Bridging Hip Hop and Broadway

Rafael Casal Explains Bridging Hip Hop and Broadway for #BARS Workshop


Rafael Casal, co-creator of #BARS workshop with childhood friend Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, talks to the Museum of Light about their ground-breaking series that has been praised by Entertainment Weekly, Time and Elle for bridging Hip Hop and theater and has received rave reviews.

For the first season last spring, the 12 students in the 7-week course performed Hip Hop adaptations of scenes from Kill Bill, Mean Girls and The Devil Wears Prada for the #BARS Mixtape Musical Medley. The summer session that wrapped earlier this month featured interviews with the likes of Black Thought, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and Lemon Andersen at New York’s The Public theater.

Here Casal, who appeared on seasons 4,5 and 6 of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, explains how he and the Grammy and Tony Award-winning Diggs are using #BARS to shine their light.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Rafael Casal. #BARS

Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Rafael Casal. #BARS

THE MUSEUM OF LIGHT: What inspired you to create #BARS workshop, and what do you hope this unique platform will provide to other performers?

RAFAEL CASAL: #BARS is a workshop I founded with my long-time collaborator Daveed Diggs as a place for artists to explore the intersection between contemporary verse/rap and theater. It came about as a joke suggestion from a friend, and turned into a force all it’s own through the excitement and genius of the artists who have been a part of it.

It has three components: a masterclass series with seven different guest speakers, a workshop period where we write, stage and create new work together, and a culminating video medley that we create for YouTube. The medley and the masterclass talks are all documented and put online, so we can spread the conversation and creation to others who are invested in this kind of art. 

Daveed Diggs and Pharoahe Monch. #BARS

Daveed Diggs and Pharoahe Monch. #BARS

THE MUSEUM OF LIGHT: You also hold the Monday conversations at #BARS with artists from both the Hip Hop world and from Broadway, such as Black Thought of The Roots/Jimmy Fallon, Hamilton director Tommy Kail. What have been the highlights from these conversations so far?

RAFAEL CASAL: Because this conversation feels so new still, it has all been a highlight. But there were exciting themes that continued to prevail in each conversation; points about authenticity, about methodology as an artist, the importance of verse throughout the history of the arts, what it means for new voices to continue pushing into the Broadway realm, and things like what vegetable would be the best playwright if vegetables wrote plays.  

Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Pharoahe Monch, Marc Bamuthi Joseph. #BARS

Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Pharoahe Monch, Marc Bamuthi Joseph. #BARS

THE MUSEUM OF LIGHT: Are people surprised by how much the Hip Hop artists know about Broadway?

RAFAEL CASAL: I am not of the impression that an overwhelming amount Hip Hop artists are super savvy on Broadway and it’s goings-on, but who knows… maybe Young Thug was super into Shuffle Along. I think it’s fantastic that Hamilton summoned some of the rap elite into a Broadway seat, and that The Hamilton Mixtape features a crazy list of Hip Hop and pop artists that Lin-Manuel Miranda picked out to do some next level shit yet again.

But Hamilton isn’t all of Broadway. It can only do so much as one show, and it’s important that the creation of new work continues so it doesn’t become THE Hip Hop show; an exception to a rule of a continued tradition of a separateness between the highest levels of Hip Hop and theater. It still feels like Hip Hop is in the early ‘80s on Broadway, and Hamilton just proved it’s financially viable in the mainstream marketplace. It’s an exciting time, but a time to start asking a lot of questions, like now there is a one rap song in the new The SpongeBob Musical, performed by the villain… what does that say about rap music? Are we about to re-experience the real VS fake dialogue that the early 90s Hip Hop scene, but with Broadway shows? What is the relationship between Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Chance the Rapper’s “Sunday Candy,” Hamilton, and the Lyricist’s Lounge Show? That is what I’m interested in asking Hip Hop artists about.

Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Pharoahe Monch, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, #BARS.

Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Pharoahe Monch, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, #BARS.

THE MUSEUM OF LIGHT: You mentioned that #BARS could be a kind of portal (portal being defined as a doorway, gateway, opening etc.). How would you define a portal in this context as it relates to #BARS?

RAFAEL CASAL: I think it’s a place for us to peer into the future of our individual and collective art through games and exercises. We just bring our skill sets like ingredients. Some people can rap, some can sing, some can write, some can do all of the above. The mutual ground is the love for pushing the boundaries of the forms, of using verse to tell heightened stories, and to see what new configurations of language can emerge when dope people get together to do dope shit.

Daveed Diggs, Pharoahe Monch, Rafael Casal, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, #BARS.

Daveed Diggs, Pharoahe Monch, Rafael Casal, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, #BARS.

THE MUSEUM OF LIGHT: Portals are often connected to light (how light gets in, how light shines through, etc.). How does #BARS provide a portal to performers and in what ways have you seen performers find new openings from this experience?

RAFAEL CASAL: It’s really too early to tell, but everyone seems to be excited by the possibility of it. I had a cohort member tell me that the workshop changed the way she approached art, and that she felt a whole new world of possibilities had opened up to her. Sometimes we just need a space that gives us permission to be the best, most full version of our artistic selves, and we flourish.

THE MUSEUM OF LIGHT: #BARS is shining a spotlight on the stage for both Hip Hop and Theater, creating a bridge between Broadway and spoken word. What is it that allows these two worlds to so naturally shine their light together?

RAFAEL CASAL: I mean… they are both about beautiful language. They are both inherently theatrical, they are both musical. I don’t know that #BARS is the bridge by any means. I think that bridge has existed for a long time within the duality of people who love and exercise themselves in both worlds. #BARS is just a space for those people to improvise and create. #BARS is just a place that “Yes, and”’s the creators own forwarding plot line.

Learn more about #BARS here

You can also find this story at RESPECT Magazine.

Photo Credit: Lavell Wells, Vincent Morris. V Matt Smith. 
The Museum of Light is curated by: 
Billy Johnson Jr., Adell Henderson, Joslyn Rose Lyons, Rafael Casal, Matt Smith, Malik Buie.

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