On a bustling Wednesday night in the heart of New York City’s Times Square (June 18), the sounds of Tupac Shakur blared throughout the Palace Theater. Fortunately, it wasn’t Pac’s hologram making a comeback but Broadway’s new hit Holler If Ya Hear Me.
Directed by Kenny Leon and starring legendary poet Saul Williams, the play was a sold out affair. Centered on themes of friendship, family loss, and change, Holler If Ya Hear Me takes audience members on a relatable ride of tragedy and triumph, backed by Tupac favorites, including “Hail Mary,” “I Ain’t Mad At Cha,” “Changes,” and “Me Against The World.”
Taking ‘Pac’s street life raps to Broadway, writer Todd Kriedler opened up about his creative process and how Holler If Ya Hear Me is an attempt to get inside the rapper’s world without labeling the play a biography.
VIBE: What did you want to accomplish with this script?
Todd Kreidler: The musical is called Holler If Ya Hear Me, which of course is a Tupac track, but I want to take [audiences] from “holler” to “hear Me.” I want to open up Tupac’s extraordinary poetry through narrative. With all those condensed lyrics, the ideas and attitudes embedded in them can get lost in the poetry and the beat. With the dramatic medium, I have the opportunity to split those lyrics up into different characters and take the audience on a journey traveling through a Tupac catalog of music, tracking these different voices that you hear. Tupac is sometimes considered a contradictory figure within his lyrics and that’s such great material for a dramatist. It’s complex, it’s dialectic. I just think that it’s going to both bring his work alive for fans in a new way because I treated the material like Shakespeare. I never wanted to water it down for Broadway consumption. I think the musical has big arms and it’s going to bring in traditional Broadway audiences as well as to music. It’s an attempt to get inside of Tupac’s world.
How were you approached to write the play?
The simplest version I can say is that our producer, Eric Gold, has had the idea of bringing Tupac to Broadway for 14 years so it was a project that he had the rights to do. He had a relationship with Afeni [Shakur] and they went down many avenues. In my world, I knew about the project but I personally became involved when my close colleague, Kenny Leon, brought the project to me because they’d talked to Kenny about directing it. Kenny said, ‘Todd is the guy that I want to write it.” I knew I had to write it from within, meaning that I never wanted to write a story and then try to cut up Tupac’s lyrics to make it fit some story that I wanted. What I wanted to do was live in his music, live in his poetry, and listen for some characters and different voices within. First thing I did was downloaded the 200-and-something tracks off those 23 CDs, printed out the poetry and the binders. I have two big binders of lyrics, and I spent about four months just living in those lyrics and in the music. Then there was one song. I remember I was in the airport in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta and when I heard one particular song, it was the first time the story began to emerge. I saw three guys and I was like I don’t know a lot about them, but I knew that they sang a song and I began to build the story around these three guys and the story of an unlikely friendship that gets repaired. And of course we have a love story, we have a story about community so I began to just build up around it. I wanted the storytelling to be very organic.
How has the response been from Tupac’s closest family members or friends? How has Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, reacted to the musical?
They have been on board with a concept from get-go, but Afeni [Shakur] came to see the first reading that we did and you have to understand they’ve been trying to do this for a long time. I have not worked much directly with her. I saw her in the room after the reading it was very emotional for the both of us. It was the first time it was read out loud. It was a Friday, it was the first time I heard it with actors and then three days later, I’m in a room full of 100 people listening to it, exposed in front of a hundred people. Jim Carrey was there. It was a crazy room. My biggest thing was Afeni was there and I had my own anxiety about the first reading. So we ended up going to dinner afterwards, the producer took us all out and I walked up to her and started to say, “Ms. Shakur, I’m honored.” I was trying to tell her I’m honored to even have a shot at this. She could’ve said, ‘Fuck it, this is terrible. Get someone else,’ and that’s the business I know that. But she grabbed my face and she said, “No baby, I’m honored,” and kissed me on the lips and we both just started crying. That’s a snapshot of privilege in my life.
How did Tupac’s music shape the script? Are there any records that didn’t make the cut?
The entire story grew out of the lyrics so I built the characters based on the lyrics that they sang. As I began to listen to the music, not to sound schizophrenic, but I began to hear different voices. They started as archetypes: this is the militant’s voice, this is the hustler’s voice, this is the mother’s voice, this is the lover’s voice, this is the friend’s voice. Then I would say, ‘How do I write to this moment? How would this song be a discovery moment? How can I set up the character?’ You think one thing about them then they sing “Dear Mama” and you find new things about them. For instance, I used songs like “Dear Mama” to tell the back-story on one of the characters. I used “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” as the basis of the past relationship between two estranged friends. The storytelling all came out of the music. The only cuts I made were the autobiographical stuff and the stuff that rooted us in the 90s.
What songs did you stay away from?
There’s hundreds of songs and people would say why didn’t you put this song in there? And I’m like, ‘Man I have 40 other songs that I love,’ and it’s not in the play but as the story began to emerge it became about what serves our story so you make choices on that basis. I also wanted a variety of material because there is a danger when you do any kind of musical with one strong idiom, it can feel repetitious. I was also very aware of the musical palette and working with [musical supervisor] Daryl Waters. Daryl has been doing all the magic with our orchestration and the music, and he’s been in charge of translating the recordings into the Broadway idiom, so Daryl is doing an amazing job of preserving the sound but transforming it and making it supple for storytelling. Also understand that there’s a whole bunch of songs that aren’t in there but they influence the writing. I am collaborating with someone who is not here. This is weird for a musical. Usually a musical has two or three authors meaning the three prongs of authorship in a musical are book, music, and lyrics. I’ll be 40 nine days after we open, so I’m about three years younger than him, and of course, I remember his music through college and everything else so I had that experience. But I never met him so I had to get to know him as well as I could.