Broadway has had a punk jukebox musical with Green Day songs and one featuring harmonies by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. There's a jukebox show with Abba songs and a new Carole King one. Now it's time for rap.
"Holler If Ya Hear Me" is the intriguing musical inspired by songs by Tupac Shakur, one of hip-hop's greatest artists who wrote about the ugly life in the drug-fueled mean streets before dying of gunshot wounds in 1996.
The high-energy, deeply felt but ultimately overwrought production opened Thursday in a blaze of N-words at the Palace Theatre, proving both that rap deserves its moment to shine on a Broadway stage and that some 20 Shakur songs can somehow survive the transformation - barely.
Writer Todd Kreidler and director Kenny Leon wisely avoided writing a Shakur biography and instead have fashioned a fictional story in a traditional two-act format, compete with reprises. It's a tragedy, with more than a whiff of Shakespearian doom and bluster.
But the creators apparently haven't trusted it to appear in a traditional Broadway theater. Stadium-style seating built in the Palace's orchestra section has displaced 600 seats and created intimacy, but one wonders why one of Broadway's biggest theaters was even picked in the first place.
It stars slam poet and singer Saul Williams as John, a recently sprung inmate hoping to stay out of trouble, and Christopher Jackson as his buddy Vertus, whose need for familial revenge threatens more violence in their unnamed Midwestern city. It's set in the present and the story makes references to iPods and Sudoku, though the lyrics - slightly altered to allow for gender differences - remain firmly in the mid-1990s.
Unlike other jukebox musicals, the songs in "Holler If Ya Hear Me" are rarely ever delivered in the style of the original artist. Instead, the show's creators test their elasticity by turning them into duets or group songs - and one even gets a folky acoustic guitar treatment. The danger is that the urgent, free verse style of Shakur's very personal songs gets diffused, lightened and flattened.
There are some inspired moments, like when the misogynist "I Get Around," with eight men boasting about their prowess, gets matched with "Keep Ya Head Up," a song about female empowerment performed by eight women. "Dear Mama" fits perfectly as a song Vertus sings to his mother, played by the always-fabulous Tonya Pinkins. "If I Die 2Nite" is nicely done, with Wayne Cilento's staging and choreography smartly distributing verses to a group of street soldiers, each in their own spotlight.
The party jam "California Love" getting the full Broadway treatment - complete with a Cadillac onstage - and the Act One closing number of the title track is led by Williams in full propulsive anger, as close to hearing the shaking fury of Shakur himself.
But that full-throttle energy can't sustain itself through the 2 1/2-hour show. "Me Against the World" becomes a bland duet between the two heroes, and "Unconditional Love" is repurposed as a love song between John and his estranged girlfriend, played by Saycon Sengbloh, whose sensational voice reveals the limitations of Williams' range.
"I Ain't Mad at Cha" is used as a duet between Vertus and John and later recycled for John and his father, a street preacher with a bullhorn who seems lifted from a Spike Lee movie. "Only God Can Judge Me" is handed to a secondary, hothead character. The dancing is minimal throughout, leaning on crumping and hip-hop steps without choking the piece in big dance breaks.
It all slowly builds to a night where everything comes to a head and exposes some flab - "Dopefiend's Diner," for example, could have been cut and there are too many scenes in a junkyard. More troubling, the repetition of the me-against-the-world point of view in Shakur's songs doesn't always help move the story forward onstage.
Credit Afeni Shakur, a producer of the show, for allowing her son's music to sound differently. Or, if you're completely cynical, credit her with finding a new revenue stream for his catalogue. Either way, rap is firmly on Broadway, and that's something to celebrate.
In the Tupac Shakur musical at the Palace, a salvaged 1964 Cadillac rolls onstage — an eight-cylinder symbol of escape. Built from old and new parts and with lots of love, so we’re told, the Caddy convertible is a big, eye-popping in-your-face beauty. It sets the scene for a tragedy.
“Holler If Ya Hear Me,” Broadway’s first rap jukebox musical, brings highs and lows too. The production is vibrant, raw and rousing, but it self-sabotages with predictability and unintelligibility.
Shakur, a trailblazing star of rap and hip hop, was prodigious, prolific and dead by gunfire at age 25 in 1996, a rise and fall that is disturbing to this day. The show, which doesn’t sanitize a slew of F-bombs and N-words, avoids straight-up biography.
The creative team — book writer Todd Kreidler, music supervisor Daryl Waters and director Kenny Leon — wrap Shakur’s words and music around an original contemporary Everyman Everywhere narrative about big-city racism, drugs, guns and tears.
