Culture: Musical Which Is Streets Ahead; Can Hip Hop Come to the Rescue of the British Musical? Slamdunk Director Felix Cross Tells Terry Grimley Why It Might

Article excerpt

Byline: Terry Grimley

Hip hop, the music and lifestyle of black urban America, has turned into an international cultural phenomenon over the last decade or so -but could it be the next big thing in musicals?

Composer and director Felix Cross, artistic director of NITRO (formerly Black Theatre Co-operative) since 1996, thinks it has potential. To prove it, he has joined forces with hip hop choreographer Benji Reid and Birmingham's own jazz and hip hop phenomenon Soweto Kinch to produce Slamdunk, possibly the world's first hip hop and basketball musical.

'It's a musical in the sense you would expect it to be -it has characters, a beginning, a middle and an end,' says Cross. 'Songs mark the emotional peaks of the story in the usual way, but characters rap the songs rather than sing them.

'We're very lucky to have Soweto Kinch writing the music. Between the three of us we wrote the story, and Benji Reid and I directed it together.

'We're a company who produce work from a black British perspective, but it doesn't mean what we do is automatically urban or street culture. NITRO has been doing it for longer than anyone else because we're 25 years old this year.'

Why a musical about basketball? 'I'm told it's the fastest-rising sport in Britain. There's also streetball, which does what it says on the tin -it's playing basketball on the street. The rules are much more loose, much less about scoring points and much more about being very flash and making little tricks.

'Both sports are allied to hip hop culture-there will be a beatbox going on in a corner while they're playing. There are some people in the show who are semi-pro or make their living by teaching basketball. It was essential when I was auditioning the cast that everyone had basketball skills, though some had to be very good actors as well.'

Slamdunk, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from tonight until Saturday as part of the Decibel Xpo festival, is a show for big theatres and, Felix Cross hopes, diverse audiences.

He believes it will attract devotees of music theatre as well as street culture, so how we would he explain hip hop to the uninitiated? …