Saul Williams leads the cast of Holler If Ya Hear Me in rehearsals
Before the house lights went down in the Palace Theatre for a special friends-and-press only preview of the Tupac Shakur-inspired musical production Holler If Ya Hear Me, director Kenny Leon made an unexpected appearance on stage. He addressed the audience — many of whom were still making their way to seats from long lines outside — with a simple request: “If you like what you see tonight, tell everyone! If you don’t… keep it to yourself.”
His impassioned plea was met with laughter, but given the history of what it took to get “Holler” to the Broadway stage, the plea is a valid one. Word of mouth will be key to the show’s success. “Holler” ambitiously skipped the “off-broadway” training wheels that productions of this type often have. The theater space was downsized to allow for stadium seating up front, meaning less income from each show and a longer timeframe to see profit. 2Pac is considered controversial by many, his music likewise not thought to be particularly palatable for a broad audience. The show’s producers have also been battling the idea that it’s the rapper’s life story set to music, rather than “a non-biographical story about friendship, family, revenge, change and hope.”
So when Leon (who recently earned a Tony nomination for a revival of Raisin In The Sun) leaves the stage and shouts of excitement from the audience resonate before blending into the show’s opening number — “My Block” performed by Saul Williams and the show’s company — there is the sense that something special is about to happen on stage. An entire lifestyle, musical genre and culture has made its debut on Broadway and hip-hop as represented by “Holler If Ya Hear Me” does not disappoint.
It’s hard to believe this production is an original concept and that it wasn’t penned in tandem — with scriptwriter Todd Kreidler and songwriter Shakur working together in the wee hours of the night. The result being the story of John, fresh from jail and rejoining a community he had left behind six years prior. Instead, the lyrics of Shakur have inspired the story and influenced the dialogue for a solidly cohesive and gripping tale. One need not be familiar with 2Pac’s music or his life story to appreciate the work done here. The story is intended to be universal with themes of change and love punctuated by music familiar to many and characters about whom the audience is invited to care.
The plot: somewhat predictably, Benny, the wide-eyed dreamer bounding across the stage at the show’s onset, falls victim to tragedy. The rest of the story plays out in a depiction of the community’s response. The audience is informed of the histories of the players on stage — criminal pasts and innocents alike — weaving the story gradually, but tightly. Tony winner Tonya Pinkins (Jelly’s Last Jam) and Tony nominee John Earl Jelks (Radio Golf) are incredible additions lending a certain legitimacy to the show, but the highlights are without question the male leads. Saul Williams and Christopher Jackson are incredibly well-cast as former friends navigating new dynamics…
>>>Click through to page 2 to preview two musical numbers from the production