An entire neighborhood assembles onstage in Holler If Ya Hear Me, a new hip-hop musical inspired by the lyrics of rapper Tupac Shakur. But one man is conspicuously missing from the crowd: That’d be Shakur himself, a bard of America’s violent streets whose poetry castigates a hypocritical nation for neglect. Until his 1996 murder in a drive-by shooting (at age 25), Shakur was a best-selling recording artist embraced by millions for his expressive authenticity. The rapper was controversial, not least in his death, for living some of the harsh realities he lamented in song. At the time of his killing, Nelson George, writing for the Voice, called Shakur a “gifted black artist, reckless young man, and now the hip-hop James Dean.”
Holler If Ya Hear Me avoids biography; instead, it uses Shakur’s words to voice the lives of imaginary present-day characters. But the show relies so much on his powerfully personal compositions that it might have been more successful as a bio-musical. After all, the artist is present — or at least his aura is.
Bypassing all that, the show introduces us to the thinnest cutouts of characters dwelling in an unnamed, besieged inner city. John (Saul Williams) served time and now wants to go straight. Vertus (Christopher Jackson) grieves for his gunned-down little brother, Benny, and copes with calls for vengeance, while his wizened and stoic mother, Mrs. Weston (Tonya Pinkins), longs only for change on the blighted block. Meanwhile, a disturbed Street Preacher (John Earl Jelks) hovers with bland messages of protest and prophecy (“PEACE IS NOW”).
Todd Kreidler’s banal dialogue and incoherent book feel compromised to other elements from the start, and the show might have worked better in more abstract form, without a narrative to weigh things down. The script, directed by Kenny Leon, endlessly restates each character’s dilemmas but rarely progresses or evolves; nearly every scene seems to recite the same litany. Holler wants to tell everyone’s story simultaneously but tends to catalog afflictions rather than making them theatrical. The musical ends up a sprawling, generic mess, with dull echoes of West Side Story and Do the Right Thing.
Holler misfires especially badly whenever Broadway sentiment collides with the rawness of Shakur’s original lyrics. There are a few rousing raps, most delivered by the talented Williams, who’s left to maintain a steely glare without much else to do dramatically until guns get pulled. But when choruses of amiable young men and women materialize to turn anthems of urban anguish into boulevard dance numbers, it’s a garish extravaganza. As one song puts it, “Life in the hood is all good for nobody.” Broadway aims to please; the lyrics stir and provoke. A chasm between those aspirations opens wide.
There are other reasons the show fails to launch: The set design is an unwieldy, unattractive wreck, and the whole enterprise, which includes a small educational exhibit after you pass the merch tables, can feel cynical and overly earnest at the same time. That’s not so unusual for commercial concoctions these days, but in this case, unfortunately, Broadway presents Shakur’s resonant polemics as kitsch.