In recent years, jukebox musicals have been some of Broadway’s most durable and successful productions. Mamma Mia! repurposed ABBA’s Swedish pop and Jersey Boys has been running for nine years on the strength of 60s rock ’n’ roll nostalgia. However, there hasn’t been a great hip hop musical yet—how could there be? With hip hop’s vulgarity and counter-cultural orgins, it would be hard to incorporate that sound into a show that satisfies both Hot 97 listeners and Times Square tourists. Enter Holler If Ya Hear Me, a new show that takes legendary rapper Tupac Shakur’s hits and threads them together into a big-time musical.
More than anything else, Holler If Ya Hear Me is a raucous production. The plot is secondary to the musical numbers, which are backed by an excellent live band which perfectly bridges the machine-generated beats Tupac rapped over and the traditional orchestral sounds usually found on Broadway. The story is not biographical; to these characters, struggling in a rust belt city, Tupac’s 90s life in Compton is not at the forefront of their minds. They’re interested in love, rivalry, and getting out of the hood. Granted, the plot is thin. But it doesn’t matter, because Tupac’s deep catalog provides so many gems that the plot is merely an interlude for the song and dance numbers. The first act includes a few lesser known songs and some of Tupac’s poetry set to music, but the second act is nothing but bangers—including his biggest hits, “Changes,” “Hail Mary,” “If I Die 2Night,” and “California Love” (although they needed to tack on a “go west young man” sideplot in order to work “California Love” into the plot.)
Most of the large ensemble cast can really rap, including the sole white boy, Griffy (Ben Thompson). But the show belongs to the two stars, Saul Williams (John) and Christopher Jackson (Vertus). Mr. Williams, who is a notable poet and rapper in his own right, plays the Tupac stand-in, a man recently released from prison and having trouble adjusting to normal life. When he raps with fury, he really does sound like a dead ringer for Tupac. In particular, the ensemble number “Hail Mary” thrives on Mr. Williams’ double-time menace. Mr. Jackson, who plays the block’s resident successful drug dealer, has a verse in “Dear Mama” where his sixteen uninterrupted bars own the stage.
I have never been a huge fan of Tupac’s music. He’s always seemed to me to be a bit corny, more theatrical than hard. After all, he was an artsy kid—playing Travis Younger in A Raisin in the Sun at the Apollo Theatre when he was twelve—and to many, his trademark “thug life” brag seemed more like he was trying to convince himself than his audience or his enemies. But Tupac’s weaknesses as a rapper become his biggest strengths as musical numbers. His now-anachronistic insistence on themed songs, with verses directly relating to the concept—like “Hey Mama”—means they work well in the context of a musical. Tupac always seemed like he was rapping for posterity and that timeless quality comes through in Holler If Ya Hear Me.
For instance, Kanye West, the most important rapper working today, used to refer to himself as the “Louis Vuitton Don.” I’m sure he’d love to have some of his music turned into a Broadway musical, one day. But in his work, there are too many references to the self, to currently-trendy brands, and to extremely personal situations. Which is why Tupac’s music, which conspicuously lacks those features, is perfect for the jukebox musical treatment. I do not think there are many other rappers currently working with the same combination of timelessness and popularity to make another hip hop jukebox musical possible, which could mean Holler If Ya Hear Me may become the long-running hip hop musical many have been waiting for.
But if there’s one problem with the production, it’s Mr. Williams, who attacks his starring role with conviction and fury. It ends up being a little too intense. At first glance, sure, the Black experience is riddled with racism, tragedy, and anger, and Tupac certainly rapped about those subjects. But Holler If Ya Hear Me is not A Raisin in the Sun nor is it Fences; it’s Mamma Mia! for the crowd who find Rogers and Hammerstein too stuffy. It’s a supremely enjoyable musical, and I hope it gains a diverse, engaged fanbase. The crowd on Monday night—which would have been Tupac’s 43rd birthday—certainly loved the show.
In the second act, an accidental gunshot ends up hitting John, who appears to be dead. A few seconds later, he rises and begins rapping again. Somewhat like Tupac Shakur’s posthumous career, it isn’t immediately clear why he can continue to rap from beyond the grave. But that’s missing the point—the reason Holler If Ya Hear Me exists is to keep all eyez on Tupac.