Sound Design. Tickets and information for the Seattle performances are available at www.stgpresents.org.
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