Is Broadway Ready for Hip Hop? Tupac Shakur Musical Aims to Be a Game-Changer

Saul Williams, Todd Kreidler, Chuck Creekmur and Daryl Waters discuss the Broadway premiere of Holler If Ya Hear Me and if Broadway is ready for a hip hop musical. 

Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur

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Broadway's Palace Theatre has played host to the works of legendary songwriters Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Jule Styne and countless others. Now, another iconic moniker makes its way to the Palace's famed marquee: Tupac Shakur.

The words and poetry of one of hip-hop's most provocative and prolific voices has found its way to Broadway after a near 15-year long journey. The new musical entitled Holler If Ya Hear Me, which opened June 19, has a connection to August Wilson and has remained a passion project for director Kenny Leon.

With a story by dramaturg Todd Kreidler, the musical stars Saul Williams as John, who returns to his Midwestern hometown after being in prison for six years. Christopher Jackson, Saycon Sengbloh, Ben Thompson, John Earl Jelks, Joshua Boone, Dyllon Burnside and Tony winner Tonya Pinkins comprise the host of characters that await John on his journey home.

After achieving stardom as rap music's bad boy, Shakur (née Lesane Parish Crooks) died September 13, 1996 — six days after being shot during a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. With millions of records sold before and after his murder at the age of 25, he remains one of the genre's most iconic figures. "I'm such a Tupac fan beyond his music, but of his spirit too," said Williams. "I think that in terms of what [Jean-Michel] Basquiat may represent as the visual artist of the hip-hop world... I think that Tupac is the sonic equivalent to that."

Williams, a Tisch School of the Arts graduate, is an acclaimed poet and performer in his own right. His 1998 independent film debut "Slam" won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and has become a cult classic. A self-proclaimed "theatre kid," Holler marks his Broadway debut. Upon hearing the news he was chosen for the show, he said he cried with his newlywed wife: "At that moment, it was like, 'I'm going to Broadway to do this thing that I was actually prepared to do, the thing that I've been studying for and fighting for my whole life, which is just theatricalizing hip hop.'"

Saul Williams
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The title Holler If Ya Hear Me, derived from a song off Shakur's 1993 album, is not a biographical project; it's an original musical featuring his lyrics and poetry — like the prose found in Shakur's book "The Rose that Grew from Concrete." Kreidler, a protégé of the late August Wilson, wouldn't have it any other way.

Kreidler recalled a time in 2001 when Wilson brought him to the Virgin Megastore in Times Square to buy Shakur's third album, "Me Against the World." Wilson made Kreidler listen to the CD before joining rehearsals for King Hedley II. And while Kreidler remained in awe of the rapper's lyrical prowess, he still had reservations when he was originally approached to do a Shakur project.

"They don't remember this part, but I know the first conversation I had with someone was they wanted to do the bio story and I said, 'Hey that sounds great, I'll come see it, but that's certainly not for me,'" Kreidler revealed. "Also, I said I can't bring anything new to it… and frankly, I didn't have a deep knowledge of the whole West Coast rap war thing, but I said I think that it gets in the way of the music."

In 2010 Leon, who worked with Kreidler at the True Colors Theatre in Atlanta, approached him again about working on the project, this time with the concept of using Shakur's music to tell an original story. "I said, 'Man, out of all the people in the world, you want me?" He said, 'Yeah, man, I think you can do it.'"

So, is Broadway ready for hip-hop in its purest form? Throughout the years, various genres outside traditional musical theatre have made it to the boards. From the pop sensibility of Disney tuners, to the rhythm and blues stylings of Dreamgirls and The Wiz — some have gone into the annals of Broadway history. In some instances, like the '80s-themed Rock of Ages and the disco-era'd Mamma Mia!, rock music has found continuous success among today's theatregoers. Rosie O'Donnell's short-lived Boy George–scored Taboo, on the other hand, was nearly dead on arrival. Even Bill T. Jones's Afrobeat tour-de-force Fela! lasted only a little over a year. It is safe to say that the tried and true tradition of jazz-styled showtunes ( Chicago) and roof-shattering balladry ( The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked) seems to be a winning formula.

As far as hip-hop goes, George C. Wolfe's masterful 1996 musical revue Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk featured elements of the genre — thanks partly to the prose of poet Reg E. Gaines, who wrote the book.

Todd Kreidler
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

In 2002 the Tony-winning Def Poetry Jam, the brainchild of hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons and an extension of his popular HBO series, surfaced.

In 2008 Lin-Manuel Miranda's Latino-flavored hip-hop hybrid In the Heights won the Tony for Best Musical. And while Broadway may have embraced it, it wasn't necessarily fodder on hip-hop radio stations either.

Chuck Creekmur, founder and CEO of rap culture website allhiphop.com, thinks Holler could have more universal appeal. "I believe that Tupac's story has resonated for so long for so many people because it entails so many aspects of regular life. But, more importantly, Tupac's music has inspired people on all levels. On the flip side, he's also known as a polarizing figure musically so I'm definitely interested in seeing what version of 'Pac will come to life. There are so many."

Williams, while ecstatic about the possi­bilities for the show, questions if traditional Broadway audiences are prepared for what they will see. "For this to be the first time that you're going to hear hip-hop, I don't actually think that audience members are ready for the cathartic experience that may come from feeling it in the theatre because when I read it, it feels like an achievement."

Tony-winning orchestrator Daryl Waters, currently conducting the Lincoln Center All-Stars in After Midnight, agreed. " Once I started looking at what Tupac does and his lyrics, I said 'Man, I understand why Kenny has been pushing for this one,'" he said. "He's got a lot to be said, and it needs to be said on a different platform. And where people might not ordinarily be listening to it, may come in and give it a listen and may change their opinion about what they think about hip-hop and rap itself." "What's fun about this is the musical is very mindful of the form and if you look for it, you'll find all the sign posts of a musical," Kreidler added. "There is an 11 o'clock number. There is a love ballad. Maybe not in the way you've heard it before but those pieces are there."

Creekmur for one thinks just having the show on Broadway is a good thing. "I'm not certain that this alone will open doors for hip-hop–themed plays and performances. But, it's a great first step. If anything, if the play is well-received within both the hip-hop and arts communities, I think it will be a driver for other quality plays [like it] on Broadway."