About the author:
Since graduating from the Royal College of Music in the United Kingdom, British-born stage actress Melanie Marshall has garnered critical acclaim for her star turns in the West End’s Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess, Fame, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Kiss Me Kate. Marshall’s star continued to rise as she landed plum television roles Songs of Praise and Casualty. Now the classically trained performer has taken on her most rewarding assignment to date as Nigerian matriarch Funmilayo in the London production of Fela!, including a pitch-perfect “glissando” during her character’s signature song, “Rain.” After touring the world in Fela!, from London to Los Angeles, Marshall opened up to Broadway.com in a heartfelt essay about the whirlwind adventure (and YouTube research) that led to her Broadway debut.
A couple of years ago, I received a call from my friend Paul J. Medford, a fabulous British actor, dancer, choreographer, writer and director, who went to see Fela! on Broadway early in 2010. He said, "I've just seen your next job, Melanie!"
I had never heard of Fela! (the man or the show) and after getting the right spelling and finding a short excerpt on YouTube, I was smitten. I hadn't even seen my role, Funmilayo, Fela's Mother. I just saw the first five minutes and said, “Sign me up!!”
The director was the extraordinary Bill T. Jones. That was another clincher for me. Fela! was THE show to audition for in 2010. Every Black actress, actor, singer and dancer in London auditioned. The ash cloud prevented Bill from flying in for the initial auditions. So, I was seen by associate director Niegel Smith and choreographer Maija Garcia. The casting process in the UK was led by Pippa Ailion.
I always enjoy myself at auditions, as I regard them as a performance. You never know what they could lead to. This was quite an extraordinary experience from day one. After the second audition, there was a band present: percussion, guitar, keyboard and horns…luxury! You immediately enveloped the Afrobeat sound. I insisted on the written music, as opposed to the MP3 track. I wanted it to be my interpretation from the start.
When an existing show is opening elsewhere, the usual procedure is to copycat everything: costumes, direction, staging and interpretation. The show was still playing on Broadway at the time and thanks to the interest of Nicholas Hytner, artistic director at the National Theatre in London, it was also going to be seen in the National's Olivier auditorium.
My final audition with Bill T. Jones was very interesting. I felt very at ease, and I had prepared my two main songs, “Trouble Sleep” and the original song “Rain,” written by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean, both members of the Antibalas band, which specializes in Afrobeat and Fela's music. I also had to do the glissando/scream. Being a singer with a classical background, my technique keeps me safe, and I found it hard to just do what Bill wanted. But I got there in the end!
I thank Mr. Jones for allowing me to bring my 'flavors' to the production. Vocally, I use everything I love…classical, jazz and diction! My teachers told me at a very early age, "Never Sacrifice the Words for the Music.” Mr. Jones has the ability to make you do things that you are not sure you can do, but eventually, you realize you had the ability all the time. You just didn't know! He added five notes to the top of my range. Thank you, sir! Eight weeks of rehearsal, with Mr. Jones coming for the final tweaks for the last three, were hard but enjoyable. He is a taskmaster, but I expect nothing less from directors who are proud of their craft and only want the best from everybody.
Funmilayo is my best role to date. I get to portray a real woman: a strong, feminist, stern, no-nonsense political activist who instilled in her son Fela all of her beliefs and political strengths to help the Nigerian people. She commands a certain dignity that immediately puts me in character. I wear two costumes, both traditional African outfits, with wonderful geles (head wraps) that are wrapped by my fabulous dresser. I only wear lipstick. And my final flourish? The glasses. Throughout the tour (Amsterdam, London's Sadler's Wells Theatre, the USA and Toronto), I've met people who either were part of the Shrine (Fela's home/nightclub in Lagos), his band, who knew the family, went to school with the family or were taught by the family. More importantly, I've met Fela's sons Femi and Seun and his daughter Yeni.
I never know who is going to be in the audience. Every show I give 100%. I would hate anyone to leave the theater, especially a first-time theatergoer, thinking I was not up to par that performance. While doing the first part of the tour in Washington, D.C. last September, I was nominated for the 2012 Helen Hayes Award for "Best Lead Actress in a Non Residential Production," which was such an honor. The show has been recognized by the city councils and mayors in various cities, and we have been given official Fela! days. In Houston, each member of the cast was given a Certificate of Congressional Recognition by the Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee for our service to Fela!
For publicity purposes, I often attend churches to promote the show. Sometimes I have attended three churches in one day and then done two shows! Everyone has been so welcoming and enthusiastic about the show. I also got to sing "God Bless America" after the seventh inning at Boston's Fenway Park, my first baseball game!
I can truly say that I have had the most amazing wonderful time here in “The States” and on tour doing a job that I love and enjoy. My first performance was when I was six years old, on stage with my brother Wayne (a classical pianist, organist and conductor. My sister Louise is a singer, songwriter and pianist) at a school festival concert in my hometown of Oldham, Northwest England. I have never looked back, and always knew that I was born to sing. Playing this lead role on stage is a fantastic achievement and I relish every moment, taking nothing for granted. My career has taken me worldwide. I've done some amazing things, and I have now sung at Carnegie Hall.
What is it like to be playing a lead role on Broadway? A dream come true! I could not do it without the rest of the cast, band, stage and company management, wardrobe and dressers. I also send a huge thanks to American Equity for an opportunity I have grabbed with both hands, and I am not letting go!