How has there not yet been a hip-hop musical? Could anything be more natural or–and let’s be honest–profitable? Is this longer than it took for Hair to bring rock music to Broadway? And hip-hop is the music of the youth. Thanks to Clear Channel, rock music is utterly, irrevocably dead. As irrelevant as jazz. And Broadway, soon you too will go that way, unless you bend in the wind, like you do so capably when there is money to be made.
And is there anyone more qualified to do it than myself? Oh sure, people who have written musicals, or know something about hip-hop, maybe they could bring something to the table. But where have they been? Busy ruining Spiderman, busy ruining Taylor Swift’s night (Can we be honest? That was the best thing that has ever happened to Taylor Swift. Carrie Underwood can only dream of turning a nation’s disdain for Kanye West into affection so deftly).
No, I shall step up and claim my unique calling. I’m a young-up-and-comer with enough pith, vinegar and love-hate relationship with both hip-hop and Broadway that I don’t care about doing an injustice to them both.
But then, what would even qualify as injustice? Have hip-hop or Broadway ever turned down a big cash in? Did P Diddy miss out on a chance to cash in on the death of Biggie? And can you say “RENT had a lot of artistic integrity” with a straight face?
So as a mid-twenties “man” of “letters,” a reluctant product of his own time (and pop music) with an eye on the fading power of the Broadway musical–a bit of a 21st century Tevye (caught in a changing world, but, uh, not Jewish)–with student loans to pay, I took it upon myself to work out the libretto, and collect “Created By” credits for when it turns into a movie.
The piece had to stay away from cliches and story arcs stolen from hip hop’s concept albums of note. On the other hand, you don’t want to have a hip-hop musical that denies hip-hop’s origins and the era and communities that birthed it. So I re-imagined the late ’70s New York as a futuristic medieval society, run by the gentry bankers with the “Brave Knights of Stonewall” ready to join the cause at the dramatic last moment/dance number. Apart from this pandering inclusion, I was determined to shed as many dull old Broadway tropes as possible, dropping things like love stories in favor of more large, dramatic set pieces and violence. I look forward to the director sorting all that out.
Now savvy in the world of art, commerce and hype, I knew that quality alone didn’t matter. Even though the last vestiges of artist integrity had been sold last month to pay my rent, I solemnly vowed to do a good job on the story. Unfortunately, as the history of Broadway will attest, quality of story has nothing to do with Broadway success or failure. Assessing the situation I boiled down my biggest needs to the following: 1. Money, 2. Credentials, 3. Cash, 4. Someone to compose all of the music 5. Financial backing.
I don’t think I need to tell you that the plan has hit a rough patch.
In an effort to expedite the explanation as to why this musical didn’t [yet] make it, I’ve drafted up a few quick scenes that go a long way in describing the lack of vision that has driven both Broadway AND hip-hop away from the cutting edge, and instead into ever higher profitability.
My first call was to Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam and Phat Farm, and overall impeccable business man and respected hip-hop figure since the beginning.
Me: …and so you can see Mr. Simmons, it’s long overdue.
Simmons: It takes place in–let me see if I understand you–a retro-futurist re-imagining of late ’70s New York?
Me: Sort of a Little Shop of Horrors “Skid Row” meets Starlight Express. Another drug-running morality tale just struck me as too cliché, you know? And those Broadway audiences are going to eat it up, Mr. Simmons, trust me.
Simmons: And you’re writing it, even though you weren’t there, and you know nothing about hip-hop and seem to hold Broadway in contempt?
Me: Well, I’ve read Yes and Yes Y’all, and c’mon did you see Spring Awakening? I’d rather go back to sleep… Anyway, I try to balance the Uptown scenes with the “Blue Marquee Moon,” punk ballad.
Simmons: Ugh, that. So what would my role be as, what was it, co-producer?
Me: Yeah. Well, as co-producer you provide money and credibility that, as you pointed out, I lack entirely. It isn’t okay for white culture to exploit black culture anymore, so I need your help in exploiting old black culture without being obvious about it.
(Sound of hanging up)
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Undaunted, I moved onto next on my list, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Mr. Webber was initially reluctant to accept the long-distance collect charges from across the Atlantic, but by pretending that I was Tim Rice’s nephew and that Mr. Rice was very sick, I got through. Mr. Webber explained that he knew nothing about hip-hop and we agreed he would be a terrible composer for this project. I still had questions for him though.
Me: So part of my issue is that this piece is going to be full of controversy. I think that’s necessary not just for a good story, but also for publicity.
Webber: I thought the scenes where the bankers handcuff heavy briefcases onto your heroes and prepare to throw them off the Brooklyn Bridge was a little much, but then conflict is the essence of drama, isn’t it?
Me: I don’t know. Is it? Anyway, I called you, because you’re good at unrepentant plagiarism and ruthlessly exploiting things–you know, like Christ, Ché, cats, whatever.
Webber: Excuse me?
Me: (chuckles) Andrew, it’s me. You don’t have to pretend. So how I can gloss over this crack epidemic? And how closely can my big finale “Drop Dead, Mr. Ford” sound like “Do You Hear the People Sing” before Schönberg sues?
(sound of phone hanging up)
With nowhere left to turn, I decided to call upon the man of downtown cool. Never one to turn down a bad idea, Reed seemed like the natural fit to give this whole thing the financial boost it needed. Plus I was working on shoehorning in the downtown scene anyway.
Reed: …but of course the phone’s buttons were still too tiny to read.
Me: Uh huh. Can we get back to my musical idea?
Reed: Well, it needs a little bit more masochism, but I’ll take care of that when I write your lyrics.
Me: That’s, uh, that’s not really what I’m asking you for.
Reed: Sure it is. Did you hear Lulu?
Reed: What’s the budget like and who’s your leather man? How much black leather do you think we can get?
(sound of phone hanging up)
NB: This was written in an off-brand DayQuil haze.