“Holler If Ya Hear Me” was screaming for attention long before Broadway’s first all-rap offering arrived on the scene.
The jukebox musical based on Tupac Shakur’s arsenal of work lands Thursday after months of fanfare in which Times Square has been plastered with “Holler” posters. The Wall Street Journal chronicled the $200,000 revamping of the century-old Palace Theater for the show’s debut, and star Saul Williams was seen trading barbs with Stephen Colbert before previews began.
Then there was the shout-out during the Tony Awards June 8, when the musical got a plug from its director, Kenny Leon. In his acceptance speech for directing “A Raisin in the Sun,” he declared, “Watch out for the next great musical, ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me.’ ”
The team behind “Holler” soon will know if the buzz has prepared theatergoers for what seems like an unlikely pair: Tupac and Broadway. The late rapper and actor was called by Rolling Stone magazine “one of the most dynamic, influential and self-destructive pop stars of the ’90s,” who had “thug life” as a tattoo and was imprisoned twice in his 25 years.
His provocative lyrics have been decried as promoting violence and misogyny and embraced for their rage against the cycle of poverty and abuse in African-American communities. He also sold more than 75 million records, making him one of the best-selling music artists of all time.
Bringing that music to the stage has been a 14-year project for Eric Gold, the Churchill native, Hollywood producer and former super agent. For his inaugural Broadway venture, he approached Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, but the job of writing the script eventually went to Pittsburgher Todd Kreidler, a Duquesne University graduate who was Wilson’s right hand on projects including “King Hedley II,” which premiered at Pittsburgh Public Theater in 1999, and “How I Learned What I Learned.”
On a dark and damp spring day, Mr. Gold was visiting Pittsburgh and over a half-eaten lunch at the Fairmont Hotel’s Habitat restaurant, he related his journey.
“I have a crazy story that you probably will like,” he said. “It’s very Pittsburgh-centric.”
Mr. Gold became familiar with Tupac Shakur in the early 1990s, when he produced the breakthrough TV variety show “In Living Color” for clients Marlon and Keenen Ivory Wayans — good friends of Shakur’s.
“I’m seeing this kid is having an effect through his music greater than most of my contemporaries have any idea,” Mr. Gold said. “The Wayans, they would tell me, ’Listen to what he’s talking about’ … So early on, they made me aware of his significance as a lyricist.”
Mr. Gold was in Las Vegas on Sept. 7, 1996, for the Bruce Seldon-Mike Tyson fight also attended by Shakur, who was the victim of a drive-by shooting that night. He died on Sept. 13.
“So it’s in my consciousness,” the producer said of Shakur’s legacy. “It’s not like I’m a rap fan, and I start listening to it, and I realize this might lend itself as a narrative form onstage. Me, the Jewish kid from Pittsburgh, and I had been exposed to theater only as a manager.”
That experience was as rep to actor Matt Dillon; the show was “Boys of Winter.” It closed in a week.
“I learned a big lesson: One bad Frank Rich review and you’re over,” Mr. Gold said.
Still, he couldn’t shake the notion that Shakur’s music belonged on Broadway.
Mr. Gold floated the idea with music moguls David Geffen and Jimmy Iovine. Both were encouraging, but no one was ready to jump in as an investor. Undaunted, the producer won a meeting with Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, a former Black Panther Party member and the subject of Shakur’s “Dear Mama,” and their mutual lawyer, who represents the rapper’s estate.
“So we fly up and sit with her in Sausalito. I tell her, here’s what I’m thinking. She looks up with tears in her eyes and says, ‘This is what Tupac wanted to do.’”
Ms. Shakur told the producer that her son had been writing for the screen and stage at the time of his death. ”She said, ‘Who do you see writing this?’ and I say, ‘August Wilson.’ And she goes, ‘That’s exactly right.’ ”
Mr. Gold had envisioned telling Tupac’s story, but that wasn’t to be. One of the rapper’s chroniclers had already secured the biographical rights for his book. So now the producer had access to the music, but he had to tell a different story.
Pittsburgher Kreidler, the man who wrote that story, picks things up from there.
“The first time it came to me was through Kenny [Leon], who said, ‘I think you should be the guy to write it,’ ” recalled Mr. Kreidler, who was aware that Mr. Gold had approached Wilson.
It was seeing “Jersey Boys” — the longtime resident of Broadway’s August Wilson Theater — that persuaded him that a jukebox musical could work. He already had been schooled in Shakur’s music by Wilson while they were bringing “King Hedley II” to Broadway in 2001.
Mr. Kreidler’s collaborator and friend discovered over breakfast at New York’s Cafe Edison that he was uninitiated in Shakur’s music and sought to remedy the situation immediately. Wilson marched him to the huge Virgin Records store in Times Square and bought the 7 million-seller “Me Against the World,” the 1995 recording released while Shakur was in prison.
“I started to follow him to rehearsal [for ’King Hedley’] and he said, ‘Where are you going?’ You don’t do anything until you listen to that CD. What you’re holding, there’s nothing in life not touched by what he says — love, honor, community … you’re not going to rehearsal until you listen to this,’ ” Mr. Kreidler recalled.
“I put it in my Sony Discman, listened three, four times, and walked into rehearsal. I nodded, he nodded. That was it.”
He later received a package from Wilson with the 23 CDs Shakur left behind, what would become his blueprint for “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” the musical.
“I had these two big binders of lyrics. I treated it like Shakespeare,” he said.
“I had a collaborator who was dead, and I had this crazy ambition that it had to be like we wrote it together,” Mr. Kreidler related. “What I had was the lyrics. People consider his lyrics very contradictory, which is ripe for a dramatist.”
He eliminated the biographical elements and chose “a city like Pittsburgh, St. Louis or Cleveland,” he said. For the story, “I was listening to the acoustic refrain of ’[Thugz] Mansion,’ and I see three guys sitting by a fire. I knew those guys — an old friendship repaired, a new friendship reborn. … The final sequence [to ‘Holler’] fell out of that moment.”
His first draft represented what he called his complete vision. “I wrote 80 percent in four months; it’s taken me four years to write the other 20 percent,” the writer said.
The synopsis on the “Holler” website reads: “The world inside Tupac Shakur’s music and lyrics blazes to life in a non-biographical story about friendship, family, revenge, change and hope.”
Once the script and team were in place, “Holler If Ya Hear Me” shot to Broadway like a rocket. It arrives at the Palace with just two workshops under its belt, one directed by Mr. Leon and featuring Chadwick Boseman. With Hollywood calling Mr. Boseman (he portrayed Jackie Robinson in “42”), the performer, writer and recording artist Saul Williams stepped into the lead.
Mr. Gold, whose producing partners include his wife, Marcy Kaplan-Gold, and Afeni Shakur, has seen many opening nights as a movie producer, but Thursday night will be his first on Broadway. For Mr. Kreidler, who has three Broadway credits alongside Wilson and has adapted a stage version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Holler” marks his debut as a librettist. His hope is that audiences who dismiss Tupac Shakur will have the same reaction as his wife, Erin. She refused to listen to the rapper’s music until one day he plugged his iPod into a speaker, and there was hollering in their kitchen.
“You hear this refrain and as he begins, the architecture comes alive. I’m talking through it, playing the songs and then I see tears streaming down her face. She said, ‘Oh my God, Tupac’s a genius.’ ”
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.