In a 2017 column titled "What the Hell Is Flute Rap and Why Is It So Good," GQ called Future's "Mask Off" both the "best song in the world" and "one of the strangest songs to hit the radio in a long time." What made the Atlanta rapper's song so great and so strange at the same time? According to the mystified writer it was an unexpectedly "banging" flute sample lifted from the original cast recording of a seldom produced Broadway musical called Selma, a 1970s-era funk and gospel-laden fantasia reflecting on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Future wasn't the first artist to dig a copy of Tony Butler's musical out of a used record bin and give it an afterlife. Samples also show up in tracks by Method Man and King Little G. For a piece of musical theater that fell through the cracks, Selma, and its banging flute, has reached a lot of contemporary ears. Now the Hattiloo Theatre is dusting off the source material to see how a blunt, badly-reviewed musical that toured during America's self-congratulatory bicentennial year speaks to audiences in 2018.
"We're using masks," says Selma director and choreographer Emma Crystal, explaining how she's made the most of a 12-person cast — and pop culture.
Butler's idiosyncratic musical tells the story of the Montgomery bus boycott using a mix of historical figures and allegorical archetypes like Sheriff Barnside and James Crow. "He starts the play out with the sanitation workers strike in Memphis even though that didn't happen until years later," Crystal says. "I guess theatrically it worked for him."
Crystal says she also took a bit of license. "The show is supposed to end with 'We Shall Overcome.' I was just tired of hearing that every February because we ARE overcoming. So I chose 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' to give it a little swing at the end."
"Selma" at the Hattiloo February 23rd-March 18th. $26-$35. Hattiloo.org