'Bars Medley': Classic Literature Remixed Into Hip-Hop And Verse | KERA News

'Bars Medley': Classic Literature Remixed Into Hip-Hop And Verse

Dec 17, 2016
Originally published on December 17, 2016 1:56 pm

A group of actors at New York's Public Theatre have taken scenes from classic literature and remixed them into hip-hop and verse. It's in the vein of Hamilton, the hit Broadway musical. It began with reworking contemporary movies and shows—it's now a project called "Bars Medley."

Hamilton's Daveed Diggs is half of the creative team behind this innovative project. His partner is Rafael Casal, an accomplished poet and performer, who got his start on HBO's Def Poetry. In "Bars Medley Volume Two," they reinterpret classic literature: The Catcher in the Rye, Beloved, Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice all remixed into song, rhythm and verse.

"We haven't dumbed it down, we haven't done the corny thing which is to try to urbanize or hip-hop it out," Rafael Casal says. "We just gave it some contemporary language and interpretation in the movement in the meter of the speech pattern, in the composition of the music, in the aesthetic of the filming."

To create this project, the actors were involved in an eight-week theater lab exploring the intersection of performance and verse. When they weren't immersed in intensive writing and rehearsal sessions, they were in master sessions where industry professionals came in and guided them. Artists like Black Thought from The Roots and directors like Tommy Kail gave workshops on what it means to break ground and innovate in the theater industry.

The piece is also done all in one take with a live audience, but if you only have time to watch one or two, here are our favorites:

House on Mango Street

House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is brought to life with salsa and jazz music scored live as a group of friends reflect on a Chicago stoop. Esperanza, the main character, debates in Spanglish whether she should stay on Mango Street with a chorus and clave in the background.

Pride and Prejudice

If Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet were to go head to head, a boxing ring seems like the right fit for a Bars Medley interpretation. In this lively piece, the audience enters a boxing match with two narrators coaching both Darcy and Bennet through their disputes.


Frankenstein's awakening during a stormy night is not only interpreted with verse and raps by Bars, but also with beatboxing. Along with his grunts as Frankenstein awakes, the narrator beatboxes his movements before he starts to rap in conversation with Victor, the scientist. It becomes a desperate song of fear and doubt.


This reinterpretation puts the audience right in front of Beloved's exorcism. The marching of women approaches as Sethe arrives to finally let go of the demons haunting her. The singing of women dominates this eerie and ominous scene as Sethe and Beloved make the audience the center of their grief.

Malcolm X

In this powerful scene, the audience is able to get inside Malcolm X's head moments before he dies. Influenced by both the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Spike Lee's biopic, the audience becomes America's people. He stares straight into the camera, spilling his distrust and skepticism.

Great Gatsby

In this last scene, the audience is able to enter one of Gatsby's iconic parties with all its drinks, glamour and critics. Nick Caraway takes us through this party to meet the performers and wealthy neighbors with a live band setting the mood.

Watch the full Bars Medley Vol. 2 here or in via the link below.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


A group of actors at New York's Public Theater have taken passages from literature and given them a hip-hop twist. It's in the vein of "Hamilton," the hit Broadway musical. In fact, Daveed Diggs, who was in "Hamilton's" original cast, is one of the project's co-creators. NPR's Jessica Diaz-Hurtado tells us more.

JESSICA DIAZ-HURTADO, BYLINE: A group of actors stand on stage in front of a camera. And they start reciting scenes from works like "Pride and Prejudice," "Frankenstein" and "Death Of A Salesman." But it doesn't sound quite like the original. Listen to a passage from Toni Morrison's "Beloved" when 30 women march to Beloved's exorcism, followed by the Bars remix.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) Sethe is running away from her, running. And she feels the emptiness in the hand Sethe had been holding. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Any minute now, salvation. Any minute now, Lord, Denver be patient. Any minute now, salvation.

DIAZ-HURTADO: The actors themselves wrote the pieces. Ryan Nicole is one of them. She says they followed a prompt from creative director Rafael Casal.

RYAN NICOLE: So the very simple way that Rafa (ph) explained this to us was if you had to create a minute-long YouTube video to explain the meat of a novel, what would it look like? What would it sound like? How would it feel? What's the emotion you would capture?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Blue-stone road, righteous women, strong black bones - fight within them. Bibles, crosses, palms to the sky. What my boss going to say when he arrives?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) Brought it home on wounded feet.

DIAZ-HURTADO: A few minutes dedicated to each book in a 37-minute performance all in one take. You can see the transitions, the props flying around, actors changing for their next scene and cameras flowing back and forth across the stage. Here's "The Great Gatsby." It's the scene where Nick Carraway walks into one of Gatsby's parties. And Jordan Baker introduces Nick to her friends. First the original then the remix.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once. A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly. I don't think it's so much that, argued Lucille skeptically. It's more that he was a German spy during the war.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Singing) Who is it, really? How do you acquire these riches?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Is that your business?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Singing) No, I don't suppose so. But I stick my nose where I please. It's how it goes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) You think it's tech money?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Singing) No, I heard it was booze.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Booze? Damn, man. You sure that's the truth?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Singing) No, bro. He was a spy, sold tips to the enemy, killed a hundred men.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) For reals?

DIAZ-HURTADO: Rafael Casal says the goal isn't to dumb the originals down. It's to make them relevant to new audiences.

RAFAEL CASAL: These texts that are getting assigned a lot in school - but students don't always have an easy entry point to the material. And so we wanted to reimagine them in a contemporary way that we felt would be more accessible.

DIAZ-HURTADO: Actress Ryan Nicole says even she wants to go back and reread the originals.

NICOLE: I found myself in high school, in college relying a lot on CliffsNotes and SparkNotes to get the notion of what these books were about. Having seen these productions from Bars, I'm intrigued to go back and reread many of the books. "Catcher In The Rye" - I had no idea it was about what it ended up being about.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know that song, if a body catch a body coming through the rye? I'd like it's if a body meet a body coming through the rye, old Phoebe said. It's a poem by Robert Burns.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) If a body catch a body coming through the rye. If a body...

DIAZ-HURTADO: Bars Medley Volume 2, America's stories remixed on YouTube. Jessica Diaz-Hurtado, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) If a body catch a body coming through the rye. If a body catch a body... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.