I remember when ‘FELA the Musical’ graced the glamorous stages on Broadway; the words on every theatre protagonist at the time was, ‘what a musical!’ The New York Times said, ‘there should be dancing on the streets’ and when the musical adorned WestEnd theatres in London, the Guardian said likewise. Such was its popular acclaim that it came as no surprise to me when I heard that the musical will be making its way to Lagos. This portrait of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a Nigerian revolutionary of sorts was energetic as it was engaging. It narrated the life of Fela from 1938 – 1997, with the stage set to capture the audiences’ imagination of Fela’s shrine and Lagos nightclubs. For a generation that reached adolescent in the latter part of Fela’s life, watching this pulse racing new musical was as close as we could get to re-experiencing the energy exuded from his onstage performance and the magic of his shrine. This musical was indeed like none I had seen before.
However, having watched the show at a WestEnd theatre, I left with a feeling of simmering sadness. The feeling was kindled when I spotted the irony of it all – the story of a Nigerian icon, whose life is etched into the timeline of our nation, was narrated and produced by an American. The lead actor, Sahr Ngaujah, was not even Nigerian. Worse still this product was exported to Lagos, like refined oil, for Nigerians to buy and the funds used to rightfully enrich the merchants and further uplift their already well-known brand, Broadway. So I asked myself repeatedly, why could we not recreate musical productions in remembrance of our national icons, like other forward thinking nations do? Why do we have to export our raw produce, only to import the refined product five times more expensive?
Well as the gods of the theatre would have it, up stepped SARO 2. Watching this musical on Easter Sunday felt like my prayers had finally been answered. Alas! This was it. From the onset, the musical breathed life – each character had depth, the musical vocals of the ensemble cast was enchanting, the chorography was imaginative, the onstage sound effect was captivating, the costumes… and I could go on and on. Do not be mistaken, the musical had its imperfections but I am not going to rain on its parade, especially when you consider that it is the first of its kind, a musical that was made by Nigerians and capable of donning some of the Off Broadway stages as it currently stands and arguably, on Broadway some day with a few tweaks.
SARO, as it is widely known, tells the story of four enterprising young men who depart their village for the riches of Lagos, in search of fortune. The director takes us through the hardship of life experienced by new-bees on the streets of Yaba, from the uncompromising area-boys to the money grabbing olopa – policeman. Their hardship ends when a somewhat struggling godfather spots their musical talents and decides to take them under his wings. The symbiotic relationship between master and pupil climaxes when the musical band, Saro, performs its first gig and the end of the show. There are tales of love interests, some serene and some forced, and there are lessons of friendship and trust to be learned too.
At the end of the musical, we had the pleasure of listening to the visionary director, Bolanle Austen-Peters, who like me was inspired by the same FELA production on Broadway. Giving gratitude to the sponsors – MTN, Access Bank & DSTV multichoice – who made this possible, she emphasised that the production team, cast and crew were a 100% Nigerian as if to say – ‘yes we can’ – do this too.
This show is a must-see and it is a shame that it will be showing only over the Easter holidays. I sure hope it comes back to the city again soon. I also hope that it gets to tour other cities both locally and beyond our borders. More importantly, there is a clear desire and space for this kind of art. I hope SARO helps to inspire more creativity in the same way that ‘FELA’ inspired SARO’s brilliance.