Tupac finds new life on the Broadway stage

The cast of "Holler If Ya Hear Me." "Holler If Ya Hear Me"

On a Broadway stage in the middle of Times Square, the music of Tupac Shakur has been reinvented.

Seventeen years after Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting, his gangster rap has become Broadway show tunes in the musical, "Holler If Ya Hear Me."

"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,'" said Kenny Leon, the show's Tony Award-winning director.

Using 21 songs that Shakur wrote, the play tells the story of an ex-con freshly released from prison who wants to turn over a new leaf. But when a friend is gunned down, he's forced back into gang life.

Although it is a story told through the music of Shakur, "it is not an autobiographical story about his day-to-day life," said Leon.

Of the 21 songs, two of them were not originally songs. "'The Rose from Concrete," for instance, was taken from a poem that Shakur penned.

"This was a kid that wrote every single day -- every single day he is writing something about the world in which he lives," Leon said. "You put his lyrics in the context of a story where you care about the people, and then the songs take on a greater meaning."

The idea of turning a commercial artist's music into a Broadway musical is nothing new; "American Idiot" featured songs by Green Day, and jukebox musicals are among the Great White Way's most popular.

But no musical has ever converted gangster rap to the stage before.

Leon said, "To the real hardcore Pac fans it's like, 'Wow, yeah, I'm in the groove, it's good.' For those people who are traditional Broadway followers and never knew Tupac, they're like, 'This is a great story.'"

holler-if-ya-hear-me-playbills.jpg
Twitter/"Holler If Ya Hear Me"
But according to the most recent numbers from the Broadway League, 78 percent of Broadway ticket buyers are Caucasian, and 68 percent are female.

It's why theater critic David Cote fears the play won't have staying power.

"You have to sort of hit the lowest common denominator if you want a show to really run. Now lowest common denominator does mean necessarily bad quality, it just means it has broad appeal, but the Broadway musical has to evolve or it will die," said Cote.

And this may be the first step in the evolution.

"We may look back many years from now and say wow this was actually a watershed. And things that make waves culturally aren't necessary loved in their own times," Cote said.

Leon said he intentionally priced tickets from $39 dollars to $239 in the hopes of attracting a different audience.

Leon said this play is made for everyone.

"I want everyone to come see this show. 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," Leon said.

Click on the video player below to hear excerpts from a recording session featuring the cast of "Holler If Ya Hear Me."

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