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Hip-Hop in the Footlights

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Broadway has never seen anything quite like Holler If Ya Hear Me. Based on the songbook of the late hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur, the new musical weaves hits like ”California Love” and ”Dear Mama” into a narrative about a gangland murder featuring a loose Tupac avatar named John (played by spoken-word artist Saul Williams). The cast is a mix of Broadway veterans and newbies discovered on YouTube. To create a more intimate experience, producers even ripped 500 seats out of the Palace Theatre (where the show begins previews on June 2).

Holler is also a departure for director Kenny Leon, who just earned a Tony nomination for his revival of A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington. After working for nearly a decade on Holler with Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, Leon saw real connections between thug life and theater. ”Every day when I walked to rehearsal for A Raisin in the Sun, I would put on my earphones and play Tupac’s music,” Leon says. ”One day I hear a lyric, ‘I was given this world/I didn’t make it.’ I get to rehearsal, and there’s a scene where [Washington’s character] Walter Lee says, ‘I didn’t make this world! It was given to me this way!’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute!’ So I think Holler If Ya Hear Me is almost Raisin in the Sun 50 years later. It’s still about access to the American dream.”