On Wednesday, September 16, I saw the lady herself, Ms. Patti LaBelle, during her opening week in the role of Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, the mother of the Afrobeat creator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, in the Broadway smash about his life and his music, “Fela!,” playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theater at 230 West 49th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
The musical lets the audience learn about the strong, proud and heroic person that his mother was. It’s a story that packs in a lot of power and amazing dance moves–moves that won it the 2009 Tony Award in Choreography for Bill T. Jones.
While we all know and love LaBelle, who has been an icon in the music business for over five decades and has had hit after hit with her infectious songs, and while she was on Broadway many years ago in “Patti LaBelle on Broadway,” this is the first time in many years that LaBelle has come back to the Broadway stage not as herself, but playing a character.
After the evening show, she was gracious enough to request that I interview her in her dressing room at the theater. Her dressing room was filled with huge, gorgeous bouquets of different types of flowers. When I came in, she was so welcoming, and it was marvelous to be in the room with the lady herself–a woman that I consider a musical legend.
It didn’t surprise me how friendly and down to earth she was. Some years back, I had been to one of her concerts and I had experienced how much she shares of herself when she performs. Throughout the show, she talked about the tragedies in her life and how she had overcome them. Now, here I was interviewing her, in her dressing room as she was portraying someone from real life who was also a strong, caring person. The role and the casting just seemed to fit and it was demonstrated when she performed on the stage. Of course, she sang with her Patti LaBelle-style and the audience absolutely loved it. (People shouted, “Sing it, Patti!” before catching themselves.)
Now I would love to share the interview that took place. The Q&A follows:
AmNews: How did you come to be cast in the show?
PL: I came to the play about six months ago. I was invited by the producers and Bill T. Jones. Bill met me outside and we went in, and I thought it was just beautiful. About three weeks later, they called me and asked me if would I play Funmilayo and I said ‘yes’ right away, no doubt about it. I knew I had other shows in my bookings, like my regular Patti LaBelle show, and so I said as long as everything can stay the same and I can still be me and do me when I don’t do the play, of course.
AmNews: This show is basically your return to Broadway, right?
AmNews: What is it about this show that made you decide to let this be your vehicle?
PL: When I saw that boy–Fela–Sahr, I saw him and I was just so impressed and I was impressed with Lillias [White] and I said that’s a wonderful role.
AmNews: What do you find is the most rewarding part of being with this show and what is the most challenging?
PL: The most rewarding part is to give that message, and hopefully people will come and hear it. People go to shows and you hope when they leave that they got it. There’s still a struggle there, but there are struggles all over. And this is a beautiful man, and I had never heard of him until I saw the play, so this opened me up. And the challenges are none.
AmNews: How did you prepare for the role?
PL: I didn’t play, I just read the script.
AmNews: With your singing voice, you have your own style, your own sound, and you brought that style to this role. Was there anything you had to do, like switching it a little bit to get it to Broadway?
PL: I was told not to be Patti LaBelle, but I refused not to be me and had a total respect for Funmilayo’s presence, now that I do the play, but it’s her spirit. I have to give this lady total respect, but I can’t stand up here like I can’t sing. This is a spirit who sings. I’m totally respecting the fact that this is not a Patti LaBelle show, but when I open my mouth, I can’t change what comes out. That’s me. But the people, the producers and all, have been awesome.
AmNews: The way you did the role, you did it beautifully, the way you did the notes, you just hit everything. How has the cast been?
PL: They are so nice. Six of them call me mom. They are so talented and I love being around talent.
AmNews: What do you want the audience to come away with when they see the musical?
PL: I want them to come away with the knowledge of who he was, who his mother was, and how they were fighters and how it’s something we all have to strive for–peace–in this world where nothing is balanced.
AmNews: What do you think it means to have a Broadway musical tell the story of such a controversial hero?
PL: I think it’s necessary. They have those fairytale plays. Have a real play with substance and with wisdom. The play is sort of like a teacher. It taught me when I saw it.
AmNews: There a lot of great music and beautiful dancing in the show, but there’s also a lot of brutality and pain. How do you feel when you’re on stage in this moving story?
PL: I feel pain. I cried. When I go to do the scene in the white outfit and it says I was thrown from the window and all those kids had been wounded, you feel it, you feel pain. But I feel pleasure in watching these young people perform.
AmNews: You’re sharing the songs with the audience, but you’re portraying a character, which is something different for you. Does doing this role in “Fela!” mean you’re going to consider doing more character roles on Broadway?
PL: Yes, this is the first time I was asked.
AmNews: What advice would you give to young people who want to be successful in the music business, since that’s where you are absolutely the queen?
PL: If you want to do it, do it. Don’t let anybody tell you what you can do.
AmNews: What about training?
PL: I never trained. I just started singing in my church in Philadelphia when I was younger.
AmNews: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about doing theater work?
PL: There’s nothing so hard about it that you can’t do. You have to be driven and a constant worker and know that nothing changes. You do the same thing every show. Be ready to wear the same costume every night and be drilled by the director.
AmNews: What do you do to keep your voice in shape?
PL: Nothing. I do this show and I do my Patti LaBelle show. I fly out on Friday and come back for the weekend shows.
AmNews: How do you relax?
PL: I go home and cook and clean and make it pretty and watch TV.
AmNews: “Fela!” is going to end January 2011, what’s next for you after that?
PL: I’ll just continue doing my shows.
AmNews: Are there any causes or charities that are next to your heart?
PL: Every cause that you can think of: cancer, adoption, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, the homeless, everything.
AmNews: I’m not surprised about that, because as I said, when I went to your concert, you were so giving.
LaBelle does all eight shows a week and shares the stage with an incredibly talented cast that includes Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo, who alternate in the role of Fela, along with an enormous cast of singers and amazing dancers. The musical features a book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, was conceived by Jones, Lewis and Stephen Hendel and directed and choreographed by Jones. Make it your business to experience this exciting musical that tells a story of creativity and heroism. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.FelaOnBroadway.com.