“My Block” sets that tone and scene. It’s a time-honored way to start a musical. The traditional “Wonderful Town” did it 60 years ago. The rap-infused “In the Heights” reprised the approach in 2008.
The story follows John (a magnetic Saul Williams), a self-taught artist who’s fresh from jail (shades of Shakur, no?) starting over and working for Griffy (Ben Thompson), a mechanic and the lone white guy in the nabe. John struggles with the fact that his girl, Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh), is now with his drug-dealing friend Vertus (an excellent Christopher Jackson).
Like so many jukebox shows, the retrofit story is thin — in this case even including a deadly showdown a la the Sharks and the Jets. The saving grace of the scene is that it makes an astute point about urban warfare. The real enemy is often within a group, not outside it.
Leon, fresh from a Tony win for helming “A Raisin in the Sun,” guides a fluid, gritty and graceful production. Wayne Cilento’s movement and choreography energize everything. Performances are solid, including the reliable Tonya Pinkins, who makes the most of a maternal role, and John Earl Jelks as a street preacher connected to John.
The score ripples with Shakur’s familiar hits, including the emotional “Me Against the World,” apologetic “Dear Mama,” funky “I Get Around,” infectious “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” and acoustic-driven “California Love.”
The score is carefully curated and threaded among characters. Music consistently grooves but it doesn’t always grab. The main problem — and it’s a big one — is clarity: Muddy diction and unsure sound mix become a wrecking ball to Shakur’s gloriously constructed rhymes. “Matilda” brought the same what-are-they-saying woes, but rap is all about the words.
Holler? You bet you will. But just as much out of appreciation as frustration.
Rap on Broadway? Purists, relax — “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” the Tupac Shakur musical that opened Thursday night, is endearingly traditional. Yes, there’s gangsta anger and lots of profanity, but it’s packaged in skillful, old-school showbiz. No wonder, since an old hand, Tony winner Kenny Leon (“Fences,” “A Raisin in the Sun”), is at the helm.
Leon and book writer Todd Kreidler took the “Mamma Mia!” road to 2Pac’s jukebox, rather than the one in the biographical “Beautiful” — crafting a new plot around the late hip-hop icon’s songs rather than retelling his life.
Set in the present-day Midwest, the story of crime and redemption doesn’t stray far from Shakur’s own themes and trajectory. We could have done with fewer clichés: When a drug dealer says, “After tonight, I’m out of the game for good,” you just know things won’t end well.
Uttering the fateful line is Vertus (Christopher Jackson), who looks after his territory with cocky confidence. The only one who elicits more respect is John (Saul Williams), back in town after six years in jail.
Trying hard to stay straight, John takes a job at a garage run by the show’s one white dude, Griffy (Ben Thompson).
Hovering on the periphery are the girlfriends and mothers waiting for the men to cool down. Tonya Pinkins makes the most of her limited opportunities as Vertus’ mom.
We’re meant to identify with John, yet he often comes across as sullenly petulant rather than upstanding because Williams, who made his name in the 1990s slam-poetry scene, doesn’t have much range. Still, his caramel baritone works well on 2Pac’s rhymes.
We shouldn’t be surprised to see the likes of “Dear Mama” and “Keep Ya Head Up” fit so effortlessly on Broadway: After all, both rap and musical theater tell stories through song. And Shakur, who sampled Suzanne Vega in “Dopefiend’s Diner” and Bruce Hornsby in “Changes,” knew how to incorporate catchy hooks.
If this all sounds old-fashioned, it is, right down to choreographer Wayne Cilento’s pulse-quickening numbers. There’s even a big set piece involving a vintage purple Cadillac set on a rotating platform.
OK, so a rap musical can work. Will death metal be next?
The beats are sweet, and the words often have an electric charge in “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” a new Broadway musical inspired by the lyrics of the popular but troubled rapper Tupac Shakur, who was shot and killed at 25 in Las Vegas in 1996. Unfortunately, much else about this ambitious show, which opened on Thursday at the Palace Theater, feels heartfelt but heavy-handed, as it punches home its message with a relentlessness that may soon leave you numb to the tragic story it’s trying to tell.
Written by Todd Kreidler and directed by Kenny Leon, a Tony winner this year for the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” the show admirably yanks the jukebox musical, which has mostly been mired in the hit parade of the baby-boomer years, into the last decade of the 20th century. It was then that Shakur’s raw, propulsive music struck a powerful chord, especially among disaffected black (and white) youth living in poverty amid explosive violence, while America was supposedly firing on all economic cylinders.
