Viewers are already aware of the references to classic literature and drama that pepper “Empire’s” modern storylines. From the pilot, the FOX series has relied heavily on Shakespeare’s “King Lear” for many paternal and filial themes, and we continue to see repeating motifs from James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” in which Henry II and their children reunite with his ex-wife after a years-long imprisonment. But they didn’t stop there, drawing on everything from Bizet to Dickens as they’ve gone.
Lucious’ (Terrence Howard) nagging guilt over killing Bunkie, as well as the wife of — well, almost everybody — “MacBeth.” Season 1, episode 9 was titled “Unto the Breach,” from the famous speech in “Henry IV”: In the play, the British King readies his army for the French War, while on “Empire,” the Lyons prepared to defend against rival label Creedmore. Camilla (Naomi Campbell) once referred to her relationship with Hakeen (Bryshere Grey) as being similar to “Antony and Cleopatra,” for which Jamal (Jussie Smollett) aptly replies, “Ya’ll know that’s a tragedy in which they both end up dying at the end, right?”
“Empire” has never been shy about its highbrow conceit — as the show’s gone on, it’s seemed almost over the top at times — but this time, they’re really going for it.
The Oct. 12 episode, entitled “Cupid’s Killer,” brought the world of Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera, “La Boheme,” to the fictional hip-hop empire of New York City. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time.
With Taye Diggs currently killing it in his guest-starring role as Angelo, an episode devoted to the inspiration for Jonathon Larson’s “Rent” — in which Diggs originated the role of “Benny” on Broadway, of course — made for a beautiful, metafictional web, as all these different adaptations synchronistically came together in a way we haven’t seen done so well, or so loudly, since the good old days of “Gossip Girl”: At one point in the episode, Cookie (Tarji P. Henson) playfully looks at Angelo and asks, “You’ve heard this song, right?”
Oh, he’s definitely heard the song. Both Angelo, who took Cookie to see the opera, and Diggs, who in real life has lived it. It’s a quick moment lots of casual fans might’ve missed, but for any theater geek, it was a quick moment that gave us life. “Hamilton” brings history forward with hip-hop, and that’s important — but the stories and music we love can take us backward along their history, too.
The parallels with “La Boheme,” “Rent” and the 2005 Columbus-directed feature, which also starred Diggs, did not end there: The love triangle between Lucious, Cookie and Angelo is reminiscent of Mark, Maureen and Joanne in the play, and Marcello, Musetta and Alcindoro in the opera — that make-up, break-up, make-up cycle of of Puccini’s Rodolfo and Mimi’s mirror is obviously killing us with Cookie and Lucious (although it goes without saying Lucious is no Rodolfo.)
Seeing moments from the 1896 opera, the 1996 musical, and the 2005 movie come to life on “Empire,” united by the business and musical threads that bind all the characters together, made this one of the most creative episodes the series has ever done. Not only did it represent 19th century music through the gorgeous voice of professional opera singer Lauren Michelle, it introduced one of the oldest and most important parts of “Empire’s” musical landscape and rich history to its youngest and most hungry audience members… Without missing a beat.
“Empire” airs on Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.