Michelle Obama and six girlfriends stunned theatergoers when she arrived at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on 49th Street to catch the Tony Award-winning musical about Fela Kuti, the Afrobeat artist and Nigerian political activist.
"When the audience realized that she was in the audience, they just went nuts," said Stephen Hendel, who co-conceived and produced the show. "People started standing up and applauding, saying 'We love you!' and 'We love you, Michelle!' It took a minute or so to get the audience to settle down."
The musical features dancers mingling with the audience and the first lady's group was seated along Row G, where many of the dancers cross over. The Secret Service asked the dancers not to change their performance but to give Obama some extra space.
Hendel was one of only few people who knew ahead of time that the first lady was coming. The cast was only told 20 minutes before Obama's arrival. She and her friends arrived shortly after 8 p.m. as the overture was ending.
The audience also cheered wildly when the musical made reference in the first act to one of Kuti's nicknames: Black President. Said Hendel: "The whole place just exploded."
At the end, the first lady's group gave the musical a standing ovation and Obama stayed to greet and congratulate each sweaty member of the cast as they passed. "She was hugely gracious," said Hendel, who watched the night's performance with his wife, Ruth, also one of the show's producers.
"It's a wonderful feeling that this show would have Mrs. Obama come to it."
Broadway shows have lured Obama before. She and daughters Sasha and Malia attended performances of "Memphis" and "The Addams Family" in March. And she and her husband saw "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" during a date night in 2009.
"Fela!" was nominated for a Tony Award as last year's best musical. It won for Best Choreography, Best Costume Design and Best Sound Design. In addition to the Hendels, it is also produced by actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith and hip-hop star Jay-Z.
A production opened this week at London's National Theatre with Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the title character on Broadway. The Broadway run, which features Kevin Mambo in the title role and Patti LaBelle as his mother, ends Jan. 2.