Tupac Shakur’s Songs Fuel Broadway Musical ‘Holler if Ya Hear Me’ Opening June 19 at Palace Theater

Saul Williams, center, in “Holler if Ya Hear Me.” (Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

In the spring of 2001, Todd Kreidler met his boss, the playwright August Wilson, for breakfast at the Cafe Edison, as was their custom. Mr. Kreidler was assisting Wilson as he brought his play “King Hedley II” to Broadway, but really he was there to learn whatever Wilson wanted to teach him. And that morning, the subject was Tupac Shakur.

After a bit of chitchat, Wilson was exasperated with his charge. “You don’t really know ‘Dear Mama,’ ” he said, referring to Shakur’s signature ode to his mother. He got up, threw money on the table, marched out the door and to the nearby Virgin Megastore. There, he bought a copy of Shakur’s album “Me Against the World” and pressed it into Mr. Kreidler’s hands.

“There’s nothing contained in your life that’s not contained in that music,” Wilson told him, Mr. Kreidler recalled. “There’s love, honor, duty, betrayal, love of a people. There’s a whole universe in that music!” He made it clear, with some vulgarities for emphasis, that Mr. Kreidler wasn’t to return to rehearsal until he’d absorbed it all.

Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur in 1992. (Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photos)

So on the day in 2010, when Mr. Kreidler opened a FedEx box with 23 of Shakur’s CDs and two books of his writings, tasked with building from them a musical rooted in that rapper’s words, he was prepared.

The result is “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” which opens at the Palace Theater on June 19, and weaves 21 songs by Shakur (two of which are musically arranged versions of his poems) into a story about a community struggling to pull hope from the grasp of entrenched social ills. Put differently, it’s not a Broadway-ification of Shakur’s life or vision so much as a repurposing of his words into an emotionally felt, family-friendly context.

“It’s a story about unconditional love that uplifts all of his words,” said Kenny Leon, the musical’s director, a veteran of Wilson’s “Fences” and the current “A Raisin in the Sun.” In that, “Holler” has plenty in common with the rest of Broadway, and the creative team was careful in managing how the play handled what Mr. Leon termed “the things that people think they hate” — bad language, guns, violence.

But it’s an open question whether the familiar Broadway audience, or even the middle-class black theatergoers who have been drawn in by “Raisin,” can make room in their hearts and wallets for Shakur’s words. Hip-hop has made it to Broadway before, but the Tony-winning “In the Heights” tested the waters Off Broadway first, and didn’t have to contend with an implied star whom people find controversial even years after his death.

The $8 million production seems to be splitting the difference; opening directly on Broadway — in a prime Times Square location that last housed “Annie,” no less — but after the Tony awards deadline. (Pop-minded shows like “Bring It On – The Musical” have lately taken a similar route.) Though influential producers were invited to the show’s workshops, they by and large declined to invest. Instead, the lead producers are Eric Gold, a longtime Hollywood manager and producer who is new to Broadway, and Shin Chun-soo, a South Korean theater impresario. “I’m prepared to nobly fail or to nobly succeed,” Mr. Gold said.

Murdered in 1996 in a case that’s still unsolved, Shakur remains, even after all these years, one of hip-hop’s most celebrated figures, a radical thug intellectual with an outsize gift for creating his character in real time. He was prolific and contradictory, a child of activists signed, late in his career, to Death Row, the label that mainstreamed gangster rap.

His vivid, rollicking life was full of trauma and ruptures, but “Holler if Ya Hear Me” — whose title is drawn from a Shakur song — for the most part steers clear of biography, for artistic reasons, and because the creative team didn’t have the rights to Shakur’s life story. (Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur, is one of the producers, but she and representatives of his estate declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“Holler” is the result of almost 15 years of on and off conversations on two parallel tracks between Ms. Shakur and both Mr. Leon and Mr. Gold.

“Tupac was different from everyone else, because he came from a family that was politically active,” Mr. Gold said. “To tell his story right, you need to tell the larger context of the black experience in America.” Both he and Ms. Shakur thought Wilson, a double Pulitzer Prize winner for works in his 10-play cycle on African-American life, was the right person for the task. “They were really coming at him hard to do it,” Mr. Kreidler recalled. “It’s not that he didn’t respect the project. He was just trying to finish the cycle.” Wilson declined the offer, and after he died in 2005, it stood in limbo for several years, until Mr. Leon united with Mr. Kreidler.

