A long time ago, in a galaxy somewhere near South Central Pennsylvania, I promised my gentle readers updates on Holler if Ya Hear Me, the upcoming musical based on the music of Tupac Shakur. The musical, directed by the esteemed Kenny Leon (the director of Broadway’s Raisin in the Sun, currently showing), will not engage with the story of Tupac’s life, but rather will use his music to tell a different story. Songs such as “California Love” and “Keep Ya Head Up” will score the story of two friends growing up in a low-income neighborhood in the Midwest. As the press notes mention, “through the poetry of one of the 20th century’s most influential and culturally prominent voices, [Holler if Ya Hear Me] will give a window into realities of the streets still relevant today”.
This past month has seen a fair amount of news on the musical. Two weeks ago, it was announced that the play will star the inimitable Saul Williams, a slam poet and hip hopper who is well-known in New York’s cafe poetry scene, who was named Grand Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, in 1996. He would go on to write and star in a film called Slam. Since then, he has worked with a diverse group of musical artists, from the Fugees to Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. It may be premature to say so, but his starring role in Holler if Ya Hear Me brings a certain hip hop credibility to the piece.
The musical will also feature Tonya Pinkins, the Tony Award-winning actress, who has played in everything from All My Children to Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, as well as Christopher Jackson, Saycon Sengbloh, Ben Thompson, and John Earl Jelks.
Rehearsal for Holler began on Monday, April 21th, and will run until May 29th, when previews will begin for a June 19th opening. Besides all the other buzz that has surrounded the piece, Broadway’s Palace Theatre has undergone significant remodeling to host the musical’s run, to the tune of $200,000. Specifically, by change the orchestra seating to a stadium-style running all the way up to mezzanine, the remodel encourages a more intimate engagement with the piece. This change, in addition to reducing the number of house seats from roughly 1700 to about 1100, will turn the Broadway audience into a crowd, watching lives played out close-up. Furthermore, it will allow the actors to keep “their chin up, which allows them to be very consistent and clean in projecting these lyrics”, instead of trying to split focus and staging to different directions.
Holler if Ya Hear Me, written by Todd Kreidler, a prolific director and dramaturg (including Wilson’s last play Radio Golf), is far from the first hip-hop musical, as I mentioned in my last post on the subject. Of course, I look forward to any high-quality, high-profile piece of African-American theatre, but this one in particular seems to be Broadway’s most promising nod in this direction in recent years. A promising director-dramaturg-choreographer-muscal team team is rounded out by Wayne Cilento (Wicked, The Who’s Tommy, How to Succeed…, Aida) and musical supervisor Daryl Waters (Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk; The Color Purple; Memphis).
Again, Holler if Ya Hear Me will begin previews at Broadway’s Palace Theatre on May 29th and open on June 19th. The current run is open-ended. You should check it out, if you can. I anticipate a musical that will not only represent the great artistic talent represented in its cast and crew, but also offer an argument for hip-hop as a storytelling medium.