Grand Marshall

Melanie Mar­shall

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.

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