Stage performer Melanie Marshall brings decades of international experience to Fela!, the recipient of three 2010 Tony Awards.
Fela!, the most critically acclaimed musical of the season and recipient of three 2010 Tony Awards, will play at the Academy of Music March 20-25.
A provocative hybrid of dance, theater and music exploring the world of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, the show has become an international sensation that has been performed in three continents.
“The fact that we’re now in the United States is absolutely thrilling for me,” said Melanie Marshall, who takes the role of Funmilayo, Fela’s late mother.
“She’s no longer with us, but you will see me. In the show I see myself as the ghost of reason and that little voice in Fela’s head that’s always letting him know that I am listening and watching him all the time,” Marshall explained. “I am always reminding him that if he has any doubts about what he is doing he just has to look inside and think, ‘What would my mother do?’ I see my role as a very important one.”
In fact, Marshall sees everything she does as important. Born in England 50 years ago, she said that her first public appearance was at her school’s festival concert when she was 6 years old. Lifted by her success there and admittedly always a performer at heart, she went on to study at the Royal College of Music on a Foundation Scholarship for Singing and Piano.
“While there, I joined the Bach Choir and was privileged to be the only black singer in the choir to perform for the Royal wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981,” she said. “But since that time, I have gone on to do many, many things that have been highlights in my career.”
For example, she’s gone on to sing in productions of Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess, Fame, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and more. She’s performed in concert at Carnegie Hall and all major UK concert venues. And she played the role of Funmilayo in the London production of Fela! and continues to tour with the show in that role.
“I now know her very well and, believe me, it’s an absolute pleasure to play her and sing this role every night,” she insisted. “As far as getting into character, I warm up my voice every day. And as long as I’m well watered, well fed and well looked after, I know I will give a good performance.
“And for my last bit of preparation,” she continued, “I put on Funmilayo’s glasses. Then I am that character from the minute the curtain goes up until the minute it comes down. Then I put her away until the next day.”
Marshall added that had she been told 10 or 20 years ago that she’d one day be playing this wonderful role — now traveling through the United States and Canada with it — she’d never have believed them.
“But I guess good things really do come to those who wait,” she laughed.
Another thing she admitted she’d never have believed, are the honors that have been given her, especially the latest one in Washington, D.C.
“We played there for five weeks and I just found out I was nominated for the Helen Hayes Award as Best Lead Actress in a Non-Residential Production,” she said. “I feel so honored. Just being nominated in America is far beyond all my expectations.”
The show’s star, Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Fela, has also been nominated for Best Lead Actor in a Non-Residential Production.
A triumphant tale of courage, passion and love, Fela! is the true story of Kuti, who created Afrobeat, a mix of jazz, funk and African rhythms and harmonies with incendiary lyrics that openly attacked the corrupt and oppressive military dictatorships that rule Nigeria and much of Africa.
“And his lyrics are still relevant today,” Marshall concluded. “They say never give up, and are words for everyone to live by.” ••
For show times and ticket information, call 215-893-1999.