Why I Care About Rap Musicals
Last semester I was required to write a very long research paper for my Research and Bibliography class- something I was not looking forward to, but hey, that’s part of graduate school. Little did I know, I would be completely inspired by my topic and grow to write more on the subject than I even thought I knew. My paper: “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory: An Exploration of the Musical Theatre Patter Song as Hip Hop Music,” has become a pet project of mine. If you saw me in person: very pale, redhead, 5’3”, pixie face and perky smile- you would look at me quizzically and probably laugh, but it really has become a passion. I wanted to share with you why we, as a musical theatre community, should take notice of hip-hop becoming a trend in musical theatre and why it is important.
First of all, let me point out that hip hop, rap specifically- as a type of hip hop music, is not that different from Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. While I could bore you with details, charts, listening examples, etc., I’ll give you the short version: they are very similar in musical structure, lyric construction and theatrical purpose.
Did you know that raps are written in 8 and 16 bar phrases? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? A basic hip-hop song will have a 16 bar verse and an 8 (sometimes just 4) bar chorus. This pattern continues multiple times to make a full piece. Of course this depends on the composer, but the standard form has remained relatively untouched since hip hop’s creation in 1973. Now look at a patter song- let’s use “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins as an example. It is built with a 16 bar verse followed by a 16 bar chorus. The form, while not exactly the same, is pretty similar!
Along with similar choices in instrumentation, used to highlight the voices and the ultimate live performance, the musical structure of each genre is alike in many ways. For example:
There are only so many ways to put words together, which is why the lyric construction of both genres could be related. At a basic level, lyricists can choose to use perfect rhyme vs. imperfect or “false” rhyme. An example of perfect rhyme would be “moon” and “June” while an example of imperfect rhyme would be “quick” and “back.” Most pre-rock and roll era lyricists used perfect rhyme exclusively and even some modern composers, such as Sondheim and David Yazbek, strive to use perfect rhyme. If you look at the rapper Eminem, he is a genius at using imperfect rhyme. Some authors suggest that as more lyricists on Broadway come from pop backgrounds, near rhymes will become the norm over strict or perfect rhyme. If you really want to get nerdy- reach out and we can discuss end rhyme vs. internal rhyme, alliteration, couplets, etc. and how both genres employ the same rhyming techniques. Basically, it is important to note that rhymes are the basis for 99% of lyrics in both hip hop music and musical theatre songs and any lyricist’s job is to create an interesting rhyme while best telling the story.
Everyone, whether you are a rapper or the character of a slimy salesman on his way to con a town in Indiana, has to tell a story. For a musical, a song reveals character, advances the plot, or can provide commentary on a situation. Hip hop does the same thing- there is a concept or a story that the artist needs to convey to an audience. The main difference is that rap in musical theatre has to be understood as the character is performing- in real time- and keep the audience engaged in the overall story.
Now getting back to the main point- why do we need to pay attention to this? Most people think rap musicals and immediately think of Lin Manuel Miranda. I’ll admit, I am totally biased and would consider him to be a revolutionary who brought rap (as we know it today) to the Broadway stage. In the Heights and now Hamilton are immensely popular and are useful in introducing this genre to a “new” audience. He is not alone though! Just last year, Holler if Ya Hear Me, a rap musical based on the life and work of Tupac, was on Broadway. Albeit, it didn’t last long, but it was another example of rap music breaking into a venue that might not have been receptive to it let’s say 20 years ago. I believe this trend will continue and even grow over the next 20 years. I believe we will see more rappers like Kayne West, using Broadway music in their creations (oh wait- check THIS out) and collaborating with well known musical theatre composers to create music more akin to what you hear on the radio or on the street.
Why is this important to us? It is important to foster the development of these new composers and lyricists- especially those who might not have come from a musical theatre background. We need to be a community that encourages “outsiders” to join us and find a home. If you haven’t watched Broadway Idiot- the documentary highlighting the making of Broadway’s American Idiot- I highly recommend it (it’s on Netflix). It made it clear to me how unique our community is, and when we band together to welcome someone from a different musical background- genius can be created. We must do this with those from the hip-hop community if there is any hope for the evolution of our genre. The success of Hamilton makes it clear that a Broadway audience embraces rap music on the stage and in a theatrical context, now we just need to find more artists that will capitalize on this idea and expand the genre to new heights.