Broadway has always given voice to popular culture and social change. “South Pacific,” “West Side Story,” “Hair,” “For Colored Girls…,” “Sarafina,” and “Rent” are among those that hit home. Now the Great White Way is giving voice to the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, whose music has sold more than 77 million albums, in the rap musical, “Holler If Ya Hear Me.”
“Holler If Ya Hear Me,” which opened at the Palace Theater on June 19, is described by its producers as a non-biographical story about love, friendship, family, revenge, change and hope. While the musical is attracting new audiences who have never gone to a Broadway show before, it has got off to slow start. The show’s producers have already declined rumors that the show is closing due to low ticket sales.
“Holler If Ya Hear Me” is not about Tupac’s life but it is a gangland saga. The somewhat controversial rap artist died at the age of 25 in a 1996 drive-by shooting. The musical weaves 21 of his songs (two of which are actually musically arranged versions of his poems) into a story about a recently sprung inmate named hoping to stay out of trouble. It stars slam poet Saul Williams as the lead character John, and “In The Heights’” Christopher Jackson as his buddy Vertus. It’s set in the present day in an unnamed Midwestern town though the lyrics are firmly rooted in the mid-1990s.
The Broadway show is a culmination that began years ago with the late acclaimed playwright August Wilson, a book written by Todd Kreidler (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), reportedly a frequent Wilson collaborator, and the involvement of Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur, who serves as a producer on the show. Tupac’s music covered a lot of ground, according Kreidler, who recalls something playwright August Wilson told him back in 2001: “There’s nothing contained in your life that’s not contained in [Tupac Shakur’s] music. There’s love, honor, duty, betrayal, love of a people. There’s a whole universe in that music!”
The show’s creators take some liberties like turning “Unconditional Love” into a ballad duet and having a female chorus singing “Keep Your Head Up.” Tupac fans will appreciate renditions of classic like “Dear Mama,” “Me Against The World,” “I Get Around,” and “California Love.”
“Holler If Ya Hear Me” brings together some of the theater’s most prominent creative talents, including director Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun,” “Fences,” “Stickfly,” Mountaintop”) and musical supervisor Daryl Waters (“Bring in ‘Da Noise,” “Bring In ‘Da Funk,” “The Color Purple,” “Memphis”). It also stars Toy Award Winner and former soap star Tony Perkins as Vertus’ mother.
Hip-hop has made it to Broadway before, including Tony-winning “In the Heights” about the American Dream and Dominican life in Washington Heights, New York; the show tested the waters Off Broadway first. “Holler If Ya Hear Me” is an $8 million production that producers opted to open directly on Broadway in a prime Times Square location that last housed the musical “Annie,” according to the New York Times.
Though influential producers reportedly were invited to the show’s workshops, they by and large declined to invest, also reports the Times. Instead, the lead producers are Jessica Green, Eric Gold, a longtime Hollywood manager, and a producer new to Broadway, Shin Chun-soo, a South Korean theater impresario. “I’m prepared to nobly fail or to nobly succeed,” Gold reportedly stated.