But while Shakur’s songs retain their scorching ability to paint pictures with words, describing the challenges faced by Americans living in urban slums then (and now, when the show is set), they tend to cover a limited range of themes: the diminished opportunities for young blacks; the unholy trinity of poverty, drugs and violence; the enduring strength of black women. (Mostly not included are Shakur’s braggadocio-laden celebrations of what he called the “thug life.”)
Perhaps as a result, Mr. Kreidler’s book falls into a few predictable grooves, while the characters never emerge as more than thinly drawn types: the ex-con trying to shake his criminal past; the drug dealer who harbors a deep affection for his mother; the girlfriend who looks on with a mixture of hope and despair; the hotheaded would-be gangster bent on avenging a friend’s killing. (No one character is meant to represent Shakur himself.)
Drawing on themes that Shakur rapped about in his scabrous, four-letter-word-filled lyrics (no one has taken a kid-friendly Magic Marker to them, I’m glad to report), the musical attempts to draw a vision of black life in urban America that acknowledges the danger, the violence and the self-destruction but also the hope, the courage and the potential for transcendence. To this end, it employs more than a dozen of Shakur’s songs and a couple of his poems. But the lyrical density of rap — in words per minute, many of the songs are off the charts — makes an uneasy fit for theatrical presentation, since the sizzling phrases fly by almost before you can grasp their meaning.
The musical’s obvious antecedent is “West Side Story,” the 1957 classic about rival street gangs in Manhattan. “Holler” is set in an unnamed city in the Midwest, but it, too, focuses on the violence that eventually erupts between two free-form gangs (one unseen) competing for supremacy. The unofficial leader of one is Vertus (Christopher Jackson), who sees drug dealing as the rare economic opportunity available to him. When his former friend John (Saul Williams) is released from jail, Vertus tries to give him a leg up by cutting him into a big deal.
Chastened and embittered by his years in prison, John has decided to go straight. He opts for a low-wage job at the car-salvage company where Vertus’s brother, Benny (Donald Webber Jr.), works, which is run by Griffy (Ben Thompson), the lone white character in the musical. Griffy and Benny have a plan to head out to California and start their own business, but in a somewhat blurrily staged sequence (following the song “Dopefiend’s Diner,” about the accidental shooting of a girl), we learn that Benny, glimpsed only briefly in the show’s opening scene, has been shot and killed by members of a rival gang.
The remainder of the musical depicts the divergent reactions to Benny’s death. Each of the central male characters, who also include Benny’s aggrieved best friends, Anthony (Dyllon Burnside) and Darius (Joshua Boone), fights a war within his soul that pits the impulse for revenge — and the tug of violent nihilism that spreads like an unseen poison through the neighborhood — against the knowledge that more killing cannot salve the wound of Benny’s loss. From the sidelines, the two principal female characters — Corinne (a vibrant Saycon Sengbloh), John’s ex- and Vertus’s current girlfriend, and Mrs. Weston (the veteran Tonya Pinkins, in strong voice), Vertus’s ex-addict mother — both urge the men to forsake the dead ends of drugs and guns.
The talented, mostly young cast gives many of the individual numbers a surging lift. Mr. Williams, himself a poet and rapper, best captures the seething intensity that gives so many of Shakur’s songs their heat. He’s mesmerizing when he performs “Me Against the World,” an angry, eerily prophetic song about the decks stacked against young black men like him.
Mr. Jackson, a veteran of several Broadway shows, approaches his Vertus role with a more laid-back vibe. He performs one of Shakur’s best-known and most moving songs, “Dear Mama,” a love letter to a mother whose flaws are acknowledged but whose struggle against tough odds demands respect. But Vertus makes for a somewhat sanitized version of a drug lord, and despite the many references to drugs in the songs’ lyrics, the musical never really depicts the brutal effects of addiction on black neighborhoods.
In fact, although its language may be far harsher than that of “West Side Story,” in essence “Holler if Ya Hear Me” feels no more hard hitting. It, too, features generous doses of kinetic, street-style choreography, in this case by Wayne Cilento, much of which feels like a throwback to the 1990s: “In Living Color” meets Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” tour.
Although violence eventually erupts, the emphasis throughout is on the life-worn but resilient spirits of the people fighting against forces that threaten to tear the community apart. The bedraggled, itinerant preacher character — he seems to have wandered in from a play by August Wilson (with whom Mr. Kreidler often worked) — is far from the only one who has a sermonizing speech or two. “Remember one thing,” Corinne says. “Through every dark night, there’s a bright day after that.”
