From ‘Shuffle Along’ to ‘Hamilton,’ a look at how black music has shaped the sound of U.S. musical theatre.
(American Theatre magazine)
For musical theatre fans, Hamilton has already become Holy Scripture. Only the professional contrarian who revels in being despised takes the show’s name in vain, as did the New York Post’s Michael Riedel in a rare note of dissent. Hamilton deserves the status: It is one of the most innovative, energetic, and expert pieces of musical theatre in human history. Part of the aura surrounding it is the sense that we are seeing history in the making: that this show marks rap’s entry into the basic language of American musical theatre.
Hopefully it will. But might Hamilton augur something more? For 125 years, American musical theatre language has been driven by serial infusions of black pop energy, creating the sound of Broadway so familiar today, including manifestations now processed as thoroughly “white.” Given that hip-hop has been the mainstream for young Americans of all colors for at least 20 years, isn’t this when we would expect Broadway music to come in for its next injection of, as it were, “flava” and evolve into a whole new direction?
Actually, not. The pitfalls of presentism acknowledged, it is worth venturing that rap is crucially different from the musical genres that transformed show music in the past. Rap is likely to take its place in Broadway music but not transform it, because for all of its glories, rap offers more limited dramatic possibilities than ragtime, jazz, or even rock.
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