The idea of a gay rap musical might seem a jokey gimmick, especially considering rap music's well-known homophobic bent. But the brilliant and inventive Bash'd: A Gay Rap Opera is anything but a joke or a gimmick. The all-rapped show credibly co-opts the blunt aggression and uncompromisingly explicit language of hip-hop to deliver an affecting gay love story and an in-your-face demand for equal rights. The result is exhilarating and distinctly contemporary music theater that exploits, rather than diminishes, the unique ferocity of rap for the stage.
The show's writer-performers, Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow , respectively play Jack and Dillon (and, with skill and dexterity, a wide variety of characters who interact with them). The two young gay Canadians meet, fall quickly in love and (as was newly legal in their country in 2005 when the musical is set) get married. Their happiness is cut short when Jack is brutally gay bashed: Jack shuts down fearfully in the aftermath, while Dillon seethes with righteous rage and the not-so-righteous need to retaliate.
Throughout, composer Aaron Macri's hip-hop score is put to judicious storytelling use in tandem with Craddock and Cuckow's easily flowing, sometimes baldly pornographic lyrics. The couple's courtship is rendered with believable warmth and tenderness, using nearly conversational plain-spoken raps to articulate the men's deepening connectedness. The typically declamatory nature of rap is put to advantageous use for the show's funniest number, a club-ready crowd-pleaser in which the men succinctly categorize the types they encounter in gay bar culture. As the story becomes increasingly dark, Macri capitalizes on rap's uniquely percussive qualities to musicalize Dillon's rage.
Before the gay bashing, the show is mostly a celebration of gay identity which mostly, but not entirely, avoids dramatic cliche. Dillon, raised in a small province, grows up isolated from gay culture in a household that answers his coming out with no son of mine-type intolerance. (In contrast, Jack's big city home is headed up by two entirely supportive dads). While some of the story's events might seem shopworn on paper, the freshness of the presentation gives them exciting, vivid life and delivers them, under Ron Jenkins' dynamic direction, with new urgency and humor.
After the bashing, the show's tone becomes more blatantly aggressive, eventually no less than an out and proud rallying cry for equal rights and social justice. There's nothing subtle about it, but if it were subtle it wouldn't be true to the blunt directness of rap music. In line with the most basic and original functions of rap music to fight the power on behalf of the oppressed, the show very clearly attributes Canada's rise in anti-gay hate crimes to public authorities whose fighting words sought to inspire outrage over same-sex marriages. To say the show is topical would be understatement.
Perhaps the most thrilling success of Bash'd: A Gay Rap Opera is that it puts credible hip-hop on stage, confidently claiming the genre's hyper-masculine swagger in service of a richly emotional story of gay empowerment. To put it bluntly, it's a knockout.