New Tupac Shakur musical debuts on Broadway

This photo provided by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows Christopher Jackson, right, and Tonya Pinkins in a scene from "Holler If Ya Hear Me" at the Palace Theatre in New York. The musical uses Tupac Shakur's songs. Joan Marcus, AP

NEW YORK - The curtain went up this weekend on a Broadway show that broadens the definition of a musical.

The question is: Will audiences buy it?

The storyline may sound familiar, but the music is not your typical Broadway fare.

There are 21 songs featured in "Holler If Ya Hear Me." All were written by one of the most successful and controversial rappers in America.

"It's a story told through the music of Tupac Shakur, but it is not an autobiographical story about his day-to-day life," said Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon.

Shakur's music reflected the contradictions in his own turbulent life, sometimes glorifying violence, sometimes pleading for it to end.

Seventeen years ago, he was gunned down in a drive-by shooting.

Leon says he spent a decade crafting a new way to keep Shakur's music alive.

"If you look at his music written on paper, it's like wow- look at the phrasing of those words, look at that poetry. You know, this is Shakespearean," he said.

"Holler If Ya Hear Me" is about an ex-con trying to turn over a new leaf. But when a friend is gunned down, he's forced back into gang life.

The musical tackles topics like drugs, violence and promiscuity. There is also liberal use of the N-word.

Leon says it gives the musical the same gritty feel as gangster rap.

But theater critic David Cote fears the musical will not appeal to Broadway audiences.

"You have to hit the lowest common denominator if you want a show to really run. Now lowest common denominator does not mean necessarily bad quality, it just means it has broad appeal," Cote said.

"Yes, on Broadway we love seeing poor people singing about how terrible their conditions are, but they have to be 19th-century French people."

How is Broadway going to change if it's not for plays like this?

"That's why this is a good sign," said Cote. "I mean it's great to see more diverse audiences at the theater. And things that make waves culturally aren't necessarily loved in their own times."

Leon said he intentionally priced tickets from $39 to $239, hoping he can bring a broader audience to Broadway.

"You know 'Holler If You Hear Me' can stand right next to 'Raisin in the Sun,' can stand right across the street from 'Book of Mormon,' and that makes Broadway better," he said.

"With an early mix of tepid reviews and an $8 million investment, it's still unclear if "Holler If Ya Hear Me" will hit a high note on Broadway.

  • Vinita Nair

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