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Holler, I Totes Hear You

I keep wanting to make Challah jokes. Because this is Broadway. But honestly, that’s totally unfair to Holler If Ya Hear Me. Which is so not like anything you’ve ever seen on Broadway. Even when it’s being exactly like everything you’ve ever seen on Broadway. Which is weird, I know. And maybe hard to picture? But it’s true.

Because in some ways, Holler is a pretty standard addition to the Broadway Jukebox Musical canon. Someone, somewhere — okay, his name is Todd Kreidler — wrote a wholly original book that patched together Tupcac’s greatest hits into the story of a handful of young men growing up on the wrong side of town in sort-of modern America. But then, this is a Tupac Jukebox. And nothing about Tupac is terribly standard-fare for the Broadway stage, from the stories he illuminates to the language he uses to communicate them.

So yeah. There are flashy lights. And there’s choreography, a chorus of dancers, people even sing.

But then. There’s the word ‘pussy,’ dropping from someone’s mouth, right there on the Broadway stage. And that’s not like… common in musicals, you know?

Maybe it’s strange, but I was super happy to hear that word. Like. I bounced up and down in my seat a little bit. I was even kind of stoked to hear the n-word. Even though it’s controversial — maybe because it’s controversial — even though it’s a word that this privileged white girl cannot, and would not, ever say out loud.

Because it’s a word that lots of people on this planet use, as a very valid part of their every day dialogue, as a way of co-opting a word that had such negative (nay, degrading) associations, and empowering themselves through it’s use. Or trying to.

And if Holler is about anything, it’s about how difficult it is to empower yourself and escape if you’re a young black man who grows up in the wrong neighborhood. About how easy it is to get sucked into black-on-black violence, an endless cycle that these men are repressed by, even as they are willing participants. Or unwilling participants.

And here’s the thing… as a jukebox musical, Holler is a mixed bag. It has moments of brilliance (“Thug’s Mansion” both fits the story, and really feels like a classic musical moment). And moments where the structure is stretched too thin to accommodate a hit song (So… is there a reason we’re singing “California Love” right now?). And moments of utter failure (like, half the book). On balance, the story is… confusing in places, under-edited almost throughout, and loaded with so many characters it’s hard to keep track. By the end of the show I still couldn’t remember who one of the supporting actors was supposed to be in relationship to everyone else. And it’s real hard to ignore the fact that the women in this show are little more than accessories for the menfolk.

But you know what? By the end of the show I also kind of gave no fucks about any of that. Which is unique. And important.

Usually when I see a bad show I get pretty jacked up about it. Just like… pissed off at the world for wasting my time, which I don’t have a whole lot of, and annoyed that producers and writers and just everyone cannot respect audiences more and present them with good, smart, tightly crafted material.

But after Holler? I didn’t feel that at all. I was mostly just kind of stoked for theater. For a future where more stories like this could be told on the Broadway stage. Would be told on the Broadway stage.

Because everyone should have an opportunity to see their stories told. And because the world is not just white, or upper-class, or upwardly-mobile and if Broadway is ever going to be relevant, it has to find new audiences and new ways to communicate with audiences. Things that are authentic to the experiences of people who did not grow up on Oklahoma!, or even Rock and Roll. Things that have played on the radio in the last fifty years.

Someday, I hope there will be more credible rap musicals, maybe even ones that are entirely original and not just culled from existing material. Someday I hope there are more stories about what it’s like growing up in this nation today, or twenty years ago, even. I hope some of them are told in musical styles that we haven’t already heard on stage a million times, styles that are authentic to the characters as opposed to the medium.

But for now, I’ll take Holler. Which was, by the end, pretty freaking gripping. And on balance, really worth the endeavor, ya hear me?


Photo: Sara Krulwich

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