Such moralizing gets to be a drag. As John says, when Griffy asks him why the neighborhood kids turn to crime, “America been eyeing me like a criminal since the first time I stepped by myself into a drugstore.” For the audiences likely to be attending the show, this and the musical’s other pointed messages about social inequality definitely don’t need to be hollered to be heard.
It's fitting that the ambitions behind "Holler If Ya Hear Me" are as outsized as the artist who inspired it -- rapper, poet and actor Tupac Shakur.
Led by director Kenny Leon, who won the best director Tony earlier this month for his work on "Raisin in the Sun," the "Holler" creative team looks to bring hip-hop culture to Broadway and pay tribute to the late Shakur's music and poetry. To make it even more difficult, they do it without a well-known story, but instead with an original one written by Todd Kreidler, who developed it from listening to Shakur's music.
That's a lot to ask. And it's to Leon's credit that "Holler," a simple story of how the people on a current-day block of an unnamed Midwestern industrial town deal with a tragedy, turns out as well as it does.
The story centers on John, impressively played by Saul Williams, who returns to the block after a six-year stint in prison. He was once a creative guy, a hero to many on the block, but his crime and his sentence have taken their toll on him and those who loved him. In his life, he has shut down emotionally -- a trait many of the characters share, especially John's former girlfriend Corinne, played beautifully by Saycon Sengbloh.
But the fire and a ferocity in Williams' performance, especially in "Me Against the World," would put most of today's rappers to shame. He manages to act while rapping so distinctly that the rhymes can still be understood by the audience.
"Holler If Ya Hear Me" has flashes of brilliance, especially in its celebrations. The battle of the sexes in "I Get Around/Keep Ya Head Up" is a thrill to watch, especially as the females in the cast come out on top. The unbridled joy of "California Love," as they all dream of escaping the block's realities, is contagious, as the mix of dance and musical styles mirrors the best of Shakur's party vibe.
However, the story often feels like it's jumping through hoops to move from one stellar performance from the cast to the next. It becomes a roller coaster of emotions for those on the stage, but they're moving so fast that the audience doesn't really get a chance to connect to them.
In the end, "Holler" leaves you feeling more exhausted than inspired.
As recently as five or 10 years ago, it would have seemed ludicrous to put Tupac Shakur's name and the term "jukebox musical" in the same sentence. Not that the notion of such a project should induce any more (or less) eye-rolling than that of using some classic-rock act's catalog as fodder for new drama. But the latter formula simply caters more to the demographic traditionally associated with Broadway audiences.
So let's first praise Holler If Ya Hear Me (*** out of four stars) for what it's doing — acknowledging that Broadway audiences are growing more diverse, and encouraging that growth — and, just as important, what it isn't doing: milking nostalgia.
Holler, which opened Thursday at the Palace Theatre, doesn't dwell on the past. Even the relatively recent history of the East Coast/West Coast rap wars that figured into Shakur's rise — and, probably, his still-unresolved murder at 25 in 1996 — aren't directly in focus. The musical is set in a "Midwestern industrial city," on "MY BLOCK" — that is, essentially, wherever you are right now.
Mind you, some of the challenges confronting the young black men and women in Holler are distinct, and distinctly different than those faced by many fans who will see the show — or by Shakur himself, for that matter. Though racism, crime and our imperfect means of dealing with either were prominent factors in his life, the rapper had obvious talents that distinguished him early on and were nurtured at institutions such as the prestigious Baltimore School for the Arts.
But if the circumstances behind Shakur's fascination with thug life were, like so many elements of his story, controversial, his lyrics explored issues from familial love to social injustice with an intensity and grace that felt undeniably authentic. In Holler, his songs and a couple of his poems — set to tunes by music supervisor/orchestrator/arranger Daryl Waters — are woven into a book by Todd Kreidler, a longtime associate of the late, great August Wilson.
We're introduced to John, a central character played with no-nonsense grit by the poet/performer Saul Williams, in prison, as members of his community appear to cheerfully mingle on the outside. But as John returns to them and tries to turn his life around, we learn how the others have been shattered by a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence, fueled by frustration and loss.
Under Kenny Leon's vigorous, sensitive direction, the principal actors — among them a coolly charismatic Christopher Jackson and a typically warm, fierce Tonya Pinkins — are convincing and sympathetic, and Waters and choreographer Wayne Cilento mine the robust grooves and soulful nuances in Shakur's material in exhilarating production numbers.
