SOUND OFF Special Edition: Top 10 Raddest & Baddest Rap Songs In Broadway History
Musical theatre is not generally known for being an early adopter of up-to-the-minute trends in popular music, particularly since the advent of rock n roll and the great divide between popular music and theatre music began in the 1950s. Nevertheless, the presence of modern music idioms in contemporary musicals is a fascinating and often wildly entertaining element to assess when analyzing the great pantheon of scores that have graced the Great White Way, particularly in the last 60 years. With the predominance of rap music in popular music for the majority of the last 30 years, it comes as no surprise that many musicals have employed the genre in the storytelling and song styling designed specifically for the respective shows, but the level of success they have achieved as far as storytelling devices, character showpieces and as authentic rap music itself varies. Of course, with HAMILTON set to open on Broadway later this month, all of New York City is talking about the persuasive power of the scores of Lin-Manuel Miranda, he who was responsible for multiple rap showstoppers in his self-penned Tony Award-winning musical IN THE HEIGHTS as well as the hip hop tunes in the screen-to-stage adaptation of BRING IT ON!, so now is a perfect time to take a look back at some of the most memorable and revolutionary uses of rap music on Broadway to date.
1. "Witch's Rap" from INTO THE WOODS. Stephen Sondheim? Rap? Although at the time of the musical's debut in 1986 the legendary songwriter denied its outright implementation - and, subsequently, the feature film uses a noticeably slowed-down take on this particular section of the opening number - there is no denying that a winking reference to the then-emerging music form exists in the original and revival versions of INTO THE WOODS, anply evident to hear in the tongue-in-cheek Jonathan Tunick orchestrations featuring an unmistakable hip hop beat. Plus, a thorny old crone listing her various garden greens in a rap is a deliciously unexpected introduction to an altogether anomalous part of musical theatre iconography.
2. "The Rap" from DREAMGIRLS. Although Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's score for DREAMGIRLS is bursting to the brim with homages to all sorts of popular music styles of the last 60 years - pop to rock to R&B, jazz and beyond - it is Jimmy Thunder Early's final onstage breakdown that continues to shock, amaze and leave in awe all in the thrall and all who experience it performed with the presence and power intended. A true musical theatre knockout like few others.
3. "One Night In Bangkok" from CHESS. Perhaps the most unexpected source for a rap song of any on this list, let alone one that would yield an international radio hit with the song, is the Benny Anderson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice Cold War era political mega-musical CHESS. Boasting a second act curtain-raiser to beat the band, "One Night In Bangkok" not only made a considerable impression on audiences lucky enough to experience it in the West End and on Broadway when it ran in the late 1980s, but also on the radio charts - one of the very last Broadway songs to crack the top echelon of the Billboard charts in the United States, as a matter of fact.
4. "96,000" from IN THE HEIGHTS. Lin-Manuel Miranda rewrote the rules of what Broadway musicals could be, the audiences they cater to and the sounds that they employ with his groundbreaking work on the multi-award-winning musical IN THE HEIGHTS. Though the score is positively overflowing with melody, it is the rap material most audiences walk away humming - and subsequently raving about, too. Surely, "96,000" is musical theatre storytelling in rap is a notable example of the very best it can be done.
5. "Rock Island" from THE MUSIC MAN. Considered by many Broadway babies and entertainment enthusiasts to be the very first rap song to be heard on Broadway, the opening patter song from Meredith Willson's THE MUSIC MAN is, in a word, revolutionary. Simultaneously kicking the show off with a surprising and unexpected staccato sound, while also establishing the leading man and dramatically, musically and thematically justifying it all given the setting of a chugging train plugging along on a track, Wilson started something truly special with this remarkable and game-changing show opener.
6. "The Rap" from STARLIGHT EXPRESS. Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber has been celebrated and castigated in nearly equal measure for his well-known desire to bridge the gap between modern music and contemporary musicals throughout his career and "The Rap" in 1980s mega-musical smash STARLIGHT EXPRESS is a paramount example of that desire come to fruition. With Lloyd Webber's recent revelation of the fact that he has written a brand new rap tune for the upcoming return of the West End revival of CATS later this year penned for the character of Rum Tum Tugger, it appears we may see more rhythm-based compositions from the Lord in the future, as well. As it stands, "The Rap" is slick and well-oiled entertainment.
7. "Rapaletto" from STARMITES. A musical not as ubiquitous as many of the others on this list, the weird and wonderful STARMITES is overflowing with crisp and witty homages to any number of popular music genres, with a standout example residing in the complex ensemble number leading to the Act One Finale titled "Rapaletto". Recently revisited by original Tony Award-nominated STARMITES star Sharon McNight at a special 54 Below event late last month supervised by many members of the original creative team, BroadwayWorld.com will soon showcase this sassy story-packed showstopper in a world premiere coming later this month. Stay tuned!
8. "Today 4 U" from RENT. Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical RENT was the zeitgeist-broaching musical of the 1990s much as HAMILTON is the critically hailed and audience adored theatrical hit of 2015. Larson's score contained multiple uses of rhythmic singing and the erudite utilization of many au currant musical styles, but drag queen Angel's spectacular "Today 4 U" story song remains a timeless character number that regularly raises the roof in regional productions, school mountings and the national tours that continue to bring the message of RENT around the world, nearly 20 years after its Broadway debut. That aside, poor Evita!
9. "Dancing Is Not A Crime" from FOOTLOOSE. One of the most popular movie soundtracks of all time, one of the handful of new additions created by the original composers for the Broadway stage adaptation of 1980s box office hit FOOTLOOSE is "Dancing Is Not A Crime". Charismatically performed by Jeremy Kushnier in the original mainstage mounting of the stage adaptation, this is yet another example of moving the plot forward and keeping the audience's toes tapping all at the same time.
10. "Great Big Stuff" from DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. One of the most lyrically dense and hilariously satirical songs to appear on Broadway in the last several decades, David Yazbeck's smart and sharp "Great Big Stuff" from the melodically rich and ever-entertaining score for Hollywood to Broadway transfer DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is a case study in how to masterfully craft a showstopper explicitly for a major Broadway star who can really deliver the goods. And, there is no doubt about it, Norbert Leo Butz certainly did bring the goods by the basketful when performing this stunner of a rap showpiece eight times a week, not to mention on that year's Tony Awards telecast - and rightly brought the part all the way to Tony Award-winning glory, as well.
So, what is your absolute favorite rap song that has been heard on Broadway? Furthermore, what subject do you think lends itself particularly well to hip hop storytelling? Given the rich history of patter songs and rhythmic rhyming utilized in everything from "A Hymn To Him" in MY FAIR LADY to "The Cop Song" in URINETOWN all the way to HAMILTON today, rap clearly has made a mark on Broadway and will continue to do so for many generations. Dope!