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Is Stephen Sondheim Theatre’s Original Rap Lyricist?

Broadway Black

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When you think of Stephen Sondheim, the man responsible for the lyrics of West Side Story, Gypsy, and Do I Hear a Waltz?, rarely do you think of comparing him to Future, 2Chainz, or Kanye. But with the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit Hamilton, which masterfully blends hip hop into musical theater, and the brief run of the Tupac-inspired musical Holla If You Hear Me, there have been discussions about the role of hip hop and rap within musical theatre. Sondheim’s deft handling of lyrics and rhyme play could arguably put him in the running for original rap lyricist.

Sondheim is noted for his brilliance as a lyricist and has written the music and lyrics for twelve Broadway musicals, as well as many other songs. He has composed film scores and has won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Sooner or Later,” which was sung by Madonna in Dick Tracy. He won the Tony Award and the Drama Critics Circle Award for best score for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Passion.

Although he composed many musicals, it wasn’t until 1987s Into The Woods that Sondheim deliberately incorporated rap into his work. Broadway legend Bernadette Peters, performing the lead role of the “Witch,” delivers what has been described as “Broadway’s first rap.”

You see…
Your mother was with child,
And she developed an unusual appetite.
She admired my beautiful garden,
And she told your father that
What she wanted more than anything,
In the world, was…
Greens, greens, nothing but greens:
Parsley, peppers, cabbages and celery,
Asparagus and watercress and
Fiddleferns and lettuce-!
He said, “All right,”
But it wasn’t, quite,
‘Cause I caught him in the autumn
In my garden one night!
He was robbing me,
Anoying me,
Rooting through my rutabaga,
Raiding my arugula and
Ripping up the rampion
My champion! My favorite!-

Although the origins of rap in the U.S. can be traced back to the 1970s, by 1987, the genre had a firm grasp on the industry. Some of the best rap lyricists that year were ruling the airwaves, including Rakim, KRS-One, Chuck D, and Big Daddy Kane. And, it was in this environment that Sondheim boldly dropped this gritty genre that was born and nurtured in the streets into the traditionally pretentious environs of theatre. That kind of cockiness and swagger alone could earn him a ticket into the rap hall of infamy.

In an excerpt from the introduction of the legendary composer and lyricist’s book Look, I Made A Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendent Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany, Sondheim discusses using rap in his works. “But not until rap became omnipresently popular did I try to make it work: I imitated it in a passage for the Witch to sing during the opening number of Into the Woods. But I was never able to find another appropriate use for the technique, or perhaps I didn’t have the imagination to.”

However, he also notes a comparison between rap and theatre that possibly hadn’t been discussed before.

“Of all the forms of contemporary pop music, rap is the closest to traditional musical theater (its roots are in vaudeville), both in its vamp-heavy rhythmic drive and in its verbal playfulness,” he says.

It can be argued that Into The Woods wasn’t Sondheim’s first foray into rap as writer Lloyd Evans in a recent column recounted that the way Sondheim composed some of his earlier lyrics is similar to how rap artists compose theirs.

“The rhymes are too haphazard to reveal a scheme or pattern. They just crop up at random like serial killers in a rural community. Rap artists use the same method. They improvise their verses while keeping a lookout for verbal replications, and as soon as one appears it gets dumped in the first available slot,” Evans says.

As an example, he cites a number from Saturday Night which was Sondheim’s first professional endeavor as a composer and lyricist.

I said the man for me
Must have a castle.
A man of means he’d be,
A man of fame.
And then I met a man who hadn’t any,
Without a penny
To his name.
I had to go and fall
For so much less than
What I had planned from all
The magazines.

Although Sondheim has incorporated rap into theatre and some of his lyrics follow a similar methodology as a rap artist, rap isn’t natural for him like it is for Miranda in Hamilton. However, it would be highly entertaining to hear Drake spit some Sondheim lyrics over a Boi-1da track.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. doranyc

    November 13, 2015 at 1:35 PM

    I stumbled on your post because I’ve been listening to HAMILTON non-stop since it came out – I was lucky to catch it in previews. And I re-watched and listened to INTO THE WOODS this week (the Hollywood version). It occurred to me awhile ago that a lot of Sondheim’s work is made up of so much word play and rhythmic technique that it’s pretty much rap. I wondered if anyone had addressed that since HAMILTON has become so popular. Yay google! It’s cool to learn that Sondheim has straight up credited rap. And I love what LMM has said about the verbosity of Alexander Hamilton himself lending to hip hop. That’s a great circle of creation: Wordy people => rap/spoken word => Theater (is life)!! Anyway, excellent piece! P.S. I hope someone revisits HOLLA because I missed it the first time around.