Though there are sobering twists — and contrived ones — the overall effect is uplifting. By celebrating its subject's creativity rather than exploiting his legend, Holler sets a fundamentally positive example for a problematic form.
Here’s the big question that should be on the minds of the producers of “Holler If Ya Hear Me”: Now that we’ve built it, will they come? The quick answer: Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on the marketing campaign. That’s the gamble investors took on this musical treatment of works left behind by Tupac Shakur, the now-sainted rap artist who died at the age of 25 in a 1996 drive-by shooting. Despite a clunky book, this show is on fire. But it’s going to be a hard sell with traditional auds, and can the real fans spring for Broadway ticket prices?
The tuner’s fictional stand-in for Shakur is played by slam poet and performer Saul Williams, as combustible as a stick of dynamite. The musical numbers are so uplifting you’ll think you’re in church. The creatives, including Edward Pierce (sets) and Mike Baldassari (lighting), have contributed some great arena-style stage effects. And by sectioning off 318 orchestra seats, a portion of the Palace Theater has been turned into a talk-back auditorium and hip-hop museum. So, what’s the problem?
The true believers won’t care about such pedestrian matters as the predictable book and clumsy characterizations. But for less committed theatergoers — who might yet indulge because they had a good time at “In the Heights” and “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” and those rappers and hip-hop artists they discovered at the Public — here’s what you need to know.
The music (arranged, orchestrated and supervised by Broadway man of steel Daryl Waters for a 10-piece orchestra) is terrific: percussive, propulsive, insistently danceable and surprisingly tuneful. But the performers are so overly miked that the lyrics are almost unintelligible. This won’t matter to hardcore fans who have memorized and taken to heart every blessed word of their idol’s literary output. But for the rest of the house, who showed up to hear the writings of a famous street poet, it’s maddening to have to keep scanning everyone in this huge, hard-working cast (some 30 strong, plus a couple of swings) to see whose lips are moving.
The other major drawback is that the story told in Todd Kreidler’s book isn’t the story we want to hear. It’s not the life of Tupac Shakur, because the creatives don’t have the rights to his biographical narrative. Instead, it’s the generic tale of a thug named John (Williams) who comes out of prison determined to go straight, only to be drawn back into the violent gang culture of the neighborhood by friends who demand his undying loyalty to the clan philosophy of life-as-war.
Williams is not only a published poet and hip-hop artist (with a degree in philosophy and a musical of his own in the works), but also a performer with ferocious attitude. That makes him a primo interpreter of Shakur, a literary hardass whose lyrical tongue distinguished him within his gangsta-rap milieu.
That fierce sensibility is stamped all over the show, most insistently in “Me Against the World,” “Thugz Mansion” and the incendiary title song, “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” which closes the first act. The drawback, however, is that all that bristling rage feels like overkill for a surly fictional character whose complaints are vague and unspecific. (For the record, Todd Kreidler, who labored over the book, would prefer to think of John’s generic grievances as “universal.”)
Simpatico helmer Kenny Leon (who earned a Tony nom this season for “A Raisin in the Sun”) and choreographer Wayne Cilento (a perennial Broadway presence with “Wicked”) have made shrewd work of placing the individual songs in strategic places in the book. “My Block,” staged as an exuberant dance number for a fresh-faced and vital chorus of inexhaustible singer-dancers, is a dynamic introduction to the tightly knit neighborhood that welcomes John home from prison. The deeply felt “Dear Mama” is beautifully sung by Christopher Jackson, as a reluctant gangbanger who’s not sure he’ll survive his next fight. And “If I Die 2Nite” is the tense anthem of John’s street gang, arming themselves for battle.
But while the musical numbers and sung-through poems fit snugly into the story, the story doesn’t support them. Unlike “In the Heights,” which celebrated a specific group of people (Dominicans) from a specific neighborhood (Washington Heights) in a specific city (New York), “Holler If Ya Hear Me” observes ill-defined characters inhabiting some indeterminate place and time.
There’s the hero (Williams), his girlfriend (Saycon Sengbloh), the determined warrior (Joshua Boone), the reluctant warrior (Jackson), the baby boy who wants to make his bones (Dyllon Burnside), the token white friend (Ben Thompson), the mad street prophet (John Earl Jelks) and the madonna mother (Tonya Pinkins) — and their friends. The performers are top-of-the-line and the characters literally owe their lives to them. For that matter, the show does, too.