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How the Dopest Playlist on Broadway Came Together

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There’s plenty to mesmerize an audience onstage at Topdog/Underdog, the Pulitzer-winning play by Suzan-Lori Parks on Broadway now in a limited engagement (through Jan. 13, 2023). The production — 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 received rave reviews for good reason: the story of two brothers (named Lincoln and Booth) bound by a gradually-revealed, traumatic family history and a love of the three-card monte street hustle, is by turns hilarious, haunting and heartbreaking, and Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen give performances that seem destined for Tony nominations.  

But audiences are talking about more than the spoken dialogue — they’re bopping along to the hip-hop and R&B playlist heard in the theater before the play even starts, between scenes, at intermission, and as the audience exits after the final bows. That collection of tracks is the handiwork of sound designer Justin Ellington, a theater veteran who’s also a composer, arranger, musician and academic. Topdog/Underdog’s creative team, led by director Kenny Leon, knew from the get-go that music “would play a huge role” in the show, says Ellington, so he worked to ensure that “storytelling was happening throughout the playlist, versus just feeling and theme.”  

Justin Ellington
Justin Ellington

The mix Ellington eventually landed on touches on diverse eras of hip-hop and R&B, adding to the timeless feel of the play’s action. “This is music we let into our homes to bring levity, balance…sometimes music is an escape, but it can also pull you in,” Ellington reflects. “This show does so much, so we’re constantly looking for balance, and the music helps settle us a bit throughout it.” He spoke to Billboard about some of the Topdog/Underdog playlist highlights, and what they add to an already multi-layered night at the theater. 

“They Reminisce Over You,” Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth 
The pre-show mix is a tour through hip-hop/R&B classics and innovators, from Flying Lotus and Thundercat’s “MmmHmm” to D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie” to Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man.” But “’Reminisce Over You’ gets them every time,” says Ellington of the ‘90s classic. “That’s like the song that brings in a different generation. There are people that really love that song: it’s a touchstone in their lives.” And lyrically, “Wow, it’s on point. It’s offering a different perspective to the story you’re about to hear, preparing your ears for trial and tribulation among people and different forms of that. I think it’s one of the first songs in the mix where the lyrics are super present; there’s something about it that really stands out.” 

“Alright,” Kendrick Lamar 
The first of two Lamar tracks on Ellington’s show playlist is also part of the pre-show mix. Ellington hopes the repeated “It’s gonna be alright” line sinks in with the audience before the play has even begun. “Sonically it’s in line with today’s contemporary music and hip hop – something that attracts young people,” he says. But “the sound of it really envelops all people. You can’t help but start to tap a toe, and some people are rapping along to it, like, ‘This is my song.’ At the end of the day, if I heard no music playing and saw this very diverse audience all moving and grooving in their own way — that’s the pleasure for me.” 

“Grinding All My Life,” Nipsey Hussle 
Ellington knows that plenty of people who saw Topdog/Underdog when it premiered off-Broadway in 2001 have no idea who the late rapper Nipsey Hussle was — and, likewise, that most Nipsey fans may be totally new to the play. So he loved the idea of kicking off Act I with this track. “It makes audiences lean in a bit more,” he says. “Nipsey’s music comes on, and the world starts to change. For those who don’t know what the word ‘grinding’ represents outside of coffee, maybe that’ll be understood by the end of the show, or even by the end of the first scene.”  

Lupe Fiasco, “Kick, Push” 

At intermission, the audience has just learned that Lincoln, who’s vowed to get out of the three-card monte game for good, is ready to get back into it after all. “The character is basically saying, ‘I’m back,’” Ellington says. “I wanted to know the soundtrack that would motivate him to get out there and get back into his hustle — what would be this character’s energy?” Inspired in part by the skateboarders in the song’s music video — a metaphor, as Ellington sees it, “for moving forward, getting it” — he chose “Kick, Push” to kick off the intermission mix. It immediately makes heads start bobbing, with its dedication to “the homies out here grindin’…legally and illegally.”  

“Move on Up,” Curtis Mayfield 
Another intermission mix track that stands out to Ellington. “It’s a long song – almost nine minutes — but the energy is up,” he says. “It probably has the fastest tempo of any song we play. Just this up-up energy. It’s a song from two generations before that people are super familiar with” — in part, he adds, because Kanye “Ye” West sampled it for his “Touch the Sky” — which ensures there’s no lull between acts. “It’s a bop,” and it’s also on theme, exploring the idea of striving for a better place than you’re in while still recognizing the obstacles to getting there and how to get past them.  

“If I Should Die Tonight,” Marvin Gaye 
Director Leon gave Ellington fairly free creative rein in building the playlist, but the sound designer recalls this track may have been one of his few suggestions. “I know he’s a big Marvin Gaye fan, and we get to hear so much of that song with this dramatic entrance into the second act,” Ellington says. “It’s like a cinematic moment – we hear these lyrics that are just perfect for the moment: the angst, frustration, irritation, depth of love that [these characters have], this song just embodies it all.” Those familiar with the play, he points out, will recognize some literal meaning in the song title, too. “A lot of people know what we’re coming to, so you can be a little more bold [with music choice] and not worry about showing your hand too much,” he continues. “It’s just so perfect and heartbreaking.”  

Kendrick Lamar, “The Heart Part 5” 
Once the play is over, the audience leaves the theater as this standout Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers track plays. “There’s something about the intensity of it – it starts with this tension, the same note playing over and over, this rhythm that’s pushing,” says Ellington. “And when he starts — ‘I come from a generation…’ — it’s setting it up like, “Listen to me,” and “me” could be Booth or Lincoln or the kid sitting next to you or yourself.” The track isn’t meant to speak directly to the stunning last scene of the play, but to “get people out of the theater with some kind of resonance of that intensity without speaking specifically to it. I don’t know what it would feel like if the show ends and it’s just applause and no sound at all – I feel like that would be draining,” Ellington explains. “Now we start to think about what we just saw – we start to process, because the feelings are deep and rich. Kenny [Leon] always says the show isn’t over until the ghostlight comes on – so that Kendrick song will always play all the way out.” 

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