One would think, or at least sincerely hope, that Holler If Ya Hear Me, the new musical using songs and poems from the late rapper and hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur (including “California Love,” “Me Against the World,” “Dear Mama” and others), would turn out to be an innovative, socially conscious work. Unlike the mainstream-friendly In the Heights, Holler If Ya Hear Me brings authentic rap music, with all the profanity intact, to Broadway. Likewise, inner-city African American youths have not been seriously explored in musical theater.
The selection of Kenny Leon, who just won a Tony Award for his revival of A Raisin in the Sun, as its director was a promising and intriguing sign, as was the casting of Tonya Pinkins (Caroline or Change), Christopher Jackson (In the Heights) and, most intriguingly, slam poet Saul Williams. News also leaked that the seating of the Palace Theatre had been seriously altered into a stadium-style configuration to make the space feel more intimate.
So it’s extremely disheartening to report that Holler If Ya Hear Me is a total mess and misfire. Perhaps it needed more time for development. Not only did the show not receive an out-of-town tryout or a prior Off-Broadway production, its preview period was unusually short.
Rather than focus on Shakur’s short and tumultuous life, which would have provided some structure, Holler If Ya Hear Me integrates – or at least attempts to integrate – Tupac’s songs into an aimless and confusing tale of gang violence in a generic urban landscape that is full of undeveloped characters. In other words, it’s a really poor imitation of West Side Story. In doing so, it falls prey to the same problems faced by so many other jukebox musicals. But unlike the proudly idiotic Mamma Mia! and Rock of Ages, these problems can’t be laughed away at Holler.
There is virtually no scenery, just a bare stage and a few projections. More often than not, the dense lyrics cannot be understood, thus defeating the purpose of a show meant to celebrate Shakur’s voice. The 22-member cast, which alternatively springs into ferocity or heartfelt lament, works hard but cannot rescue the show.
Audience members, whether they are regular theatergoers who are completely unfamiliar with rap or fans of Shakur who are attending their first Broadway show, deserve better than this. And yet, even if the show was an artistic success, it’s still hard to imagine that it could have found an audience on Broadway. One can’t help but wonder why this is at the Palace Theatre rather than the Public Theater, where it could have been developed through the workshop process and seen by an adventurous and appreciative audience.