Yo! Broadway raps! Is the Tupac Shakur musical really a breakthrough?

If you think Holler if Ya Hear Me is the first time Broadway busted a phat rhyme while getting jiggy with the bling-bling, you don’t know your history

Tupac Shakur, left, and Saul Williams

Tupac Shakur, left, and Saul Williams Photograph: Leeza Taylor (L); Andrew Gura

As we announced back in January, there’s a new musical heading to Broadway built around the catalog of murdered rap superstar Tupac Shakur (pictured above, left). Holler if Ya Hear Me starts previews May 29 and opens mid-June (Saul Williams, right, stars). Tickets have just gone on sale. Holler is not, as you might assume, a biographical account of the singer’s life, but a portrait of inner-city hardship, family and hope drawn from songs such as “Thug Mansion,” “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” “Ghetto Gospel” and a dozen more. For theater folk, this is new territory: the first jukebox musical drawn from a genuine rapper, one of the legends of hip-hop.

But not so new? Rapping on Broadway. Rhythmic chanting, singsong speech and syncopated delivery are woven deep in the DNA of the show tune. In the 19th century, Gilbert and Sullivan were famous for their tongue-twisting patter numbers, such as the Major-General song from The Pirates of Penzance (1879). Their comic operettas evolved into English musical-hall comedies, which in turn flowered on this side of the Atlantic as the prototypical Broadway musical. 

When we think of patter on the Great White Way, “(Ya Got) Trouble” from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man springs to mind. Here’s a clip from the 1962 film adaptation, sung by the incomparable Robert Preston (skip to one minute in):

Two decades later, rapping was mainstream, so much so that Stephen Sondheim dipped into the genre (briefly) for Into the Woods (1987), in which the Witch (Bernadette Peters) explains why she put a curse on the Baker and his wife. In an interview with Rob Weinert-Kendt for American Theatre, Sondheim admitted to listening to hip-hop for the number originally designated “Witch’s Rap” (starts at 1m20s in the video below).

Another 20 years and non-white-people rap was safe for Broadway consumption. Astounding newcomer Lin-Manuel Miranda burst onto the scene with In the Heights, a joyous celebration of Latino life in Washington Heights, with a fresh score that mixed hip-hop, salsa, freestyle and reggaeton. Here’s composer-lyricist-star Miranda and the company performing “96,000” on the 2008 Tony Awards telecast. And yes, it won Best Musical that night.

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)


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