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How ‘Empire’ Season 2 Raised the Stakes (Emmy Watch)

Shakespeare meets hip hop in the second season of the Fox musical drama, offering 56 original songs and more editorial challenges.

It’s fitting that there’s a Shakespeare quote on the cover page of every script for “Empire,” as the expansion of Terrence Howard’s role as former drug dealer turned hip hop mogul Lucious Lyon has created a “King Lear” overtone to the second season.

But despite the amping up of family melodrama and musical performance, editor Raul Davalos chose not to over-cut, in order to preserve the impact.

“Essentially, the guideline for me is try to let the actors perform within the frame and there’s no reason to rely heavily on close-ups,” Davalos explained.

This season’s showrunners Ilene Chaiken, Danny Strong and Lee Daniels have raised the stakes with the hostile family takeover of the Empire music company, pitting Lucious against ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and his three sons: Andre (Trai Byers), the eldest and bi-polar CFO; Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the gay singer-songwriter and Lyon “black sheep”; and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), a rising hip hop star and favorite son of Lucious.

At the same time, there are 56 original songs to help explore the emotional highs and lows. “I try to avoid over-cutting the musical sections also, but sometimes you can’t change the choreography,”added Davalos, “and so I’ve been tending to let things play a little longer so you could actually see the performance.”

One of the musical highlights was a freestyle battle rap in “My Bad Parts” between Hakeem and the more aggressive Freda Gatz (Bre-Z).

“Initially, there were six performances, three each, but because of time constraints we had to narrow it down to two per,” said Davalos. “And that was a massive undertaking, not only with the performances and their behavior during the delivery of the lines, but also with the crowd reaction. And there’s also the subtext going on between Cookie and Lucious. And we had a more extended rehearsal/training sequence for eventual the rap battle.”

A different confrontation occurs between Lucious and Hakeem under a bridge by the river at the conclusion of “Death Will Have His Day,” in which the father dares his son to shoot him: “You want to be king? Kill your father and sit on his throne. Shoot me so I don’t have to do it to you.”

As scripted, the scene took place in the middle of the episode, but the editor rearranged it to achieve greater clarity and impact. “We realize two things: this guy’s crazy and he’s not going to shoot Hakeem because he’s a star of the show,”Davalos recalled. “But then in today’s world of series, anybody can go any time, as ‘Game of Thrones’ has so eloquently told everyone. I tried again not to over-cut it and let things play within the frame as much as I could to get the best performances.”

As for the cliff-hanging finale (“Past is Prologue”) featuring a mysterious fatality: “There were actually too many threads and we had to pull back and focus on the main story,” Davalos said. “So it’s a big picture sort of challenge rather than cutting a particular performance.”

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