Rap: 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. At first glance it would seem an inappropriate medium for most shows, except for those dealing with the recording industry, or stories which take place in milieus where rap might be the natural expression of the characters, as in the case of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. But it need not be site specific. Meredith Willson’s startling use of rap for the opening number in The Music Man (which I’ll talk about later) demonstrated this, and I would have expected more songwriters to pick up on it, including myself. 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.
Miranda does. Rap is a natural language for him and he is a master of the form, but enough of a traditionalist to know the way he can utilize its theatrical potential: he is already experimenting with it in a piece about Alexander Hamilton. This strikes me as a classic example of the way art moves forward: the blending of two conventional styles into something wholly original, like the marriage of Impressionism and Japanese prints in the late nineteenth century. It’s one pathway to the future.