“The fact that critics often say Pac is contradictory — great material for a dramatist,” Mr. Kreidler said of the process that saw him dissecting lyrics to forge a narrative. “I didn’t want to make up a story and then cut up Tupac to fit in it. I wanted to go from the inside out.” (He made only a couple of minor lyrical tweaks, to avoid period-specific references.)

The result is an unexpectedly utopian take on Shakur’s work. By divvying up his songs among different characters, with some being split into several voices, Mr. Kreidler asserted a philosophical position: the notion — radical to some — that Tupac Shakur is universal, that a part of him can be found in everyone. (This would have been more difficult to pull off using the work of the Notorious B.I.G, who was cinematic and epic-scaled and fantastical where Shakur was folksier, more naturalistic and emotionally direct.)

“At first I sort of hid,” Mr. Kreidler, who is white and grew up in western Pennsylvania, said of his work on the book, fearful of getting in the way of Shakur, “my writing partner.” But Mr. Leon prodded him: “He said: ‘You’ve got to write the book up to Tupac. You’ve got to let these guys talk.’ ”

The story takes place in present day in an anonymous city — pointedly not Los Angeles, New York or anyplace specifically tied to Shakur. It revolves around a group of friends who congregate on one block: their families, their good and bad choices, their ruptured relationships.

Casting came from a handful of readings and workshops dating back to 2011. Christopher Jackson, a veteran of “In the Heights,” joined early, playing Vertus, a reformed tough guy trying to find his way to the light. (The Tony winner Tonya Pinkins portrays his mother in the cast of 22.) The final round of auditions landed Saul Williams for the pivotal role of John, fresh from jail and newly saddled with a conscience.

Both Mr. Williams and Mr. Jackson have backgrounds that span hip-hop and traditional theater. Mr. Williams, one of the great spoken-word poets of the 1990s and 2000s, recalled interpreting hip-hop songs for acting school auditions. Mr. Jackson is in a hip-hop improv troupe, Freestyle Love Supreme, with Lin-Manuel Miranda (the composer-lyricist of “In the Heights”) among others. And both felt a visceral connection to Shakur: They each remembered being reduced to tears at learning of his death. (It was also the spark for “Coded Language,” one of Mr. Williams’s most ferocious poems.)

“Pac was so insightful,” said Mr. Williams, who is also at work on “Martyr Loser King,” his own hip-hop musical. “ ‘I Ain’t Mad at Ya,’ ‘Dear Mama,’ listen to those lyrics. It’s crazy how much heart and vulnerability and passion and empathy was in his music. I never heard a rapper reference being brought to tears as much as Pac.”

That intensity was on display on a recent afternoon at the studios of Ballet Hispanico on the Upper West Side, where the cast and crew were rehearsing.

Mr. Leon runs a tight ship; when a member of the ensemble forgot a line and briefly broke character, everyone had to drop to the floor and do 10 push-ups. At another point, he expressed his disappointment in some of the performances plainly: “Can you guys come in again, and this time bring truth with you?”

Among the other players on the creative team was Daryl Waters, the show’s musical supervisor and a veteran of “Bring in da Noise, Bring In da Funk,” who listened closely to be sure that Shakur’s lyrics landed with impact.

“There’s a density and complexity in the actual lyrics in rap that takes precedent,” he said. “What is the best way to make sure we stay focused on what’s being said?” Among his answers: Adding space, adjusting tempos and avoiding underscoring, places where the music does the storytelling instead of the characters.

Movement, too, has been designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. “The life of the neighborhood had to keep going,” said Wayne Cilento, the choreographer, best known for “Wicked.” Though he manages to include bits of krumping, tutting, gliding, popping and locking among other signature styles, the dances don’t feel era-specific, crucial for a musical trying to avoid being seen as a period piece.

In hoping to create an atypical show, producers have turned to remaking the Palace Theater, creating a stadium seating arrangement in the orchestra that cuts out about 600 seats, leaving roughly 1,100. So the show will take longer to earn its investment back — “I’m pushing out months and months when normal recoupment would happen,” Mr. Gold said — but also puts less immediate pressure on sales.

The theater will also feature an educational space created in partnership with the National Museum of Hip-Hop, and “Holler if Ya Hear Me” will offer a study guide prepared by the Harvard Hip-Hop Archive & Research Institute. The goal is to help build new audiences from scratch: people who see something new at the theater and, over time, continue to look to Broadway for more stories like it.

“This is the greatest stage for storytelling in our country, and I think Tupac Shakur belongs there,” Mr. Leon said. He took a breath, then continued: “Tupac is going to be in the same building ‘Annie’ was — that’s America.”

article by Jon Caramanica via nytimes.com

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