The achievements of Lin-Manuel’s Hamilton are significant and expansive, so much so that I need not add to the proliferation of reviews, essays, parodies, think pieces and so on engendered by his landmark work. However, I feel that, in light of my increasingly senior status and the years of theatre history stashed in my head, I must point out that Lin was not the first to merge rap and American politics on the New York stage.
Travel back with me over 30 years, to an Off-Broadway venue in Greenwich Village known as The Village Gate. A cabaret theatre, it was home a number of acclaimed revues in its day including Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in the 1960s, National Lampoon’s Lemmings (with Chevy Chase and John Belushi) in the 1970s and Tomfoolery in the 1980s. Closed in 1994, today the building that housed The Village Gate is, last I noticed, a CVS pharmacy.*
But for a very short time in 1984, thanks to composer Elizabeth Swados and lyricist Garry Trudeau (yes, of Doonesbury fame) then-President Ronald Reagan could be found on stage rapping away, while he was simultaneously in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The opus that provided this platform? An hour-long revue called Rap Master Ronnie, with actor Reathel Bean in the title role.
An off-shoot of the Broadway Doonesbury musical that Trudeau and Swados had created just the year before, in truth Rap Master Ronnie had only a single rap number, the title tune (which then-Times critic Frank Rich cited as a high point). But while its musical styling wasn’t really beatbox-based overall, the show did interrogate Reagan’s presidency pointedly and musically in the weeks leading up to the 1984 election (which would ultimately see Reagan win a second term).
Speaking to Stephen Holden in The New York Times, when the revue began performances, Trudeau talked about the impetus for his theatrical advocacy, four years before his HBO series Tanner 88 and decades before his Amazon series Alpha House:
”I don’t know if there’s anything artistic being done about this election – it is either being ignored or given up on,” Mr. Trudeau observed. ”It didn’t seem right to me to let it go without trying to say something. The piece is enormously challenging because, as everybody knows, Reagan has proven unusually resistant to frontal assault. That’s a very difficult target to take aim at.”
It’s an interesting statement to read in an election year 32 years later, no?
I digress. I also admit to making the Hamilton link in perhaps my BuzzFeed-iest ploy for attention, just to lure you in to learn of largely forgotten bit of theatrical agitprop, that has nevertheless left one wonderful artifact: the music video version of the title track of Rap Master Ronnie. So I apologize for making you wade through everything up until now, and invite you to see a rapping political figure from days gone by – when everyone’s friend and role model Lin-Manuel was but two years old.
More trivia: Rap Master Ronnie’s limited run at The Village Gate was succeeded by another musical about a politican, Mayor, which portrayed then-NYC mayor Ed Koch in a decidedly more lighthearted lampoon. It was created by composer and lyricist Charles Strouse and marked the first significant credit for a young writer named Warren Leight, who would go on to win a Tony for Side Man and has been steering the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit franchise for several years. But again, I digress.
* Update: I am informed by reader Rafael Gallegos that the one-time Village Gate is now the nightclub Le Poisson Rouge. I swear it was a pharmacy for a time, but this shows you the last time I sought either medication or entertainment on Bleecker Street.