‘Topdog/Underdog’ Sound Designer Talks Broadway Playlist – Billboard


There’s loads to mesmerize an viewers onstage at Topdog/Underdog, the Pulitzer-winning play by Suzan-Lori Parks on Broadway now in a restricted engagement (by means of Jan. 13, 2023). The manufacturing — starring Corey Hawkins (who portrayed Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (an Emmy-winner for HBO’s Watchmen) in roles originated by Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) and Jeffrey Wright, respectively — has acquired rave critiques for good motive: the story of two brothers (named Lincoln and Sales space) certain by a gradually-revealed, traumatic household historical past and a love of the three-card monte avenue hustle, is by turns hilarious, haunting and heartbreaking, and Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen give performances that appear destined for Tony nominations.  


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However audiences are speaking about greater than the spoken dialogue — they’re bopping alongside to the hip-hop and R&B playlist heard within the theater earlier than the play even begins, between scenes, at intermission, and because the viewers exits after the ultimate bows. That assortment of tracks is the handiwork of sound designer Justin Ellington, a theater veteran who’s additionally a composer, arranger, musician and educational. Topdog/Underdog’s artistic workforce, led by director Kenny Leon, knew from the get-go that music “would play an enormous position” within the present, says Ellington, so he labored to make sure that “storytelling was taking place all through the playlist, versus simply feeling and theme.”  

Justin Ellington

Courtesy Photograph

The combo Ellington ultimately landed on touches on numerous eras of hip-hop and R&B, including to the timeless really feel of the play’s motion. “That is music we let into our houses to deliver levity, steadiness…generally music is an escape, however it might additionally pull you in,” Ellington displays. “This present does a lot, so we’re continually searching for steadiness, and the music helps settle us a bit all through it.” He spoke to Billboard about a number of the Topdog/Underdog playlist highlights, and what they add to an already multi-layered night time on the theater. 

“They Reminisce Over You,” Pete Rock & C.L. Clean 
The pre-show combine is a tour by means of hip-hop/R&B classics and innovators, from Flying Lotus and Thundercat’s “MmmHmm” to D’Angelo’s “Satan’s Pie” to Marvin Gaye’s “Bother Man.” However “’Reminisce Over You’ will get them each time,” says Ellington of the ‘90s traditional. “That’s just like the music that brings in a distinct technology. There are individuals that basically love that music: it’s a touchstone of their lives.” And lyrically, “Wow, it’s on level. It’s providing a distinct perspective to the story you’re about to listen to, getting ready your ears for trial and tribulation amongst individuals and completely different types of that. I feel it’s one of many first songs within the combine the place the lyrics are tremendous current; there’s one thing about it that basically stands out.” 

“Alright,” Kendrick Lamar 
The primary of two Lamar tracks on Ellington’s present playlist can also be a part of the pre-show combine. Ellington hopes the repeated “It’s gonna be alright” line sinks in with the viewers earlier than the play has even begun. “Sonically it’s according to immediately’s up to date music and hip hop – one thing that draws younger individuals,” he says. However “the sound of it actually envelops all individuals. You possibly can’t assist however begin to faucet a toe, and a few persons are rapping alongside to it, like, ‘That is my music.’ On the finish of the day, if I heard no music taking part in and noticed this very numerous viewers all shifting and grooving in their very own method — that’s the pleasure for me.” 

“Grinding All My Life,” Nipsey Hussle 
Ellington is aware of that loads of individuals who noticed Topdog/Underdog when it premiered off-Broadway in 2001 do not know who the late rapper Nipsey Hussle was — and, likewise, that the majority Nipsey followers could also be completely new to the play. So he liked the thought of kicking off Act I with this monitor. “It makes audiences lean in a bit extra,” he says. “Nipsey’s music comes on, and the world begins to vary. For many who don’t know what the phrase ‘grinding’ represents exterior of espresso, possibly that’ll be understood by the top of the present, and even by the top of the primary scene.”  

Lupe Fiasco, “Kick, Push” 

At intermission, the viewers has simply discovered that Lincoln, who’s vowed to get out of the three-card monte sport for good, is able to get again into it in spite of everything. “The character is principally saying, ‘I’m again,’” Ellington says. “I wished to know the soundtrack that might encourage him to get on the market and get again into his hustle — what can be this character’s vitality?” Impressed partly by the skate boarders within the music’s music video — a metaphor, as Ellington sees it, “for shifting ahead, getting it” — he selected “Kick, Push” to kick off the intermission combine. It instantly makes heads begin bobbing, with its dedication to “the homies out right here grindin’…legally and illegally.”  

“Transfer on Up,” Curtis Mayfield 
One other intermission combine monitor that stands out to Ellington. “It’s an extended music – nearly 9 minutes — however the vitality is up,” he says. “It in all probability has the quickest tempo of any music we play. Simply this up-up vitality. It’s a music from two generations earlier than that persons are tremendous acquainted with” — partly, he provides, as a result of Kanye “Ye” West sampled it for his “Contact the Sky” — which ensures there’s no lull between acts. “It’s a bop,” and it’s additionally on theme, exploring the thought of striving for a greater place than you’re in whereas nonetheless recognizing the obstacles to getting there and get previous them.  

“If I Ought to Die Tonight,” Marvin Gaye 
Director Leon gave Ellington pretty free artistic rein in constructing the playlist, however the sound designer recollects this monitor might have been certainly one of his few ideas. “I do know he’s a giant Marvin Gaye fan, and we get to listen to a lot of that music with this dramatic entrance into the second act,” Ellington says. “It’s like a cinematic second – we hear these lyrics which are simply excellent for the second: the angst, frustration, irritation, depth of affection that [these characters have], this music simply embodies all of it.” These acquainted with the play, he factors out, will acknowledge some literal that means within the music title, too. “Lots of people know what we’re coming to, so that you is usually a little extra daring [with music choice] and never fear about displaying your hand an excessive amount of,” he continues. “It’s simply so excellent and heartbreaking.”  

Kendrick Lamar, “The Coronary heart Half 5” 
As soon as the play is over, the viewers leaves the theater as this standout Mr. Morale & the Huge Steppers monitor performs. “There’s one thing in regards to the depth of it – it begins with this stress, the identical be aware taking part in again and again, this rhythm that’s pushing,” says Ellington. “And when he begins — ‘I come from a technology…’ — it’s setting it up like, “Hearken to me,” and “me” might be Sales space or Lincoln or the child sitting subsequent to you or your self.” The monitor isn’t meant to talk on to the beautiful final scene of the play, however to “get individuals out of the theater with some type of resonance of that depth with out talking particularly to it. I don’t know what it might really feel like if the present ends and it’s simply applause and no sound in any respect – I really feel like that might be draining,” Ellington explains. “Now we begin to consider what we simply noticed – we begin to course of, as a result of the sentiments are deep and wealthy. Kenny [Leon] all the time says the present isn’t over till the ghostlight comes on – in order that Kendrick music will all the time play all the way in which out.” 

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