Ronvé O’Daniel wants to shake up the musical theater landscape with a new work grounded in hip-hop.
The 2006 Wright State University theater arts graduate has written the book and lyrics to “iLLA: A Hip-Hop Musical,” a semi-autobiographical account concerning Robert Perry, a classically trained ballet dancer in an interracial relationship who dreams of becoming a famous rap star. Robert battles fears, prejudice and a dysfunctional family in order to achieve personal success and acceptance within his community.
Set in 2008 and described as a “story of swagger, struggle and self-love,” the musical, co-created/composed by Jevares C. Myrick, who attended WSU, will receive a developmental staged reading at New York’s Mint Theater on July 20 and 23 at the 12th annual New York Musical Theatre Festival.
“Theater and hip-hop have more in common than many people think,” said O’Daniel, a 31-year-old rapper and producer born in Queens, N.Y., and raised in Marietta, Ga. “Everyone wants to be better, to provide for our families, to be successful in whatever capacity, which is the essence of the show. I want people to have an open mind with ‘iLLA.’ If people can relate to the story or dive into it and look past the rap music, they will discover a coming-of-age tale of a young man figuring out how to love himself, which is a universal story bigger than rap. Jevares in particular is also providing a balance that allows us to stay true to the hip-hop elements and musical theater aspects with a merge of R&B and gospel.”
“iLLA” began as a solo album to be released through O’Daniel’s label. The title is deemed an adjective meaning “exceedingly ill, greater than, more superior” as if to say “his rhymes are ill, but mine are illa.” With excitement building next month for the Broadway transfer of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop-infused off-Broadway hit “Hamilton” and the ongoing popularity of Fox’s Emmy-worthy hip-hop drama “Empire,” O’Daniel, who has opened for such artists as Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child and rapper 2 Chainz, is excited to have his project uniquely stand out among the inclusions in the prestigious NYMT festival, the launching pad for such award-winning musicals as “Next to Normal,” “[title of show]” and “Altar Boyz.”
“The prominence of hip-hop in theater, TV and movies is long overdue,” O’Daniel said. “There is a surge happening in a great way, and I’m glad I have a chance to contribute to the momentum. Hip-hop, when it’s great, can really make you laugh, dance, cry and research. We were given the option of presenting ‘iLLA’ as a full production or a developmental reading, and I’m glad we took the developmental route. I’ve dabbled in scriptwriting but nothing to this magnitude. I’m writing my first musical. I’m still learning, but I feel confident I will have a lot of contacts at my disposal to help me make this show the best it can be.”
O’Daniel’s WSU credits include “The Piano Lesson,” “Ragtime” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and his Atlanta regional theater credits include “Seussical” and “The Amen Corner.” He is still grateful for the sound advice he received from instructors at WSU, particularly director Sheila Ramsey, who dynamically staged “Piano Lesson” and “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“Without Wright State I wouldn’t have this musical,” he said. “Sheila particularly told me that in this business nothing is guaranteed, nothing is definite. A lot of people who work in the theater from actors to stage managers live without knowing where their next paycheck is coming from. Sheila said if ever you can’t find work, you have to create your own work. I truly believe this, and that’s how ‘iLLA’ came about.”
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