Def Jam Founder Russell Simmons on His Big Broadway Bet, 'The Scenario'

Russell Simmons was prepared to be disappointed when he first saw Rock of Ages. Encouraged by Jake Stein, his partner in Def Pictures, to attend the ‘80s rock-filled Broadway musical before it closed in 2015, Simmons thought he “was going to hate this shit.” But that performance was a breakthrough moment for the legendary Def Jam founder: “This was just one narrow piece of culture and it sticks with people,” he tells Billboard. “What if we expanded it to hip-hop, which has cross-generational appeal?”

That moment would eventually inspire Simmons’ own foray into the Broadway-meets-major-musical-catalog game: The Scenario. Part musical, part hip-hop concert, the show will weave all of the genre’s history into a multi-arc love story when it debuts on Broadway for the 2017-18 season. “The Scenario is everyone’s story,” says Simmons, on the phone from Los Angeles. “It is a story about everyone evolving, learning, growing, and coming of age.”

Simmons is adamant that the show will be steeped in hip-hop history: Dan Charnas, one of The Source’s first writers and author of The Big Payback, which explores the early days of the art form, wrote the book (“He’s authentic,” says Simmons) and the musical’s title, inspired in part by A Tribe Called Quest’s similarly titled 1992 hit, is also a throwback hip-hop term. “Did I make a deal with Q-Tip for Scenario?,” Simmons semi-seriously questions Stein during our conversation. “Will that be a legal issue?”

To ensure that the show stays true to hip-hop’s roots, Simmons also partnered with Universal Music Group (along with Stein and the producers of Rock of Ages) to decide which songs from the Universal catalogue will be represented. “There are few people with Russell’s authority and insight who can tell this important story,” says Michele Anthony, an EVP at UMG who has been instrumental with framing The Scenario. As for the track list? “Everyone wants to participate in this celebration,” Simmons touts. “And I can almost certainly say that ‘Rapper’s Delight’ will be in this show, depending on publishing. [Kurtis Blow's] ‘Christmas Rapping’ and ‘The Breaks will probably be in the show, and we’d even like to include Migos.”

If there’s a perfect moment for a show like The Scenario, this might be it: While Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton continues its phenomenological run, the other most recent Broadway attempt at hip-hop -- the Tupac Shakur-inspired Holler If You Hear Me (“I never saw it, but it has nothing to do with what we are doing,” stresses Simmons) was a commercial and critical disappointment. Simmons allows that “people understood my play more once they saw Hamilton. The theater owners all love the idea now, whereas they didn’t necessarily like it before.” But the gate’s wide open for The Scenario to present something else entirely, for both the hip-hop heads who love their bars and younger fans combing through Spotify playlists. 

Over the past two years since the show was first announced, Simmons and his team have ironed the different intricacies that’ll separate The Scenario from its Broadway brethren. “Which part will be concert and which part will be narrative is still evolving,” Anthony says, but Simmons wants it to be the most interactive musical ever produced. “There is all this technology that is not being exploited through theater,” he says, “and we think that we can actually bring it to the audience so they can really participate.” He sees the show as one with both national and international appeal — which is why it’s set to first open in New York City, then expand to 30 cities across the country.

“This marketplace has a white space so large you can drive a truck through it,” says Simmons, who in fact already has a Tony award (for producing Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam in 2003). “There is a common human experience that comes out of hip-hop—it doesn’t have to be your experience to know it is authentic. When a soccer mom in Cleveland says ‘Bitch better have my money’, she really means, ‘I want the remote and I can’t get it.’ Everyone has the same struggle -- language and culture just makes it sound more interesting.”