A watershed moment, a major milestone, recently took place on Broadway, with the orchestras of four major shows led under the batons of distinguished African-American music directors and conductors. This marks the first time in the history of Broadway that this many African-Americans have been in executive roles in major productions running contemporaneously.
The men in front of the orchestra and behind the music are (L to R) Daryl Waters, music supervisor and conductor for “After Midnight,” recalling Duke Ellington’s years at the Cotton Club; Zane Mark, music director and conductor for “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” inspired by the late hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur; Joseph Joubert, music director and conductor for “Motown the Musical,” about Berry Gordy’s famous music label; and Shelton Becton, conductor, pianist and performer in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” about the legendary Billie Holliday.
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.
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.
A new musical inspired by the rap songs of the late Tupac Shakur is heading to Broadway. Holler If Ya Hear Me is scheduled to open at the Palace Theatre in New York on June 19, with preview performances set to begin on May 26. Holler isn’t a biographical account of Shakur, who was killed at the age of 25 in 1996 following a shooting in Las Vegas. Rather, the musical production will use the rapper’s lyrics to tell a story of contemporary inner-city lives.
Among the producers of the musical are Afeni Shakur, the rapper’s mother; movie and TV producer Eric L. Gold; and Chunsoo Shin, the prominent Korean theater producer who recently collaborated with the La Jolla Playhouse on another musical, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Kenny Leon (Steel Magnolias, A Raisin in the Sun), will direct Holler, which will feature a creative team that includes Wicked choreographer Wayne Cilento. Rumors of the Shakur musical had been circulating for months, though no official announcement from producers had been made until Wednesday.