I'm sure that some of you, like me, greeted the news of a prospective Tupac Shakur musical with at the very least a raised eyebrow. I think this is a vestige of our propensity of limiting our conception of musical-theater music to the familiar, the comfortable, the what-we-know.
However, some of my most enjoyable nights in the theater came from shows that stretched the genre, bringing in musical influences previously confined to the 20th Century concert hall (Adding Machine) or the downtown club (Passing Strange). Even if recent attempts to bring punk rock (American Idiot), afrobeat (Fela), and emo (Spring Awakening) to the Broadway stage weren't entirely successful overall, in toto they represent a vital and long-overdue effort to bring Broadway music out of the Stone Age.
I had had no previous experience with Shakur's work, but a number of people had told me I might be pleasantly surprised, that his work was a lot more than just angry and profane, which in truth had always been my (admittedly ignorant) perception of rap music. Still, I went into Holler If Ya Hear Me with what I think was an open mind.
My impressions of the production essentially came down to this: Tupac Shakur left us a profoundly moving body of work that deserves to be heard, but Holler If Ya Hear Me doesn't begin to do the man and his work full justice. Out of some misguided rush to bring the show to Broadway, presumably because of the availability of the Palace, a prime Broadway house, the creators and producers of Holler If Ya Hear Me missed out on an opportunity to better shape what could have been an immensely powerful show. Upon my first exposure to Shakur, it seems that he was an artist whose work elevated and trenscended the rap genre. Shakur's lyrics have power, pathos, outrage, but also a strong sense of community, and most of all hope.
Unfortunately, there's very little hope at the box office for Holler If Ya Hear Me. The show has been playing to fairly decent size houses -- about 2/3 capacity -- but the average ticket price has been a painful $27, and the weekly grosses topped out at about $170,000. (In other words, the producers have been papering the house big time.) There's no way they're making money with that meager a take. To make matters worse, someone had the bright idea of replacing the orchestra section of the theater with stadium seating, which reaches from the lip of the stage to the mezzanine overhang, effectively cutting off more that half of the most expensive seats. (My theater companion remarked, "Did nobody here know how to use and Excel spreadsheet?") Word has is that the construction for this questionable arrangement alone topped $200,000.
What's more, the show only had two weeks of previews, about half of normal preview period. Which leads to a whole laundry list of "whys" about this production: Why only two weeks? Why the rush to bring the show to Broadway in the first place? Why did the show open after the Tony cutoff? Why would anyone bring a big show like this to Broadway and make a series of decisions that would seem to preclude its success?
The biggest "why" of all, however, is "Why did anyone think this show, in its current form, was ready for Broadway?" Because here's the real heart-breaker: Holler If Ya Hear Me could have been good. I mean, really really good. There's plenty of worthy material in Tupac's songs, and the scenario that book writer Todd Kreidler is, at least in outline form, fairly compelling. However, the show begins with almost insurmountable dramaturgy issues. For the first ten to fifteen minutes of the show, it wasn't clear where the show was taking place, who any of these characters were, what their relationship to each other would be, as well as which of the characters would emerge as protagonists. A scene early in the show features a song with a lyric asking "What's going on?" repeatedly. I turned to my theatergoing companion and said, "Yeah, I'd love to know what's going on."
Eventually, we learn that the story takes place in a present-day African-American ghetto in some midwestern city, and that the plot will involve the young men from the neighborhood banding together to seek revenge for the shooting death of one of their own. Here's where the problems begin: the pathos of the death is unearned because we don't recall ever meeting this character before, nor do we really know what relationship he has with the others until much later. In retrospect, he must have been somewhere in the undifferentiated morass of the first fiteen minutes of the show. But since we don't really have a chance to get to know the character and his affiliations, the power of the loss is lost. Along the way we encounter some unclear and seemingly shifting romantic alliances among the people who wind up being the major characters.
Kreidler's dialogue has an authentic sound to it, and although his storytelling skills need quite a bit of work, he definitely shows promise. The show can get a bit preachy and forced at times, but for the most part, Kreidler allows the proceedings to embody the message rather than relying on speechifying dilagoue. It all makes me wonder what Holler If Ya Hear Me could have been with a few more readings, workshops, and tryout productions.
One of the major tricks with songbook musicals is making the musical numbers mesh with the book. For Holler If Ya Hear Me, most of the numbers actually feel organic, although there were numerous times in the first act when I couldn't understand the lyrics and had to orient myself by the feel of the music. Best of all was the show's title number, which creates a quite thrilling, and dramatically motivated, punch to the end of act one.
The only number that feels forced in is "California Love," which by the audience reaction I'm assuming was one of Tupac's biggest hits. However, the high-spirited and infectious number feels out of place right before the tragic denouement, and robs the second act of forward motion. (cough cough..."The Miller's Son"...cough, cough) The number should perhaps have come at the beginning of the show, or earlier in act two.
In a switch from the norm with struggling musicals, act two of Holler If Ya Hear Me is actually stronger than act one. Act two does have a problem with pacing, as the urgency tends to come and go, rather than build. Although the story and characters are clearer, there's a significant loss of momentum. Still, clearly we know as we watch the show that someone major's going to go down at the end, and I found the denouement very dramatically satisfying. Kreidler wisely places the "Sharks," as it were, off-stage. This not only creates tension, it also allows him the opportunity to make the resolution completely consistent with a leitmotif in Shakur's songs, the notion that one great tragedy of poor African Americans is that they tend to make each other the enemy, rather than addressing and fighting what's really keeping them oppressed.
Holler If Ya Hear Me features sympathetic direction by Tony winner Kenny Leon, although Leon really should have worked with Kreidler more closely in focusing and clarifying the start of the show. The show is choreographed with idiomatic realism by Wayne Cilento.
As is often the case with recent unsucessful musicals, it's really hard to blame the cast of Holler If Ya Hear Me, which features a passionate ensemble of talented performers, who remain committed to material despite what must have been a difficult tryout period. Chief among these are Saul Williams and Christopher Jackson as childhood friends who've grown apart as each has fallen into various nefarious activities in order to survive. Tony winner Tonya Pinkins is sort of wasted here as Jackson's mother, but Saycon Sengbloh has a few powerhouse moments as the woman that Williams and Jackson are both, off-and-on, involved with romantically. The most moving character in the show is a ragged street preacher played by Tony nominee John Earl Elks, who is postitively heart-wrenching in his interactions with the Saul Williams character, whom we eventually learn is the preacher's son.
I sort of wish I was reviewing Holler If Ya Hear Me at a new-works festival or during a regional tryout. Then, perhaps, the show might have gotten the work that it needed to do full justice to Tupac Shakur and this remarkable cast. Tupac deserved better.