Melanie Marshall has crossed the pond to perform as Fela Kuti's mother Funmilayo in the touring production of Fela! Audiences now can witness the presence and operatic notes that Melanie brings to the role. Windy City Times learned all about her background after attending this eye-popping stellar show based on the Nigerian innovator's incredible life.
Windy City Times: Good morning, Melanie. So, you are British?
Melanie Marshall: I am British-born!
WCT: Did you study theater there?
Melanie Marshall: No, I studied classical singing at the Royal College of Music. I stumbled into musical theatre almost by accidentwell, not by accident, but I was asked to audition for my first show, Carmen Jones, which is a Black version of Carmen. I understudied the role of Cindy Lou. I got to sing in that and quite liked it. Afterwards, I did the Glyndebourne's version of Porgy and Bess.
WCT: Did you see the newest version?
Melanie Marshall: No. I want to see that.
WCT: I heard it has been changed and is controversial.
Melanie Marshall: Since I did a version in London, it would be very interesting to see another side.
WCT: They are saying it will win several Tonys.
Melanie Marshall: Oh, for sure it will. Audra McDonald is a great singer.
WCT: So how did you wind up being a part of Fela!?
Melanie Marshall: A friend of mine in New York rang me and said, "I've just seen your next show. Look it up; it's called Fela!" At first I thought he said Othello. I looked it up on YouTube and only saw the beginning, nothing of my part. I am a bit funny like that. It needs to come from me as opposed to what I have seen.
So that was the show to audition for in 2010. Every Black actor, actress, dancer under the sun came from the corners of the world to be in it. It has been a rollercoaster ever since. It is a true story so you are not playing a character but a real life woman. People come to the show who knew himbe it a taxi driver or a family member, there is always somebody who knows Fela. I hold my hands up and say, "Before my friend called me I had never heard of him."
WCT: This has been a learning experience.
Melanie Marshall: Total new learning experience and I absolutely love it! His sons, Femi and Seun, come to the show. When we were in Detroit his eldest daughter, Yeni, came. There was an exhibition at the African American Museum and she went to that. She was very emotional because there were pictures she had never seen of her and her father.
WCT: Femi has his own career in music.
Melanie Marshall: Yes, and Seun. They go around, sing and carry on the message.
WCT: So you beat everyone out for this role.
Melanie Marshall: I did and it makes me quite humble. It makes me feel good that somebody can see my worth and potential.
WCT: How do you get in the frame of mind to be her? I saw you come out there being such a presence.
Melanie Marshall: I get in the theater and I do what I have to do. When I put on the glasses that is when I am her. I do Funmilayo after that. I am in that mode.
WCT: Your voice is very powerful in the show. How is that last solo? That has to be tough, it is so long.
Melanie Marshall: It is a long one but it is a pleasure. I am the fourth Funmilayo in America to do it. I do it in a completely different way. I am glad because Bill T. Jones is one of those directors that will not say it has to always be this way. He takes your attributes and puts that into the production. I am always proud to say that man has given me another five notes on the top of my range. He is very subtle in bringing something out of you that you don't know you have.
WCT: He wrote the book for the show, and it is not a typical biography. Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Fela, is so talented.
Melanie Marshall: He is quite ridiculous.
WCT: He knew how to involve the audience and have a sense of humor.
Melanie Marshall: Sahr has been with the production since the offset as a workshop. He really is Fela! I want to give a shout-out to his alternate who plays him for two shows. You should come back and see him. He, too, is fantastic. You can imagine being onstage for two hours.
WCT: He is covered in sweat and needs a break.
Melanie Marshall: Yes. He is onstage for all of that time. There is no time to nip off and do what you need to do. I think he has a five-minute break, if that. Sahr runs like three miles around the neighborhood before the start of the show to get his energy going.
WCT: So that is how he gets in the zone!
Melanie Marshall: Yes, and he does it very well, as you see.
WCT: I wonder what Fela would do today with the current gay oppression that is in Nigeria. His message is still strong for audiences now.
Melanie Marshall: His main message is courage. If you have a dream or a goal, stick with it. This man was beaten, tortured, imprisoned [ more than ] 200 times. He still got up and wrote another song to get the government in this way. He never stopped. He got a lot of his political strength from his mother. She was a very strong feminist and political activist in her own right. She was the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria. How ridiculous is that?
WCT: Has the show been to Nigeria?
Melanie Marshall: I am hoping we can go, but the Broadway cast went last year. That was part of the promise made to them. They went for four weeks just before we started this tour. They had an amazing time.
WCT: I bet [ there was ] an outpouring of love.
Melanie Marshall: There was some reticence at first because it was an American company telling [ Nigerians' ] story. Then they realized this is a very true heartfelt production.
Run to see Fela! at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St, before it moves on after April 15. Visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com for tickets and show times.