High-wattage backing helping ‘Fela!’ find an audience

Sahr Ngaujah says he’s been fascinated by the A-listers who have come backstage after seeing him in the Broadway smash Fela!

Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and the Broadway cast of ‘Fela!’ are shown in a handout photo. Ngaujah says he’s been fascinated by the A-listers who have come backstage after seeing him in the Broadway smash ‘Fela!’

Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and the Broadway cast of ‘Fela!’ are shown in a handout photo. Ngaujah says he’s been fascinated by the A-listers who have come backstage after seeing him in the Broadway smash ‘Fela!’

TORONTO — Sahr Ngaujah says he’s been fascinated by the A-listers who have come backstage after seeing him in the Broadway smash Fela!

“Oh man, all kinds of people came ’round,” says the performer, who will bring the show about Nigerian musician Fela Kuti to Toronto audiences next week.

“Denzel (Washington), Sam Jackson, Susan Sarandon, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Prince. I mean, it goes on and on. (Robert) De Niro . . . Barbara Walters, Jane Fonda . . . Oprah Winfrey.”

Of course, the producers of the show — Will Smith, wife Jada Pinkett-Smith and hip-hop mogul Jay-Z — are no slouches either.

Ngaujah, a Sierra Leonean who recently did theatre work in Amsterdam, says the high-wattage backing has helped Fela! find an audience.

“The bottom line is, with a show like this . . . with it not being a version of a popular film or something of that nature, or without it having a celebrity in the lead role, it is important to have … things that can help people find it amidst the barrage of things vying for their attention,” notes Ngaujah, who has also acted in films including “Stomp the Yard.”

Fela! which opened off-Broadway in 2008, follows the life of the famed Afrobeat pioneer, political activist and polygamist who died in 1997 after producing more than 70 albums. Fela’s music has been hailed by the likes of Paul McCartney, Brian Eno, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and James Brown.

Ngaujah, who estimates that he has done the show over 600 times, says his father first introduced him to Fela when he was a kid.

“We were living in Atlanta at the time. He was studying law by day and DJ-ing African parties by night,” he recalls.

“I heard a lot of music from all over the world, a lot of African music, during those years, from him, and Fela was one of those people who really caught my ear very early on. I became very intrigued with him, so when I was asked about this show, I was really excited.”

Fela!, which is conceived, choreographed and directed by Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening), won three Tony Awards. Ngaujah was intrigued by the celebs who clamoured to see it.

“I don’t know about any show on Broadway that piqued the interest of that many people working in the industry in such a compact bubble of time,” says Ngaujah, noting that some of his backstage visitors would hang around for quite awhile to talk about the intricacies of Fela’s work.

Ngaujah calls the music “infectious.”

“I mean, when you hear it there is a compulsion to dance, there is a compulsion to listen, because the sounds are very intricate. Fela’s chord structures, his timing, it’s out of this world, man.”

“I think anybody who likes music will find Fela a very intriguing composer to delve into. And once you go in, it’s a very big world.”

Mirvish Productions is presenting Fela! at the Canon Theatre from Oct. 25 to Nov. 6.