NEW YORK — Kenny Leon is leaning toward the crowd, microphone in hand as if he’s about to burst into a rhyme.
In his sporty uniform of the day — black Adidas tracksuit, snowball-white baseball cap and plum-colored sneakers — Leon looks like any of the thousands of tourists swarming Times Square (albeit more striking than most) not far from where he is standing on the stage of the Palace Theatre.
Not many in the audience realize that he is the Tony-winning Broadway director behind “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” the musical based on the work of Tupac Shakur about to begin a preview performance.
Puzzled glances are exchanged. Who is this guy and why is he delaying the start of our show?
But Leon, flashing a gleaming grin, is effortlessly cool as he transitions the crowd mood from minor irritation to major anticipation in a matter of seconds.
“Turn off your cell phones — you’re not gonna need ‘em!” he bellows. “This is a revolution in theater, so I want you to tell the world about it. Pass the word … and holler if ya hear me!”
His hype job complete, Leon bounds into the audience and settles into a seat a few rows from the stage to observe and take notes.
The house lights dim, and Leon’s latest Broadway offering begins with a suspended jail cell and the recitation of some Shakur lyrics, which quickly expands into a full production number of “My Block,” filled with moving front porch stoops, basketball hoops and raw language.
Leon was correct. This feels revolutionary.
Mr. Shakur, welcome to Broadway.
Leon understands the gamble of bringing an $8 million show anchored by the music of one of hip-hop’s most polarizing figures to a theater district peppered with Disney spectacles and jukebox heroes. (The last show to play the Palace: “Annie.”)
“Holler” isn’t a biographical story. But Shakur’s songs and poetry — alternately astringent and delicate — are the core of a production that is set in a purposely unidentified Midwestern city in the present day, where gun violence is prevalent, a mother (Tony winner Tonya Pinkins) worries for her son, and a recently released inmate (an intense, soulful Saul Williams) tries to repair fractured friendships, navigate a love triangle and adapt to life as a free man.
Even the theater has been transformed: $200,000 was spent to build a riser and elevate the seats to resemble movie theater-style stadium seating. The newly configured orchestra level is now so close to the performers that Williams’ spittle flies centimeters from your eyes as he unleashes the electrifying title number.
The reconfiguration means 500 fewer seats, for a capacity of about 1,100 (the unused ones at the back of the theater are roped off and surrounded by a hip-hop-themed mural and memorabilia from the National Museum of Hip-Hop).
Though Leon estimates it will take about a year and a half — assuming the show gets that extended a run — to recoup the $8 million invested, it’s a tradeoff he and the show’s producers were willing to make to create an intimate environment.
Yes, at this point in the director’s sterling career — eight Broadway stagings and a best director Tony Award just two weeks ago — he relishes risks.
Leon’s personal leaps from artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre to co-founder and artistic director of True Colors Theatre Company (where he will return next month to star opposite Phylicia Rashad in “Same Time Next Year”) to lauded Broadway director isn’t a path for the meek of constitution.
His trademark attire of tracksuit and running shoes might indicate his lack of airs, but it’s also practical for a man always on the run.
For two months, Leon bounced between rehearsals for “Holler” and his Tony-winning revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” which just closed after a limited engagement. The first few weeks of June gave the 58-year-old the almost unheard of opportunity to peer down 47th Street and see his name on two marquees simultaneously. Remarkably, it’s the second time in his career he’s had concurrent shows on Broadway.
“It’s a blessing,” he says, almost sheepishly.
Four days after “Raisin” closed on June 15, “Holler” was slated to open, the Leon locomotive barrelling down a new track.
But even when Leon isn’t in the theater, his mental and emotional energy is always consumed by it.
On a recent Friday night, hours after a preview of “Holler” has ended, Leon has guided a post-show meeting, walked eight blocks to the Andaz 5th Avenue hotel and turned on the high-wattage smile to glad-hand at an industry party full of hipsters in suits. (He of course attends in that omnipresent track suit and with his this-is-who-I-am aura.) After a brief appearance, Leon returns to the sidewalk and sighs, preoccupied with thoughts of how to tweak “Holler.”
His wife, Jennifer, a natural beauty who eschews the spotlight, decides that she’s going to hail a cab and head back to their apartment about six crosstown blocks away.
Leon furrows his brow and leans against a piece of scaffolding.
“You go ahead,” he tells her. “I need to walk.”
Leon’s headiest challenges are persuading a tradition-bound Broadway audience that Shakur’s messages are meaningful and getting it to understand that “Holler” isn’t a concert, but something different.
“It’s music. It’s movement. It’s acting,” he said. “And I don’t think there is anything quite like it on any stage in America.”
Hip-hop on Broadway isn’t an anomaly. From 1996’s “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” to 2008’s “In the Heights,” which won the best musical Tony, the genre has been represented, albeit infrequently.
But using the poignant and/or bracing songs of Shakur to shape “Holler‘s” vivid characters — similar to the storytelling device used in the Abba-fied “Mamma Mia! — marks the first time a notable rap artist with a controversial background has been provided such a mainstream platform.
Shakur, whose catalog has sold nearly 30 million units, had recently released his fourth album, “All Eyez on Me,” when he was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996. The crime is still unsolved.
