In spring 2010, playwright Todd Kreidler received a large FedEx package containing the music and poetry of the late GRAMMY-nominated rap legend Tupac Shakur.
The package containing 23 CDs and a copy of the 176-page poetry book The Rose That Grew From Concrete was meant to serve as inspiration for Kreidler's latest project: penning a nonbiographical story for a Broadway show set to the music and lyrics of Shakur, who sold millions of albums following the release of his debut solo album, 1991's 2Pacalypse Now.
Realizing the enormous task at hand, Kreidler quickly added the nearly 400 songs onto his iPod, printed their lyrics and got to work.
"I spent a good two or three months just listening and reading his lyrics," recalls Kreidler, who was working as the associate director for the Broadway revival of August Wilson's "Fences" at the time.
Kreidler would listen to Shakur's music during rehearsals and breaks. "I also lived in as many interviews as possible, because I wanted to know Tupac's ideas and attitudes on life since he was my collaborator," the playwright says. "I wanted it to feel like we wrote it together."
Over the next several years, Kreidler used the universal themes in Shakur's music to piece together a dramatic present-day tale about two friends living in the Midwest struggling to survive inner-city life. To help push the story along, he weaved the lyrics of such popular Shakur anthems as "California Love," "Dear Mama" and "Me Against The World" into the dialogue.
In what many consider a historical moment for theater, Kreidler's script will come to life in "Holler If Ya Hear Me," a hip-hop musical set to open on Broadway on June 19 at the newly renovated Palace Theatre in New York.
"Tupac spoke about almost Shakespearean themes: love, family, revenge, honor, and community," says Jessica Green, a co-producer of "Holler If Ya Hear Me" alongside Eric Gold and Shakur's mother, Afeni Shakur, among others. "The story itself and all the characters are in some way inspired by his music."
Titled after the opening track of Shakur's 1993 album, Strictly 4 My Niggaz, "Holler If Ya Hear Me" is directed by Kenny Leon, who recently won a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for his revival of "A Raisin In The Sun." An $8 million production, "Holler If Ya Hear Me" stars renowned musician and poet Saul Williams ("Slam") in the role of John Caviness, an ex-convict turned comic book artist who is desperately trying to stay out of trouble after returning to his old neighborhood.
"Everything that's going to happen onstage is going to blow people's minds," says Williams, a graduate of New York University's acting program at the Tisch School of the Arts. "We may start realizing the brilliance of Tupac above and beyond all of the iconography surrounding him and Notorious B.I.G."
The 22-member cast also includes Broadway veterans Tonya Pinkins ("Jelly's Last Jam," "Play On!"), Christopher Jackson ("After Midnight"), Saycon Sengbloh ("Motown The Musical," "Hair"), Ben Thompson ("Matilda," "American Idiot"), and John Earl Jelks ("Radio Golf").
With musical supervisor and GRAMMY-nominated composer Daryl Waters ("Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk," "The Color Purple") leading a 10-piece orchestra, the show's cast will sing, rap and speak 19 of Shakur's songs — from radio hits such as "I Get Around" and "Keep Ya Head Up," to deeper tracks such as "Ghetto Gospel" and "Dopefiend's Diner." The two-act, 110-minute production also features newly written music by Waters set to Shakur's poems "Wake Me When I'm Free" and "The Rose That Grew From Concrete."
Tony winner Wayne Cilento ("Wicked," "The Who's Tommy") has been tapped for choreography, which Leon describes as "a kind of movement that brings the groove from the '90s and marries it with 2014." The affordably priced show will run eight times per week (with two shows each on Saturday and Sunday), going dark on Wednesdays. It will be eligible for Tony Awards consideration in 2015.
Waters didn't know much about Shakur or his music prior to working on "Holler If Ya Hear Me." He began to absorb the grooves of the rapper's music after realizing that much of it sampled songs from the '70s and '80s, including Joe Cocker's "Woman To Woman" ("California Love") and Joe Sample's "In All My Wildest Dreams” ("Dear Mama").
"That was my in to making this work, because I went back to a lot of that source material," Waters says. "We added more of the soulful grooves in addition to what Tupac did, and combined that with the rap and putting a little melody to it."
The origins of bringing Shakur to Broadway date back to the early 2000s. Before acquiring the rights to produce a Shakur-inspired Broadway show, Gold reached out to the rapper's mother to get her blessing. As the head of her son's estate, Afeni Shakur ultimately had control over the musical's creative team and which songs could be used.
"She's trusted me to find the truth that will uplift what was good about Tupac's artistry," Leon says, adding that Afeni Shakur gave positive feedback after attending workshops. "I feel a great sense of responsibility to her and Tupac fans that I'm not going to do anything to water down the brand."
The project was originally slated as a biographical piece about the controversial artist, who was killed at age 25 in a drive-by shooting in 1996 and was closely affiliated with the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry during the '90s. A Shakur biopic is already in the works with John Singleton (Boyz N The Hood) attached as the director. Green believes a fictional stage show inspired by Shakur's music will help expose fans to a different side of the hip-hop icon.
"By separating it from Tupac's story and making it about completely original characters, you are able to hear and understand Tupac's message through his lyrics in a bigger way than you could if you were telling his story," Green says, stressing that neither Shakur's image nor voice will be present in "Holler If Ya Hear Me."
Leon believes the show will attract traditional Broadway patrons, as well as younger Shakur fans from mixed ethnic backgrounds. He also hopes that the musical's message of nonviolence and social change will inspire attendees.
"I'm seeing this as a beginning of a revolution," says Leon. "I'm hoping that 'Holler If Ya Hear Me' won't just be successful, but that after we open that door, there will be an opportunity for other young writers from the music world and all over the country to feel that the Broadway stage is where they can hear their voice."
Looking back, Kreidler says he's an even bigger Shakur fan now despite having listened to the rapper nonstop over the past four years.
"Even coming to work on this last workshop, I went back to those original 400 songs and put them on my iPhone — and I've still been listening to them," says Kreidler, who is currently writing a musical with Mötley Crüe's Nikki Sixx. "When the band kicks in and it starts to happen, I'm like, 'Oh my God!' It's really magical to me."
(Mitchell Peters is a veteran music business writer who most recently served as an editor for Billboard in Los Angeles. His work has also appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Reuters, Pollstar, Venues Today, Mass Appeal, and other publications.)