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The (Afro)beat Generation

August 5, 2010 By:
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The producing Hendels are center stage of the hit "Fela!"

Commended commodities broker Stephen Hendel probably wouldn't trade the hot product he has now for anything.

But he will talk about it: "Fela!," says the producer of the multi-award-winning musical that has broken barriers and hearts, and also snare-drummed three Tony Awards in June, has changed his life.

The musical's done quite a number on Broadway as well.

Based on the Afrobeat beaten-down/uplifting life of Nigerian government nemesis/musical people's apostle Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the hip-sway of a show hops to its own rhyme and reason, with the beat pulsing political and purposeful as the music and dancers shake the roof to its rafters at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

And behind it all is Hendel, the going-for-broker first-time producer who knows a hot commodity when he sees one ... and hears one. It was all part of Steve's Exeter adventure: A longtime avid jazz fan who discovered its wit and whimsy as a student at Phillips Exeter, he later beat a path to build a shrine to the musically/politically incendiary Fela on discovering his legacy a number of years ago.

With music as muse, Fela as fuel, Hendel, 58, conceived this combustible, compassionate musical about the agitprop artist, whose arresting rants and raves sent his sounds bouncing off corrupt government hallways and raised hell amid the heinous -- all the while willfully building his own little empire out of a club in Lagos, Nigeria, that brought on the night and met the dawn on its own terms.

Knight in a shining armada? Fela's ship set sail against the riptides of bureaucratic terror in '70s Nigeria, engined by the power of the people.

But if the music seems to swirl with a wail of klezmer or cantorial connection along the way, is it really that surprising?

"I've always thought of this as a very Jewish show," concedes Hendel who, with his wife Ruth ("Everybody's Jewish mother," he says with a smile of his longtime life partner of 33 years -- and famously protean producer of such hits as the recent revival of "A View From the Bridge"), has funneled "Fela!" to a raucous roost on Broadway.

Hendel's not alone in his feelings. His correspondence with one eminent Jewish educator and theological statesman who saw the show plumbed the depth of the shared Jewish/Fela feel for ethics, calls for social justice, reverence for human dignity and respect for ancestral answers to modern-day enigmas.

And while Fela lived and thrived in the '70s -- he died of AIDS in 1997 -- his music/message is mighty still, sounds/ words of a warrior waging battles against repression without regrets. Hendel says that "there was an honesty about what he wanted to achieve."

Much of it was written as pidgin poetry to abet his majestic music. "It was all a musical combination of beat, sex and sensuality ... a rhythm that is in all our DNA," explains the producer.

Moreover, Fela, claims Hendel, made waves in the gene pool, "the greatest and most courageous musician of our lifetime."

A number of modern-day maestros are in concert with his appraisal: Jay-Z, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, whom Hendel snared as producers, have hip-hopped the country extolling the show. It also didn't hurt that Hendel was able to harness Bill T. Jones as director/ choreographer/co-writer, with Jim Lewis, the two joining Hendel as the show's credited conceptual artists.

But the path to Broadway from off-Broadway last year was a sojourn worthy of its promised landing. Hendel says that Fela "was the Moses of his people -- the most important man who came out of Africa" during the '70s, with fervently mounted missives against corrupt officials his musical Mount Sinai.

If one of theater's main commandments for a producer is to use other people's money, Hendel turns the tablets on the axiom, investing monetarily and emotionally in "Fela!"

"There were millions of reasons why this show shouldn't exist," he says.

But heart wasn't one of them. "It is a show that makes you want to be a better person," says Hendel. "It does what real art does -- making you feel connected to universal truths."

Truth is that as revolutionary a spirit as one encounters in Fela, the jolly good fellow of a producer is a self-avowed "rules follower," rather than an agitator.

"I play by the rules -- always have; I value my reputation enormously," says the producer whose offstage energy is occupied by the Hess Energy Trading Company that he helped found after leaving Goldman Sachs 14 years ago.

As a Jew and justifiably proud first-time producer -- Israel may be on the musical's future agenda; a live broadcast of the upcoming London National Theatre production will be shown on movie screens worldwide, including Philadelphia, set for January -- Hendel handles his commitment knowingly; he understands that he may have a hard-sell for some audiences, who are more used to standard by-the-book Broadway musicals than the scorching, searing soul-on-fire that is the feral "Fela!"

But who could be a tougher sell than Femi Kuti, Fela's musician son?

Appropriately, it was while watching the finals of the World Cup together in New York that Hendel vowed to bring this musical of world power and promise to Lagos just as Fela's son sought. Femi saw the show at the O'Neill and gave it his imprimatur.

Of course, after all is said and done -- and heard -- how can one turn a deaf ear to the show's most impassioned statement?

"Who isn't against oppression?" asks Hendel rhetorically of the man and the music who defied it all. 

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