I think that we have been approaching the use of rap in the musical theatre the wrong way all this time. In the paragraphs that follow, I hope to briefly convince you of two things…
1. That rap is well-suited to integration in a musical theatre idiom, and
2. That some fairly basic misconceptions about the dramatic strengths of rap have prevented this integration from being carried out in a manner and to a degree that matches its potential.
Rap is, on paper, an excellent fit for the musical theater. The musical is perhaps the only field of creative endeavor that really and truly cares about lyrics. It is, at any rate, the only one that demands perfect rhyme and meter as a prerequisite for full respect. The influence of pop music has, in the last couple of decades, somewhat corrupted this ideal, but the musical is still leagues above its corrupter in almost every regard.
Rap, however, comes in a close second. The demands of the form may not be as rigorous, true – much rap is still far too eager to settle for mere assonance rather than rhyme, but that has always been the premise of rap. The rhymes, such as they are, may not be elegant, but in exchange there will be more than twice as many of them. The best rap emphasizes precise and complex vocal rhythms, unpredictable rhyme schemes, and imaginative wordplay. See Tech N9ne for an excellent example of the first, Kanye West for the second, and Childish Gambino for the third.
It is easy to see, therefore, the appeal inherent in the idea of the two formats that value lyrics the most joining forces. Which is why it is incredibly surprising that it has not happened more often. Sure, we have had sprechstimme, we have had the Witch‘s story in Into the Woods, we have even had Rex Harrison, but it is only recently that shows like In The Heights have attempted to bring rap to the musical theatre in a big way. And even then, I think In The Heights failed in being the one thing I suspect it most desperately wanted to be, which was influential.
I think this reticence, however, can only partly be put down to neophobia. The fact is, even on the few occasions on which I have heard rap used in a musical, I don‘t think I have ever heard it used particularly well. No, not even in In The Heights.
We think of rap as soliloquy, as an outer expression of internal monologue, similar to the big belting numbers with which we are familiar from the rest of the musical theatre. And, to be sure, some rap is like this, but I would like to contend that this is not where rap is at its best, that it is not where rap really excels. Look at the more casual format of rap mixtapes, the back-and-forth banter of dis track feuds, and even the use of the latest slang in a way that revolutionized musical theatre lyrics when Frank Loesser did it, and I think you will come to roughly the same conclusion I have: Rap, at its best, is not monologue. It is dialogue.
And this is where I think we have been going wrong. Usnavi desperately shouting to be heard over the swelling orchestra in In The Heights merely underlines the more fundamental issue – rap is a format for people talking to each other, and should be used as such. Even in its soliloquy mode, it is the conversational intimacy with the listener, the feeling that the artist is talking to you as they would a friend, that lends rap the largest part of its undeniable mass appeal.
Now, there are already parts of the musical theatre that rap could very easily be worked into. Recitative could be made roughly a thousand times less awkward by making it a witty and efficient rap break, for example. But I think true integration demands an even larger change in paradigm. We can design new types of conversational songs that always sounded awkward when sung but might sound like the most natural thing in the world with the shifting rhythms and colloquial style of rap. We can make soliloquy songs more confessional and less presentational.
I genuinely believe that rap offers a new range of techniques to the musical theatre dramatist, but exploiting the full potential of those techniques will require thinking about musical drama in a new way to suit a new style.