Holler If Ya Hear Me is the first hip-hop jukebox musical in Broadway history — and possibly the first in theater history — a genre that's been kind to Abba, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Green Day and Fela Kuti. There isn't a single rapper more suited for the concept than Tupac Shakur, the most emotionally rich, psychologically complex, lyrically candid figure hip-hop has seen its 40-year history. Watching this crew of gifted performers rap, sing and speak his words draws new focus to his cinematic eye.
Agitprop rapper Saul Williams, in the lead role of John, raps with the authority that 19 years of hip-hop and poetry experience can bring and Tonya Pinkins sings with the gusto of a Tony winner. The downside is that Pac's lyrics are so vivid and evocative and dense that Holler occasionally seems like a story of people telling other stories. It quickly becomes less about whether Holler If Ya Hear Me does 2Pac justice, but whether any musical could ever do hip-hop justice.
Unlike Fela or Jersey Boys, the play not about Pac's life, but writer Todd Kreidler's original tale of loss and anger. In turn, 2Pac's personal writing is turned into something that a cast of 29 can sing. At times it's disconcerting (how do you turn "Me Against the World" into a duet?) and other times it's completely triumphant — Williams brings a stunning, note-perfect swell of rage to "Holler If Ya Hear Me." Hearing Tupac's words half-rapped, half-sung should, in theory, seem weird, but sound fairly modern in a 2014 full of Drakes, Futures and Ty Dolla $igns — not to mention that the plainspoken-rap-and-guitar style of "Thugz Mansion" foretold sections of modern Nashville. Some songs ("I Get Around" and "California Love") feel shoehorned in, others ("Thugz Mansion," "Whatz Next") seem like they were made for the medium.
So the triumph of the play is in the characters. There's no single "Pac figure" to be found here. Instead, the whole cast feels like a Herman's Head-style staging of his many conflicting emotions that worked their way out in his catalog — there's the beanie-clad hard-head looking for revenge, the preacher pleading for peace, the radical searching for a "true political action," the repentant hustler who just wants to make it up to his mama.
While this staging won't shine any new insight into 2Pac's songs, it's a loving tribute that captures what they mean — how systemic racism gives way to anger, how change doesn't easy — and does ambitious work in the process.