Breaking Into Verse: The Origins of Musical Theater Rap

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of theater and rap. You might be surprised to hear this, if you know me in real life, because I don’t listen to popular rap at all or know very much about it. But the annals of theater news provide a long list of possible reasons for this recent preoccupation of mine. If your friends are anything like mine, your social media feeds have been abuzz with excitement in the last few days that tickets are now on sale for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical Hamilton, a rap/hip-hop take on the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, which arrives at the Public Theater this winter.

There’s also been a lot of talk about Holler If Ya Hear Me, the boundary-testing new Tupac Shakur-inspired musical that closed on Broadway a couple of weeks ago. And in slightly wackier news, there’s the recent announcement by Andrew Lloyd Webber that he’ll be adding a rap number to Cats in anticipation of an upcoming London revival.

The cast of Holler If Ya Hear Me (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

The cast of Holler If Ya Hear Me (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

But all of this news only fanned the flames; the topic was already on my mind.  I’ve been interested in the phenomenon of theatrical rapping—or speaking in rhythm, if we’re talking about examples from before the “rap” classification would have been used—ever since the spring of 2000.  What happened then?  Good question.  I was eleven years old, my parents took me to see the Broadway revival of The Music Man, and I made it my number one order of business to learn every single word of “Ya Got Trouble.”  This was my party trick throughout middle school and, if we’re being honest, high school too.  I can still do the whole song, though I like to think I’m more aware now of what (few) groups of people will actually want to hear it.

Here now, for your viewing pleasure, is the late, great Robert Preston in the movie version:

Watch this video on YouTube.

So, I’ve been thinking about this whole rap thing for awhile, but it was thrown into sharp focus thanks to a passing remark in a recent lecture I heard by National Book Award-winning children’s author William Alexander. Most of the lecture, called “Stealing From Theater,” was about using acting techniques to develop your characters, but during a brief discussion of Shakespeare, Alexander made the point that some Shakespearean characters speak largely in prose and break into verse the way characters now break into song in musicals.

The lecture quickly moved on, but my musical theater nerd mind was off down a rabbit hole. I’ve written before about the relationship between Shakespeare and musical theatre, but this took my interest in a whole new direction. Are Shakespeare’s plays more directly influential on the modern musical than I had previously thought? Are songs that use rap the most primordial pieces of musical theatre?

As soon as I had the chance, I turned to the work of Shakespeare to verify this assertion for myself. I had a hunch that I would find what I was looking for in Twelfth Night, which I’ve come to know better than any other Shakespeare play after experiencing it as actor, reader, and spectator of several productions. And sure enough, I found it. Head over to Open Source Shakespeare and take a look at Act I, Scene 5, lines 518-553. Go on, I’ll wait while you read.

Audra McDonald as Olivia and Anne Hathaway as Viola, performing this scene in the 2009 Shakespeare in the Park production.

Audra McDonald as Olivia and Anne Hathaway as Viola, performing this scene in the 2009 Shakespeare in the Park production.

Welcome back! As I’m sure you saw, the scene goes on from there. But just look at that. LOOK AT IT. It reads like the libretto of a musical. In an academic discussion of this scene in his book Shakespeare’s Prose, scholar Milton Crane describes it with terminology that sounds an awful lot like the way I talk about musical theater’s divisions between speaking and singing: “Olivia unveils, and Viola…plunges into a praise of her face (in verse, be it noted) and a plea to leave the world a copy. Olivia answers in bantering prose which evokes further and more passionate verse from Viola. Olivia, snared, now speaks verse too.”

It sounds just like any one of a million musical theater love scenes where one character starts a song out of passion and is eventually joined by the other. Compare that scene to the Music Man video. What changes when the song starts? Harold Hill’s speech takes on a discernible rhythm. Just like Viola’s. Rap in musicals = breaking into verse. Shakespeare was starting to do something in the 1500’s that is still considered limit-pushing in musical theater today. I’m obsessed with this connection and I can’t believe I’d never heard it made before that lecture. The temptation is strong as I write this to just leave you with a whole page of exclamation points. Is this something everyone else has known about for years, without me?

If you’d asked me a month ago what was the earliest example of rap in theatre that I could think of, I would probably have said The Music Man. Or maybe some of Henry Higgins’ speak-singing in My Fair Lady, which was just a couple of years earlier. Now I think of it as a tradition that goes back much further—hundreds of years further. I’m going to go reread some Shakespeare with all of this in mind, but I know I’ll need some breaks from thinking deep thoughts. So please share in the comments: what are your favorite musical theater rap songs?

Update: check out Margaret’s Playlist of 10 Musical Theater Raps from the last 58 years!

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