But as the show developed -- at the same time that shows like "Spring Awakening" and "In the Heights" were winning acceptance on Broadway -- the hope germinated that a wide cross-section of people might respond to what they considered a compelling story and a new sound.
They also chanced on certain framing devices -- the use of collage, projections, fantasy -- that could clarify and smooth the rough edges of a contradictory, problematic personality.
One device separates the two acts through the concept of an imagined movie, "Black President." Fela, in fact, did make a movie with that title, and he did run for president of Nigeria, though his name was removed from the ballot by the government.
"The film was destroyed by the military and there were no copies, at least we couldn't find one," says Lewis. "The way we use it is to idealize Fela's rise to fame and power, as most movies do, and then in Act II to explore the dark period of what actually happened and the consequences of his actions: 'Is it worth continuing the fight, especially when you put everyone at risk, your mother and your followers, to do so?' "
Jones is no stranger to that question, though he acknowledges that the stakes are not as high for "a modern dance choreographer in this big, fat country of ours."
Some of his collaborators draw parallels between Jones and Fela's uncompromising artistic drive. Hendel said, "The instinct to compromise is not in Bill's vocabulary."
"Compromise is in the vocabulary of any mature, healthy adult," Jones says. " 'Live fast and die young' was a favorite mantra in my youth. And it may sound pretty good on a record album. But if you love people, if you love art-making, you will find a way to be around, you will not self-destruct. And without compromise, you will self-destruct."
Fela, Jones says, "never really spread his wings in a way that a more measured artist would. But he was a lesson to artists out there: Do what you have to do. You can have as much freedom as you are willing to pay for it. And you will pay."