  2. Pingback: WATCH: Ruben Santiago Hudson Enlivens First Encores! Unscripted

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Huh??

It’s All Over: 2017 Claims a Former Broadway Dreamgirl

Broadway Black

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We’re only two weeks into the new year, and 2017 has taken another victim. Only five days after ending her long-awaited Broadway comeback in the revival of The Color Purple, “Ally McBeal” guest star Jennifer Holliday confirmed that she’d perform at Herr Woolly Bear Caterpillar’s Presidential Inauguration on Jan 19th in Washington, D.C. There was some slight confusion earlier today about whether or not the alleged performer had actually accepted. But according to the New York Times, Jennifer Holliday is performing at the Inauguration.

Jennifer Holliday is performing at the Inauguration.

Jennifer Holliday is performing at the Inauguration.

Jennifer Holliday is performing at the Inauguration.

And this is why we can’t ever have nice things. Now we know why Deena & the Dreams threw her out faster than Farrah got her luggage. We’re just as perplexed as her former co-star, Sheryl Lee Ralph, currently employed in the smash Broadway hit, Wicked.


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“I’m singing on the mall for the people,” Ms. Holliday claimed in defense of her decision, “I don’t have a dog in this fight — I’m just a singer, and it’s a welcome concert for the people on the mall.”

But Ms. Holliday DOES have a dog in this fight. She lives with Multiple Sclerosis and will most assuredly be affected if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, as is planned by the Trump Administration.

Listen, we get it. Times are hard, and those Color Purple paychecks won’t last forever. But what Ms. Holiday doesn’t seem to understand is that by taking this role, she turns her back on her Black brothers and sisters who’ve shared her plight of struggling in this industry, in this country. She turns her back on those LGBT youth who grew up listening to the Dreamgirls cast recording, which gave them empowerment. She turns her back on every woman who’s had her voice taken away by a narcissistic, controlling chauvinist who feels threatened by her strength.

She should relate to the latter, as it earned her a Tony Award in 1982. We can take those back, right?

“If that’s what America has come to,” she continued, “where we all hate and bully people, there’s no more freedom of speech.” But this is exactly what lead us to Emperor Cheetoh in the first place. Hate, bullying, and the abuse of freedom of speech and the exemption of consequence.

As of now, Benedict Effie, Toby Keith, and 3 Doors Down have joined the roster that already includes that one runner-up from “America’s Got Talent,” The Rockettes, a Bruce Springsteen coverband (really?), and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Below you’ll find how it all went down from the initial announcement to the retracted confirmation to the final offical confirmation of her performance. It’s been a whirlwind kind of day.

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Concert Night

Bay Street Cancels Prince of Egypt Concert Following Diversity Concerns

Broadway Black

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ICYM this week’s episode of “White People Need to Stop,” the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor raised eyebrows when they announced their casting for its staged reading of Dreamworks Theatrical’s The Prince of Egypt, based on the animated musical film.

The cast would feature Casey Cott (CW’s “Riverdale”) as ‘Moses,’ Stark Sands (Kinky Boots, American Idiot) as ‘Ramses,’ Solea Pfeiffer (Hollywood Bowl’s West Side Story) as ‘Tzipporah,’ Marin Mazzie (The King and I, Ragtime) as ‘Queen Tuya,’ Shuler Hensley (Young Frankenstein) as ‘Pharaoh Seti,’ J.C. Montgomery (Shuffle Along, The Scottsboro Boys) as ‘Jethro,’ John Cariani (Something Rotten) as ‘Aaron,’ with Ryan Knowles as ‘High Priest Hotep,’ Julia Motyka as ‘Miriam,’ Joanna Howard as ‘Nefertari,’ Desi Oakley as ‘Yocheved,’ and Dakota Quackenbush as ‘Young Miriam.’ Ensemble members included Alysha Deslorieux, Brian Flores, and Destan Owens.

Which once again begs the question: were there no more Black or Middle-Eastern actors available? Even for a one-night only concert reading? Clearly, Stewart/Whitley has been taking Hollywood’s ‘Whitewashing the Middle East 101’ course; isn’t that right, “Exodus?” “Gods of Egypt?” “Noah?” “Prince of Persia?” “The Passion of the Christ?” Or perhaps they’re just following the source material:

 

Prince of Egypt

 

Naturally, most sane people on social media weren’t having it, and responded accordingly:

It saddens me that after such a wonderful multicultural season on Broadway a piece set in AFRICA has not one POC. #PrinceOfEgypt 😔

— Cynthia Erivo (@CynthiaEriVo) July 23, 2016

#princeofegypt yet ANOTHER missed opportunity to represent our colorful world #representationmattershttps://t.co/OVnA9SCR7i

— Denée Benton (@DeneeBenton) July 24, 2016

After a year of Hamilton, Shuffle Along, Eclipsed, Waitress, Spring Awakening, The Color Purple, Allegiance — a season so rich in diversity, it’s disheartening that we’re back at it again with the whitewash. Hell, another theater in Chicago landed themselves in hot water after casting a white actor in the Dominican role of Usnavi in their production of In the Heights.

