clock menu more-arrow no yes

Hamilton stars' electric freestyling on BET proves the musical's populist appeal

This week's motivational music is here, and, as is fitting for the back half of 2015, it comes to you courtesy of Broadway's electric new musical Hamilton.

Songwriter and star Lin-Manuel Miranda dropped by BET's Hip-Hop Awards on October 13 with co-stars Daveed Diggs and Renée Elise Goldsberry to participate in the Cypher, a semi-freestyled rap circle hosted by Black Thought of the Roots.

The Cypher is a Hip-Hop Awards tradition, inviting hip-hop luminaries past and present to collaborate in a series of small-group freestyles. This year's also included an all-beatboxing one, and past years have featured Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore, Mos Def, and Eminem. Nicki Minaj has popped up several times, including in an awesome all-female Cypher featuring Eve, Tiffany Foxx, Iggy Azalea, and Lil' Kim. Broadway stars, however, are new to the Cypher stage.

Miranda, Diggs, and Goldsberry all rap in Hamilton. Miranda and Diggs even go head to head in a pair of Cabinet debates that double as rap battles.

But seeing them rap in their own words, outside the context of their historical characters (Alexander Hamilton, Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, and Angelica Schuyler Church, respectively) is thrilling. They all bring their own personal experiences to their freestyles, calling back to their upbringings and inspirations as their stars rise with Hamilton.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: "I stayed up late to tape John Leguizamo's Spic-O-Rama / Now I write plays, I literally came to bring the drama"

lin manuel miranda cypher hamilton

Diggs, Questlove, Miranda, Black Thought, and Goldsberry. (BET)

Miranda has had one hell of a 2015, between the massive success of Hamilton, getting tapped to write the music for Disney's Moana, and receiving a MacArthur Genius Grant to continue his work, whatever that may be. Also, in case you didn't already feel lazy by comparison, he turned 35 in January.

In his Cypher rap, though, Miranda reminds us of his roots. He raps about doing his homework "in the back of a bodega with Abuela / saving up to get a Sega," before delving into a litany of his influences.

There are the expected hip-hop shout-outs to the people whom Miranda credits with helping him build Hamilton's "monument to hip-hop," including the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Raekwon, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Jay Z, and Cypher host Black Thought. But there's also a telling reference in Spic-O-Rama, John Leguizamo's off-Broadway one-man show (1992-'93). Spic-O-Rama followed a family of six living in Jackson Heights, Queens, and Leguizamo played all of them.

"Have you not seen what we can do?" Manuel raps in the Cypher, "I write shows stacked with black and Puerto Rican dudes." Between his Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights, about Latino youth in Washington Heights, and Manuel's insistence on casting a musical about the Founding Fathers almost exclusively with actors of color, Miranda has already brought more diversity to Broadway than most have in a lifetime.

Miranda clearly valued Spic-O-Rama enough to catch it on VHS, but thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can watch it right now on Hulu.

Renée Elise Goldsberry: "Ain't I a woman? / Like Soujourner, I'm the truth"

renee elise goldsberry

Goldsberry (Hamilton's Angelica Schuyler Church), spitting truth. (BET)

While Miranda and Diggs spend much of their time on the Hamilton stage rapping, Goldsberry's restless Angelica is more of a traditional Broadway belter. She does get an ecstatic rap verse in the middle of her show-stopping number "Satisfied," but after watching her performance in the Cypher, it's a damn shame Angelica doesn't get more rapping to do, because Goldsberry crushes it.

(This side of Goldsberry might also come as a surprise for fans of The Good Wife, who know her as the no-nonsense Geneva Pine.)

She dedicates her verse to "the ladies in our history — we know the Founding Fathers, but the Mothers are a mystery." As Miranda, Diggs, Black Thought, and Questlove bob in the background, Goldsberry spits out one name after the other without blinking:

Spitting bars harder than Joan of Arc's armor

Drivin' Rosa Parks's car, bustin' out Frances Farmer

Airborne with Amelia Earhart, walkin' tightropes

Being Pocahontas, giving smallpox to white folks,

Comin' out swingin' like Venus and Serena

On the screen I rep the queens, from Nefertiti to Latifah,

Ain't I a woman? Like Soujourner, I'm the truth,

Hand on the Bible: book of Esther, book of Ruth,

I pray to the Railroad, to the chariot, with Harriet,

And Marie Curie brought some shit so hot we had to bury it,

Get my golden lariat, I'm a Wonder Woman gunnin' for 'em —

What you runnin' from?

If Miranda wanted to follow up Hamilton with something on Founding Mothers, it certainly seems like Goldsberry would be a worthy collaborator.

Daveed Diggs: "I just walked in the door marked 'Hamilton Stage,' stayed patient / Playing these dead presidents, I'm getting my reparations"

hamilton cypher

Diggs (Hamilton's Lafayette/Jefferson). (BET)

Unlike Miranda and Goldsberry, Diggs had very little theater experience prior to Hamilton. He knew Miranda through the Freestyle Love Supreme collective, which Diggs has described as "where freestyle meets sketch comedy." He's been rapping all his life, most recently in Clipping, a hip-hop trio.

As for theater, Diggs told Broadway.com, "I had decided early on that Broadway would not have a space for me," and so he was startled and thrilled when Miranda carved out a space for him with not one role, but two. Diggs's takes on the hyperactive Marquis de Lafayette and smirking Thomas Jefferson have received special notice in Hamilton, not least because of his ability to rap faster and harder than anyone else onstage.

His Cypher rap shows off that skill, but also his ability to blend and swerve between genres and topics in just a few lines: "Ordering orderlies to turn the heat up four degrees / so I can take my shirt off and live out my California dreams / Scribble Thug Life in invisible ink / an umbilical minor chord-clipping metaphysical link."

Not exactly The King and I, is it?

Hamilton's success is exactly because of this kind of cross-genre appeal

The Broadway of yesteryear might not have had a place for rhymes like the ones on display in the Cypher, but it's significant that this has now changed with Hamilton.

While Hamilton isn't exactly the straight "hip-hop musical" many have called it, thanks to influences like Rent and the Great American Songbook, it has expanded Broadway's reach beyond its usual audience. By weaving in elements of hip-hop and pop music, Manuel has created a space for those who thought, like Diggs, that Broadway didn't have a place for them — and made a case for Broadway actors having a place where they might not have been before, like BET.