It wasn’t until a year or so before Tupac Shakur died in 1996 that Kenny Leon started to understand the power of his music.
“I was like, wait a minute, turn down the bass and hear this. ‘Me Against the World’? Oh, wow. From the mid-’90s on, I started getting deeper and deeper into his lyrics. Selfishly, this is a great thing for me. I feel a great amount of responsibility to his work, to his mother. This is the greatest artistic challenge of my life.”
Leon’s challenge as a director will be to bring the music of the iconic rapper to the Broadway stage in “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” a musical named after the 1993 Shakur song that is set to open at the Palace Theatre on June 19 (previews begin May 26).
Considering the track record of the co-founder of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company, Leon, also a Clark Atlanta University graduate, shouldn’t be sweating it.
His sterling resume includes directing the Tony-lauded revivals of “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad and August Wilson’s “Fences,” with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, as well as “The Mountaintop” with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
But it’s obvious from the passionate tone in his voice during this call from Los Angeles, where Leon was editing the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie “In My Dreams,” which airs on Mother’s Day, how deeply he feels this Shakur show.
The $9 million production went through three workshops the past two years and was ready for production last April, but needed an open Broadway venue. It isn’t based on the rapper’s life; instead, Shakur’s music will be used to tell the story of the friendship of two men in the Midwest torn apart by circumstance.
“One of those men spends some time in prison and comes out and wants to change his neighborhood and finds that he really can’t change it alone,” Leon said. “It’s a family story, a love story. If you can, imagine four or five men onstage singing ‘Dear Mama,’ and what that will sound like. Hopefully, it will change the world.”
Shakur’s mother, Afeni, who founded the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation in Stone Mountain in 1997, is a producer on the show and a welcome presence for Leon.
“She said 10 years ago that she has full trust in me,” Leon said. “I keep her involved in the writing of it, the songs. She was present at a couple of the workshops, but she’s not micromanaging on the creative side. They’re really trusting us.”
“Holler” is written by Todd Kreidler (an associate director on “Fences”), with choreography from “Wicked”’s Wayne Cilento and music supervision by Daryl Waters, who worked on the current Broadway tribute to Duke Ellington, “After Midnight,” and the mid-’90s’ “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk.”
“He is a genius,” Leon said of Waters. “He is very good at hearing older music in a fresh way. I want folks to feel the authenticity of how Tupac’s groove felt in the ’90s, but I want it to feel 2014. I want to use Tupac’s vision now.”
While Leon is navigating the complexities of Shakur’s vision, he’s also, as usual for him, working with an overstuffed docket in 2014.
In addition to the Hallmark movie, he’s directing Washington and Diahann Carroll in a new revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” which opens on Broadway on April 3, two weeks before rehearsals commence for “Holler.”
Immediately following the opening of the Shakur show, Leon will come to Atlanta to co-star with Rashad in “Same Time Next Year” at True Colors, his first time being on stage in two years.
That show is set to open July 9 and run for three weeks.
But first, Leon is focusing on exposing Shakur’s music to a diverse audience.
“If you’re over 50, you weren’t right in Tupac’s group. But what I’m saying to those people is, all those things you think you hate — black, violence, blood — whatever kept you away from his music, pull that back now and see it’s a mountain of beauty,” Leon said. “I want every white older American to get it. I want every older black American to get it. I want every hip-hop artist to get it. I want every 15-year-old to get it. If you can write something that touches every one of those groups, we have been successful.”
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