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Behind the Music: Rap, Broadway, Life and Art

The worlds of hip-hop and musical comedy hardly ever intersect. But they're both represented at the cineplex in new documentaries, The Hip Hop Project and ShowBusiness: The Road To Broadway. Both films concentrate on how real life can disrupt the creative process.

In ShowBusiness, director Dori Berinstein goes behind the scenes at four multi-million-dollar musicals to show that what looks effortless on stage is not. Take Wicked, a show based on The Wizard of Oz, which has been breaking records ever since it opened: Though it's certainly "Popular," to quote one of its two smash-hit songs, Wicked was a bit of a mess out of town, according to composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz.

"I think the major thing we discovered in San Francisco was that we had not yet solved and delivered the character of Elphaba, our main character," he confesses to Berinstein's cameras.

Now that's a problem. And the other shows in the movie — Caroline, or Change; Avenue Q; and Taboo, the Boy George extravaganza produced by Rosie O'Donnell — all had similar issues even before they were set upon by the critics, who are shown, in Berinstein's merciless film, sharpening their fangs over lunch.

Every theatrical story needs a villain, and Berinstein lets these guys more or less hang themselves on camera while she's blowing air kisses at the creative folks. This may be because she is, herself, a theatrical producer, so perhaps she sees ShowBusiness as a sort of love letter to the stage. As a critic, I wanted more illustration of a truism actors will cheerfully confess, off the record — that this business we call "show" is a cutthroat thing.

The business we call "rap" has frequently put itself out there as a cutthroat thing, so it's nice to see it pictured as a kind of teaching aid in The Hip Hop Project. Chris Rolle, whose stage name is Kharma Kazi, was homeless when he was 14, but by a decade later, he was heading a seriously cool program for Brooklyn high-schoolers. It offered them a chance to make a hip-hop CD, provided that they not rap about drugs, guns or materialism

The premise is so sweet it makes your teeth ache, right? But when one 17-year-old trusts the group enough to talk about how an adult once made him feel worthless, something intriguing happens: The memory reduces him to tears, and then he finds a way to turn that anguish into art. He begins a lyric, and it grows stronger, along with his voice, as he recovers his poise.

That the kids throw themselves into The Hip Hop Project may stem from the way their once-homeless mentor practices what he preaches. Kazi is an intriguingly conflicted guy, who decides midway through the film to mend fences with his own mother, to whom he hasn't spoken in a decade — all of which lends weight to the progress the kids are making.

As the music gets better in The Hip Hop Project, so does the documentary. The premise apparently works: Like the kids, the filmmakers got inspired by the story they were telling. So will audiences.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.