'Holler If Ya Hear Me" director Kenny Leon looks laid-back in his black Adidas track suit, as he sits with the musical's core creative team in the orchestra seats of the Palace Theatre.
But as he talks about the show based on the music and poetry of Tupac Shakur, Leon chooses his words as carefully as he did when he accepted two Tony awards last week for "A Raisin the Sun," including one for best direction.
"I was always enamored with Tupac and what he had to say -- the artistry of Tupac," Leon says. "When I looked at what he was saying on the page, I thought he was in the same army of writers as August Wilson and Shakespeare."
And that's how Leon and his team have looked at "Holler If Ya Hear Me" for more than four years -- as a way to bring the words of an important writer to life. "I approached it like Shakespeare," says Todd Kreidler, who crafted the story of "Holler If Ya Hear Me" from Shakur's CDs and two books of poetry. "I never wanted to create a Tupac collage. I never wanted to cut up his stuff to fit some story frame that I had come up with. What I did is I listened, and I began to hear some different voices, archetypal voices -- a militant voice, a mother's voice, a hustler's voice. I heard these different kinds of voices that then began to grow into characters."
The story Kreidler pulled from Shakur's work takes place in the present, on a block in a Midwestern industrial city, as it deals with the aftermath of a tragic shooting. "We wanted to strip the East Coast and West Coast away because all of that is distracting to our story," he explains. "In writing it, I thought of St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, where I'm from, Indianapolis. L.A. and New York have this mystique of opportunity and access in a way that this world doesn't. It wasn't about someone getting into the rap game because I thought that would steer us right into biography."
"Holler If Ya Hear Me" is most definitely not a biography of Shakur, who released five albums that brought gangsta rap into the mainstream and starred in six movies before he was killed, at 25, in Las Vegas in 1996, a shooting that remains unsolved. However, it is a story that comes from his world view.
Kreidler says he felt like he was collaborating with Shakur on the story and would write notes to him. He recalls a line where Shakur wrote "Nobody cries when we die," and Kreidler responded, "They will in this musical."
Leon acknowledges that the entire "Holler If Ya Hear Me" process has been a balancing act. Leon has been telling his cast about the need to enunciate clearly as they rap. He has been working with music supervisor Daryl Waters to get enough bass in the performances from the 10-piece live band to replicate that element of Shakur's sound, but not so much bass that it obscures what is being said.
All that balancing raises the degree of difficulty of the show. "Of course, it's risky," Leon says. "It's scary. It's dangerous, but that's what great art is. And those are things you want to be involved with."
Leon, Kreidler and Waters share a laugh when asked how they are dealing with the pressure of the expectations for the show, even before it opens. "I try not to think about that in any project because if I did, I would probably shoot myself in the head," Leon says with a laugh.
However, Leon does recognize the importance of the project. "I feel a certain responsibility to the good that was in Tupac, and I feel a responsibility to that legacy and to the hip-hop community that's always speaking out," he says. "I feel like this is a way to broaden what they are saying and branding it in a different way."
He also recognizes that "Holler" is trying to tell a universal story. "Once you take away the things that you think you hate -- if you think you hate violence or if you think you hate black or you think you hate blood or you think you hate gangs, whatever -- if you take that away and you look underneath that, there is some beauty and some richness about living life and expanding dreams," he says.
Leon says he hopes the musical will introduce a new audience to Broadway while also introducing Broadway audiences to a new voice.
"I'm hoping it opens the door for a lot of young writers, a lot of diverse writers -- Asian, Hispanic, black, young, some from the hip-hop world, some from the music world," Leon says. "I think Broadway can embrace all of the voices. A lot of these artists have something to say and are looking for an outlet.... Fifty-five years ago, it was 'Raisin in the Sun.' I think 55 years from now, this could be the new 'Raisin in the Sun.'"
WHAT "Holler If Ya Hear Me"
WHEN | WHERE Opens Thursday; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, Manhattan
INFO $59-$129; 800-745- 3000, ticketmaster.com