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Is Stephen Sondheim Theatre’s Original Rap Lyricist?

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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