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Hip-hopping into history

Rodgers & Hart classic rewritten for London staging

Rodgers and Hart are going hip-hop.

The team’s 1938 musical “The Boys From Syracuse” is undergoing a thorough cultural and ethnic overhaul and will reopen as “Da Boyz” at London’s Theater Royal, Stratford East, with performances starting April 24. Press night is May 7 and the run continues through May 31.

Not that Richard Rodgers and the other collaborative ‘H’ in his life, namely Oscar Hammerstein II, have been immune from some distinctly modern-day interpretations of their songs. Stephan Elliott’s 1997 film “Welcome to Woop Woop” featured pretty singular covers of “I Cain’t Say No” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” among others, from such artists as Robin S., Reel Big Fish, and Poe.

But “Da Boyz,” some two years in the planning, marks the first time an extant musical very much in copyright has been streamlined, updated and “sampled” for a younger, largely non-white audience, many of whom won’t know anything about the traditions with which “Da Boyz” — subtitled “A Hip-Hop Concert” — so ebulliently tampers.

The venture is very much of a piece with the artistic aims of the Theater Royal, Stratford East, the flagship playhouse (seating capacity: 465) for the London borough, Newham, that has both the highest percentage of young people in the entire U.K. — a quarter of the population is under 16, vs. a national average of 6% — as well as the greatest ethnic diversity: 60.6% of its inhabitants are non-white. More than 100 languages are spoken in the borough’s schools.

Located in the working-class East End, traditionally one of Britain’s most economically deprived communities, Stratford East inhabits an entirely separate world from its West End kin, though several of the theater’s shows over time have traveled westward and well beyond (“Oh, What a Lovely War!” and “Five Guys Named Moe,” preeminently).

Nonetheless, the lineup of talent converging on “Da Boyz” is especially diverse, to say the least. U.K. hip-hoppers Kyza and Mystro are playing the twins, while guest appearances are expected from local Urban Music stars Rodney P. and Demolition Man. The choreographer is the singly named Steady, an established break dancer, with the similarly single-monikered Ultz — far and away the most seasoned member of the creative team (his Broadway credits include the designs for the Royal Shakespeare Co. transfer of “Good” in the early ’80s) — on hand as director-designer. (Talk about diversity: Ultz comes to “Da Boyz” fresh from a Munich production of Mozart opera “The Abduction From the Seraglio.”)

And while it’s not unusual for musicals these days to sample their wares for reporters, one can’t often have heard “Dear Old Syracuse” rapped and “sampled” as it was at an April 8 press launch by Kyza and Djan Hamit, following which Kyza and performer Vanya Taylor tore up the theater bar’s makeshift stage with “This Can’t Be Love.” In the absence of a live orchestra, the Rodgers score is being remixed to allow for garage, basement, R&B and hip-hop reworkings of some decades-old standards.

Philip Hedley, Stratford East a.d. for 24 years, explains the thinking behind the project, which comes to Stratford with the blessing of the Rodgers & Hammerstein org in New York. (“This organization was founded by men who took risks,” says R&H spokesman Bert Fink, “and we continue to take risks.”) With a budget of £210,000 ($330,000) — tiny by commercial standards but huge for Stratford East — the company definitely is taking a risk.

Hedley says he found himself wondering whether the local community “would come into the theater if their music was in the theater.”

What better way to test the waters than with a musical based on Shakespeare: “Rap is like blank verse,” Hedley says. “It has just as many rules.” And, in an odd coincidence, this show rooted in “The Comedy of Errors” opens in London the same night as the West End bow of the Off Broadway production “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” derived from the same source.

Hedley & Co. were emboldened by past sampling of individual musical songs — “Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” from “Oliver!” looped anew by Bustah Rhymes, or the Jay-Z version of “It’s the Hard-Knock Life,” from “Annie,” which gives a Depression-era anthem an immediacy for today. “The Boys From Syracuse” remix is a collaboration between hip-hop artist MC Skolla and BBC Radio’s DJ Excalibah, both of whom participated in a new musical-theater writing workshop sponsored by Stratford East two summers ago.

Describing his task as “adding noises and orchestrations to see what happens,” DJ Excalibah spoke of “Da Boyz” as that rare theater production that “addresses kids in the way they’re used to being addressed.” In keeping with the occasion, the auditorium doors will be left open to allow auds to move to and from the bar, while Ultz thinks of the staging as being in two “sets,” not acts, with a multiracial cast of 12 rapper-singers backed up by 18 dancers.

What of “Da Boyz” down the line? For the moment, the rights pertain very specifically to this run. On the other hand, it has been lost on no one that a vast urban market, hitherto untapped, exists for this or any show capable of taking the flavor of the street to an art form like theater that a non-white, middle-class audience — which is to say, the Stratford one, most probably thinks of as irrelevant or staid or both. To that end, a scenario steeped in talk of Ephesus in Asia Minor is being relocated to Stratford High Street, with the George Abbott book pared-down in order to put the music center-stage.

What “Da Boyz” isn’t, says DJ Excalibah, a 20-year-old Anglo-Jamaican who was born Matthew Goodall, is “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Les Miz” — “the usual bog-standard West End stuff that gets churned out.”

What it is, is a chance to cultivate an entirely new public. After all, says Hedley, with regard to his constituency, “Theater needs them much more than they need theater. Yes?”

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