Earlier this week, director Scott Schwartz (son of composer Stephen Schwartz) released a statement on Bay Street’s website:

I know a conversation has been happening about the casting of the upcoming concert of the new stage adaptation of THE PRINCE OF EGYPT. It is a conversation that is both timely and of great importance. I want to take a moment to join this dialogue, and to respond to the issues that have been raised.

Let me first say that I hear you, and I take the concerns raised about racial authenticity and diversity in casting very seriously. I always have, and am known for directing and producing shows with highly diverse casts. The other creators of THE PRINCE OF EGYPT, from composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz and book writer Philip LaZebnik to the producers and team at DreamWorks Theatricals, all have a long history of diversity in casting. We all care deeply about making theater and art that is reflective of the multicultural society in which we live. Bay Street Theater as well is committed to hiring artists of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The upcoming presentation of THE PRINCE OF EGYPT is a one night, free concert reading. It will have an extremely limited rehearsal period and it is NOT a full production. There will be no costuming, makeup, or design of any sort, and the music will be performed on just one piano. This show is early in its development, and the focus of the team has been on the script and score, working to make this new musical the best it can be in its writing. We have done a couple of non-public readings of the show, and the cast has been different at each. I am proud to say that we have had diverse casts in all of our developmental steps so far.

Some have written that the cast for this upcoming concert is “all white,” but that is simply not the case. In fact, we have an Equity cast of fifteen actors and five of them are people of color. So while some may not agree with specific choices we may have made for specific roles, I want to assure everyone that having a diverse cast was and is a priority for us.

All of that being said, please rest assured that your concern about the need for diversity and authenticity in this project is something we hear and take seriously. All of us on the creative and producing team hope to continue this conversation, not just about THE PRINCE OF EGYPT, but about diversity and authenticity in casting in all the art we create.

Sincerely,
Scott Schwartz

Wow.

But if having a diverse cast is such a “priority,” then why are only four of the 15 cast members Black, with two of them as part of the ensemble? Add in Flores, who’s Latino, and only 1/3 of the cast includes performers of color. In a story that takes place in Egypt.

That’s not diversity, it’s lazy, whether or not it’s a workshop, or a concert, or a full-fledged stage production.

And I still haven’t forgiven him for Hunchback.

In the age of Hamilton, #BlackLivesMatter, and presidential nominee Donald Trump, race and representation in the media for nonwhite actors is obviously still a major, complex subject.

After a long, dark history of white actors taking and playing cultures and characters that aren’t their own, excluding nonwhite actors from roles they should be playing, and being cast in a role where the character’s race is unspecified 99% of the time, it feels like another slap in the face for performers of color still struggling to find work.

God forbid award-winning actress Norma Dumezweni gets cast as Hermione Granger. God forbid Hamilton casting directors only seek actors of color to portray the roles created for them. And rarely, especially for a show featuring non-Black people of color, is there any authenticity in casting. Just look at Aladdin. It all reeks of hypocrisy.

The entire debacle didn’t go unscathed, however, as Bay Street decided to cancel the August 13th performance all-together, issuing a non-apology on Facebook.

As if this couldn’t get any more bizarre, Schwartz penned another lengthy novel on Bay Street’s Facebook page, detailing how and why they made the decision to cancel the performance. He essentially boiled it down to online harassment of the performers.

Online bullying, especially toward actors much more accessible through social media, is unacceptable, and I commend Schwartz and Bay Street for wanting to protect them. But for him to once again deflect responsibility instead of apologizing for the casting in the first place and acknowledge why people had a problem with it, it seems to contradict any earlier statements he made regarding diversity and reveals his disinterest in racial authenticity.

Finally, the creative team and producers at DreamWorks Theatricals all believe that the story of Moses is one that is embraced and owned by millions and millions of people from every country, race and culture – and we hope that the project we are developing will honor the passion of those who love it. It has always been our aim to create the piece in a way that people of all races and cultures can one day tell the story.

But that doesn’t negate the fact that only white people have been given the opportunity to tell this, or any Biblical story, taking place in the Middle East, which is what people have a problem with. The mainstream can still relate to this or any story with a predominately Middle-Eastern or Black cast.

So, miss me with the excuses. Admit you screwed up, actually listen to what people are saying, take what you learned and apply it into the show’s development.

In the same letter, he announced that Bay Street will now offer a free concert of its production of My Fair Lady, August 13th.

 

 

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