Contemporary Broadway is filled with splashy adaptations of popular movies and revivals of long-ago hits.
The hard-core, truth-to-power stylings of Tupac Shakur? Not so much.
The creators of "Holler If Ya Hear me"--an ambitious musical that spins a new story from the late rapper's iconic turns of phrase—hope to change that.
The new work, opening June 19 at Broadway's Palace Theatre, tells of a hardscrabble young black man released from prison and the obstacles that lie in his path. The show is meant to indirectly evoke Shakur's own life but also tell a broader tale of racial and social injustice--and for people, those creators believe, far outside the hip-hop tent.
“When you take away the thing people think they don't like you’re just left with the words and the ideas,” director Kenny Leon said of the show's potential appeal. “If you focus on the artist that is Tupac and not the public persona, you'll see the universal themes.”
On a recent Friday, Leon and his cast were rehearsing at an Upper West side space. Pieces of the set moved, actors danced and star Saul Williams rapped about the things he’d seen in prison based on Shakur’s own lyrics about the subject. Some of the assembled were non-pro actors brought in on an open casting call because of their dancing or rapping skills, lending the proceedings an extra dose of authenticity.
Every once in a while, Leon, dressed casually in vintage Nike high-tops, called out “110” and got a chorus of “110’s” back, a reference to the 110% he wanted the cast to put in. There was an air of fun but also a seriousness of purpose as the cast brought to life Shakur’s message.
There’s plenty of the late rapper in the show. Among the numbers are arrangements of well-known Shakur songs such as "Keep Ya Head Up," “Dear Mama" and of course the title song, the last of which is Shakur’s very popular 1993 political protest track.
Their efforts are the culmination that began years ago with the late August Wilson, and includes a book written by Todd Kreidler, a frequent Wilson collaborator, and the involvement of Shakur's mother Afeni, who serves as a producer. Williams came on just a few weeks before rehearsals began.
The actor and poet said he would have turned down the part if it was a straight biography but soon realized the show had something more socially conscious on its mind
“We want to expose the hypocrisy of Puritanism in America, and what the American government doesn't want to tolerate about protest speech, which is what Pac was often singing about,” Williams said.
Fresh off his best director Tony nomination for his latest revival of Lorraine’s Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” Leon said he actually began re-engaging with Shakur’s lyrics while he was walking to rehearsal for “Raisin” listening to some of the tracks.
“What was amazing to me is that what Lorraine Hansberry and Tupac were writing about were the same thing,” he said. “Pac said ‘I didn’t make this world; it was given to me.’ And that’s what Lorraine is saying. They’re both writing about access to the American dream.”
“Holler” will open in a summer season that is usually light on serious dramas in favor of populist fare like Beatles sing-alongs.
But those working on it say that, for all the numbers’ catchiness, they won't shy away from the social message.
"Traditionally the role of theater, even Broadway theater, has been to shine a light and speak the truth,” Williams said, who added he believed the show was for all ages and colors. “is that what going to continue to be the role of theater, or is it going to be the gentrified theater where we only make plays out of hit movies?”