Tupac Musical 'Holler If Ya Hear Me' Brings Thug Life to Broadway

Can 'Holler If Ya Hear Me' draw a new ticket buyer to the Great White Way?

Outside Manhattan's Palace Theatre on 47th Street, 2Pac's "California Love" and "Ghetto Gospel" blast onto the sidewalk - not from a passing car or boombox, but from the Broadway box office, in the hopes of enticing potential ticket buyers to its latest jukebox musical.

The differences between Holler If Ya Hear Me and its neighbors dedicated to the music of Carole King and The Four Seasons are many, but key among them is that Holler targets an audience much younger than the baby boomers who are keeping houses full for Beautiful and Jersey Boys.

"I hope we have time to find our audience," says Holler director Kenny Leon.

It's a valid concern for all involved in the $8 million production that officially opened June 19. It played to 80 percent capacity in two weeks of previews.

Working with Tupac Shakur's mother, Afeni, Jessica Green, a rookie theatrical producer, says their first step was to hire such consultants as Marcia Pendelton at Walk Tall Girl Productions, which specializes in attracting diverse theatrical audiences. In interviews, Leon likes putting 2Pac in league with playwrights August Wilson and William Shakespeare, attempting to elevate respect for the late rapper's storytelling craft.

"I've always been interested in revealing the artist that is 2Pac, not the person," says Leon, who won a Tony Award this year for directing the revival of A Raisin in the Sun. "Broadway allows his voice to speak to a different part of our world."

Todd Kreidler, Wilson's former dramaturge, wrote Holler's fictional story set in a Midwest car repair shop, repurposing two poems to include alongside 19 pre-existing 2Pac songs. The hits are all featured prominently: "California Love" is an ensemble showstopper late in the second act; "Thugz Mansion" is a soft trio piece set to a lone acoustic guitar; "Holler If Ya Hear Me" provides a rousing conclusion to Act 1.

"Dopefiend's Diner," which samples Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner," plays early in the show, providing an entry point for audience members unfamiliar with 2Pac's work. In addition, Holler music supervisor-orchestrator-arranger Daryl Waters says the 10-piece live band, combined with 2Pac's beats, enhance the show's unique presentation of hip-hop.

"I'm trying to find the right balance between what he did and what will work dramatically," says Waters. "I don't think there's anything that can compete with the sound of live horns that hit you in the face in the middle of a number that needs to have that kind of raw emotion."

Broadway has embraced hip-hop in such shows as In the Heights and Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, but Holler marks the first time a single rap artist's catalog has been used this way. Leon knows people may approach this show with more wariness than anticipation. "The traditional audience is like, 'What is this? Is there something for me?' " he says. "And then you have the hip-hop audience, who's like, 'Are they going to water down 2Pac?' " During nearly three weeks of previews, Leon says, "They're giving me the nod."


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