Tupac musical director Kenny Leon on the 10 year journey to 'Holler If Ya Hear Me'
Theater director Kenny Leon, who was just nominated for a Tony for Best Direction of a Play for his work on the revival of A Raisin in the Sun, knows that his next project is perhaps the most challenging of his career.
Then again, the subject whose songs inspired the new show was no stranger to struggle. Holler If Ya Hear Me, a new musical written by Todd Kreidler and directed by Leon, is inspired by the life and work of late hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur.
For Leon, the show — which begins preview performances on June 2 and officially opens June 19 at New York City’s Palace Theater — represents the culmination of a decade of thought and a lifetime of Tupac fandom. During a break in rehearsals, Leon checked in with EW about the show’s origins, the unusual casting process, and the goals of Holler If Ya Hear Me.
Entertainment Weekly: Holler If Ya Hear Me is a long time coming for you, right?
Kenny Leon: It’s ten years, in my thinking. Not this specific project, but I’ve been talking with [Tupac’s mother] Afeni Shakur since that time. She was building a memorial and arts center for Tupac in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and she reached out to me and wanted my consultation because I was a theater lover and a theater artist. We got to know each other a little, and we started talking about the idea of a Broadway musical centered around her son. I said at the time that if you did something like that, it should not be autobiographical, because Tupac was much bigger than himself. So we started thinking about it and talking about it in a very abstract way. Then three or four years later came Eric Gold, who had the rights to produce it on Broadway, and he offered me the position to direct it, and I told him only if it was along the lines of what me and Ms. Shakur had talked about—not autobiographical story, bigger than life. I was able to convince him that that was the way to go. So we had three years of workshops. We just kept learning about the material, and now we’re here. I thought it was always a good idea to focus our attention on opening in New York. I didn’t want to dilute our energies with out-of-town trials. I knew from the workshops that it was exciting and interesting. Through all the workshops, we had about 150 sample audience members, and their reaction, I had never seen anything like it. So when the Palace became available, it became very real. So here we are.
What was the actual process of constructing the story?
This thing has always been in God’s hands. Everything just sort of happened to unfold. When we were talking about writers, I could conceptualize the basic idea, but I had no idea how to do that. I had just worked with [Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright] August Wilson, who is a Tupac lover, on his last two Broadway shows, and Todd Kreidler, who was August’s writing buddy and his dramaturge, and we had become very close over the last two shows. Over that time, I knew that Todd Kreidler was the writer to do that.
It’s interesting, because if you think about the source, he’s not the first writer to come to mind. I mean, he’s a 38-year-old white guy, and even he was surprised [he was asked to write it]. But we told him he should write something that his mother would love, and that my mother would love, and that every hip-hop artist and lover of Tupac’s music would embrace. We took a box load of Tupac’s music, and he came out of there and we had an outline of a story about two guys and about friendship and community and love of country, and we used the tunes that called themselves to the story. As we kept going, it just felt so right. Todd came up with the way to connect all these tunes. Tupac’s music, by its very nature, is theatrical. The settings, the relationships, the characters are already in the material, and we just had to bring those all together.
As a Tupac fan, what did you learn about his music during that immersion?
Every day walking to rehearsal for A Raisin in the Sun, I would put on my earphones and just play all of Tupac’s music. One day I hear a lyric in one of his tunes where he says, “Don’t blame me, I was given this world, I didn’t make it.” And I said, “Where have I heard that?” I get to rehearsal, and there’s a scene where Walter Lee says, “I didn’t make this world! It was given to me this way!” And I was like, “Wait a minute!” Tupac and [A Raisin in the Sun writer] Lorraine Hansbury are sort of crossing paths there. I think Holler If Ya Hear Me is almost A Raisin in the Sun 50 years later, with just a different 20-year-old voice speaking the words. But it’s about access to the American dream, and equal lives having equal value in America. It’s still holding a mirror up to us so we can see ourselves. That’s what Holler if Ya Hear Me really does on its good days.
I’ve learned more and more about what it needs to say and how we can use those universal themes. My goal is to create a new play that everyone feels is speaking to them. Not to get too corny, but this is the beginning of a sort of theatrical revolution, and after this, I hope that many young people in our country will think that Broadway is the place for them to tell their stories. I think there are a lot of diverse voices in our country who need to tell their stories on a raised stage in New York City.
What was the casting process like?
It was a very exciting casting process, and very challenging. We knew right away we needed original dance, so we looked on the Internet and the styles that were out there. We had an open call to bring in creative dancers who hadn’t ever been on Broadway or in a dance company. We were looking for that raw, authentic movement. So a third of the people in our show are from that world, who have never been on Broadway but are very good, and some of them self-taught. So we had that. We had to have some Broadway dancers and singers who understand how Broadway musicals move, so we have those talented people. Then we had to have some very good actors and very good singers. We knew we had to tell the story with 25 people, and it was difficult to narrow it down. So it’s a mix of people who have never done this, folks who are great singers and dancers, and folks who are strong actors. We have to merge that together. It feels like a perfect group of people to get together to tell this story. It was extremely hard to cast. On opening night, everything has to seem seamless, so some of the story is told through dance and movement, some is told through song, and some is told through spoken word.
Spoken word artist Saul Williams is your star. What did you see in Saul that made him right for the part?
At our last workshop, we had an amazing actor named Chad Boseman, who was in 42, who I thought was going to be able to play the role. He’s an incredible film actor, and who knows, one day he may end up playing in this musical again. But his schedule shifted and he couldn’t do it. I never got nervous, but that was the last character I had to hire, and I remember everybody was asking, “Who is gonna play John?” And I was like, “It’ll show up, it’ll show up.” A week before I started rehearsal, Saul Williams walked in the room. He had been in Europe for three years, and I didn’t know very much about him, but I did see him in a play in Atlanta many many years ago. I asked him to do the opening song, and he said those words in a way that hadn’t ever been said before. It was perfect. We’re not trying to bring Pac from the grave. We can’t do that. But we want someone who is inspired by Tupac’s words and can make them his own. That little mini version of him doing the first piece in our show haunted me for two days. That was the guy. We found him. I continue to be inspired by him every day. We got lucky in getting Saul Williams. The energy between he and [co-star] Saycon Sengbloh is just an amazing energy. It’s a perfect cast right now.
How much has Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur been involved in the development of the production?
I have stayed in touch with her and let her know everything is going well. She came to all the workshops. The family and the estate have been involved. She was very moved. She cried and laughed and clapped. She said to me, “Kenny, what it boils down to is for the time that we’ve known each other, I’ve always known and trusted you. I trust you.” So I feel I have a huge responsibility to her and to Tupac’s legacy to take this to a broader audience. I have to do right by her and by Tupac and his fans. To have her trust, I couldn’t ask for more. She’s not involved in any other way other than to provide trust and support. I just want to see her smile once we open.
Tupac was making a name for himself as an actor in the years before his death. Do you think he would have ended up on Broadway?
I think if he was still with us, it would be limitless. I think his acting would be front and center—I think I’d be chasing him down to get him to do Broadway shows. When you combine his spoken word with his ability to write and his ability to stand in front of thousands of people with courage, I think that shows stage presence. He had intellectual curiosity that would have pushed and propelled him to act on the stage. I’m pretty positive of that.