Holler If Ya Hear Me, the first Broadway show based entirely on rap lyrics, had a heavy burden to bear and lots to prove. The big question for me when I heard that the late rapper Tupac Shakur’s lyrics were being adapted for musical theater was whether rap, which dispenses with most melody, could translate to the world of musical theater.
Many of Broadway’s recent hit shows have succeeded without hummable earworms. Theatrical spectacle can derive both its meaning and its power from any number of forms of expression. But no one had tried using pure rap on a Broadway scale before.
Making the effort with Tupac’s lyrics was a wise choice. In both his art and his persona he was a ham of sorts, and I mean that in the best sense: dramatic, in-your-face, and heart-on-sleeve, some of the very characteristics that underlie the great tradition of the golden age of musical theater.
Tupac’s artistic sensibility – clever wordplay, novelistic imagery, frequent and naturalistic use of curse words and the “N” word – lends itself narratively and emotionally to telling a story bigger than what’s in any one song. While some of the raps prove more stageworthy as musical numbers than others, Holler If Ya Hear Me in total shows that not only can the concept work but that when it does work it can work smashingly well. “My Block,” the opening number, “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” the Act I closer, and the sequence of three numbers that end the show are some of the high points.
Todd Kreidler’s book has patches of trite dialogue but patches together Tupac’s songs of love, violence and ghetto life – seams showing – into a colorful story, told effectively through Wayne Cilento’s (Wicked) musical staging and choreography, Daryl Waters’s (After Midnight, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk orchestrations for 10-piece orchestra, and a thoroughly strong cast led by Saul Williams and Christopher Jackson, all under Kenny Leon’s (2014 Best Director Tony Award for A Raisin in the Sun sprightly direction.
Williams, the spoken-word artist behind the film Slam, brings both stony gravity and the fire of a volcano on the verge of eruption to the role of John, a neighborhood tough with an artistic side. John’s tight, angry attitude is complicating his re-entry into society upon returning from serving six years of a 12-year prison sentence. The tension is icy as John goes to work for Griffy (a soulful Ben Thompson), the only white character, whose dying father has offered the ex-con a job with the family’s towing and auto repair business. Things are chilly on the personal side too as John cold-shoulders his ex-flame Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh), who has taken up with old friend Vertus (Jackson). Most important, John is trying to go straight, clean up his act, and stay clear of the worst parts of ghetto life.
Vertus, too, wants to quit dealing drugs and go into something legit. His big sensitive side shows throughout and especially in how much he loves his mother (Tony-winner Tonya Pinkins). She spends a lot of time on her porch trying to look out for her sons and her neighborhood, and is now mourning one of them, for despite Vertus’s good intentions a rival gang has murdered his brother. One last act of violent retribution seems inevitable.
Only after a splashy climactic number in and around the purple Cadillac Griffy has been restoring – a car that becomes, for a while, the flashiest character in the show – do we find out whether Vertus and the young men who follow him will continue the cycle of violence that has put so many of their contemporaries in prison or the ground.
The show has moments, and numbers, in which the energy briefly sags, but on the whole the production coheres and delivers. Williams’s magnetic rap-testifying is a compelling show in itself, and the numerous fine singing voices include Sengbloh’s, Jackson’s, and tenor Dyllon Burnside’s.
Burnside plays a friend fired up by the legends of the civil rights heroes of old. He’s just one of the distinct characters of the neighborhood from which John is now so painfully alienated. Holler If Ya Hear Me with its impressive cast proves through spirited music, muscular dance, and the sheer drama inherent in the lyrics of a greatly talented rapper like Tupac Shakur that rap and musical theater need not remain alienated. It’s at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. For tickets visit Ticketmaster.