Saycon Sengbloh, one of five “Holler” cast members with Atlanta ties, recalled hearing about the musician’s death while walking her dorm hallways at Agnes Scott College in Decatur. She immediately understood the significance of the show when she read for the part of Corrine, “Holler’s” key female role.
“Kenny is very serious about what we’re doing in terms of cementing hip-hop and the opportunity to have the lyrics of Tupac be brought to life on Broadway,” she says. “He wants us to take it seriously, and that’s very exciting.”
Leon said he feels a deep sense of responsibility to Shakur’s memory as well to Shakur’s mother, Afeni, who founded the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation and Center for the Arts in Stone Mountain in 1997 and is one of the show’s producers.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t think she’d be happy with it,” Leon says in an accent that is a hybrid of Tallahassee-born burr and Atlanta-centric lilt. “I can’t diminish his memory or his artistry or his work.”
With hands punctuating the air, he continues.
“My goal is to always honor Tupac’s legacy. His spirituality. His idea about community. His idea about country. I want to present that so hip-hop fans will say, ‘Wow, this only uplifts what we’ve known for years.’ And then I want that Broadway audience that had never thought about Tupac the artist, I want them to see that this guy was saying something about family, about love of mother, love of country, giving equal value to every life. Writers like August Wilson and Shakespeare talk about those universal things, and I think Tupac belongs right in that army.”
August Wilson’s spirit
Nearly every thread that tugged “Holler If Ya Hear Me” to Broadway during its winding decade-plus journey is tied to August Wilson.
The Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who died in 2005, was a devout fan of Shakur’s work.
The last moment of his final play, “Radio Golf,” features Shakur’s song, “Me Against the World,” which required Leon, who directed the play on Broadway, to acquire Afeni’s permission.
And the first thing that book writer Todd Kreidler scrawled on his yellow notepad as he outlined the beginnings of “Holler” was: “’Dear Mama’ will be in this musical.”
Kreidler’s note to himself about the tenderest song in Shakur’s catalog, a love letter to Afeni, was a homage to his relationship with Wilson.
In 2001, after Kreidler became Wilson’s dramaturge (but before Kreidler’s tenure as associate artistic director at True Colors Theatre) and was working with him on “King Hedley II,” the pair stayed at the Hotel Edison, in the heart of New York’s theater district. Their working spot was the hotel’s Cafe Edison.
One day at the cafe, Wilson asked Kreidler, “Do you know ‘Dear Mama?’”
“Yeah, I know it,” Kreidler began to reply when Wilson interrupted.
“No, man, you don’t really KNOW ‘Dear Mama.’”
Wilson paid their bill, hurried across the street to the now-defunct Virgin Megastore, beelined for the hip-hop section, checked out, walked outside and handed Kreidler a copy of Shakur’s CD, “Me Against the World.”
Kreidler thanked him. Wilson stayed silent as they walked toward the Second Stage Theatre, but then abruptly stopped at the Hotel Edison and demanded Kreidler return to his room to listen to the music.
“That music in your hands, man … what you don’t understand is that there is nothing in your life that is not contained in that music,” Wilson told him.
So Kreidler retreated to room 749 and listened to the record four times. Then he rejoined the rehearsal, exchanged a nod with Wilson, headed upstairs and talked about Shakur for six hours.
Seven years later, Wilson was gone but while Kreidler was working with Leon on “Fences,” a FedEx box filled with 23 Shakur CDs and a book of his poetry arrived at the theater. It was a “gift” from now-“Holler” producers Eric Gold and Jessica Green with the inherent message, “Go make a musical.”
“I’m working with a collaborator who is not here … and I wanted the material to feel as if we had written it together,” Kreidler said. “I wanted all of the stories and all of the character arcs to come from within the music. I never wanted to create a story and then cut up Tupac to fit into it.”
Even now, though, with “Holler” opened on Broadway, the spirit of Wilson lingers.
“If you look in the universe, you can’t get from Todd Kreidler to Tupac without going through August Wilson and Kenny Leon,” Kreidler says.
To cement the karma, on the first day of “Holler” rehearsals, Kreidler and Leon had breakfast at Cafe Edison.
The red carpet at the Tony Awards is steamy, Broadway celebrities and journalists packed together like prickly sheep. Through the circus of shouting and popping flashes and hustling herds of PR operatives, Leon stands out.
He’s impeccably tailored in a tuxedo, pale-gold tie and sparkling gilded Adidas and completely un-flummoxed as he cheerfully chats with the press.
He mentions that he attended the first act of the “Holler” matinee before heading to Radio City Music Hall, and that his new cast wished him good luck with “A Raisin in the Sun’s” five nominations.
A couple of hours later, Leon pops in to the Tonys press room, clutching a replica of the statue that would soon be engraved with his name for best direction of a play.
“This gives voice to a lot of people in this country who grew up poor,” Leon says to the room. “I think whenever a young person sees someone else accomplish something, it says something to them. We don’t hear their voices all the time in a positive way.”
He was referencing his work on “Raisin,” but Leon’s remarks just as readily apply to the thrust of “Holler” and his desire to speak to a new audience through Shakur’s words.
But even on this most momentous of nights, Leon opts for a low-key celebration: dinner with Jennifer at the modestly priced La Masseria Italian restaurant a few blocks from the “Holler” theater and then home to sleep.
After all, he has a rehearsal to attend in a few hours.
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Staff videographer Ryon Horne contributed to this story.