A Regal Ghost With a Classical Sound
In “Fela,” Melanie Marshall makes unexpected use of her voice
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages’ ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
Funmilayo Kuti, the Nigerian activist and mother of activist-musician Fela Kuti, was a not a classically-trained singer. But Melanie Marshall is. With her clear, delicate voice, she can make a 17th-century hymn sound like a loving cry to God, and with a few husky inflections, she can highlight the urgency in a song like West Side Story‘s “A Boy Like That.”
Those skills might seem like an strange fit for Fela!, the 2009 musical based on Fela Kuti’s life that is currently back on Broadway for a limited run. Set in Fela’s Nigerian nightclub just a few months after Funimalyo’s politically-motivated murder, the show surges with the energy of Fela’s music and radical views. The Afrobeat songs, athletic choreography, and animated projections create a wild immediacy, delivering the sense of a revolution while the story gives us the facts.
But Funmilayo stands outside the whirlwind. Since she’s dead when the show begins, she moves through the play like a ghost, forcing her son to reflect on what he’s doing. “I’m that voice of reason,” says Marshall, who’s played the role in London and on the American tour. “I’m that voice in Fela’s head to let him know that even though I’m dead, I’m still with him to help him make sure he’s making the right decisions.”
With that in mind, Marshall wants her performance to feel slightly removed from Fela’s club, and she wants it to honor Funmilayo’s real-life legacy as a political hero who fought for Nigerian women. “She was, in life, a very strict, stern, no-nonsense personality,” says the actress. “I like to think that I do take that on stage. I can’t let her guard down. It doesn’t matter what she’s doing. Even when I’m backstage singing, and my voice is coming through [speakers], I’m still in that regal mode.”
Sometimes, getting into the “regal mode” is all about the costume. “As soon as I put on my glasses, which is the last detail of her ‘uniform,’ then I am her,” Marshall says. “If I take the glasses off, I can do my crossword, I can get some water, but when those glasses are on, I am her.”
But this is where Marshall’s classical training—she studied at London’s Royal College of Music—can also be valuable. For instance, she might add a classical run to the end of a song, injecting it with elegance that suits her character.
She’s grateful she gets to do that. While some major musicals ask performers to recreate the vocal choices of previous stars, Marshall says director-choreographer Bill T. Jones encouraged her to bring her own style to the role. “He takes what you have and uses it to the advantage of the show and to the advantage of you as a performer,” she says. “My classical background, my jazz interest, a little bit of gospel in there—from day one, it all came together. And that lets my interpretation [of the role] be different from everybody else’s.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo by Sharen Bradford