On the Phone With Kenny Leon

On the Phone With Kenny Leon

Kenny Leon, director of the new Broadway musical Holler If You Hear Me, which is inspired by the lyrics of Tupac Shakur (1971-1996), is on a mission to bring the rapper's music and lyrics to as wide an audience as he can. Immediately following the opening in April of the revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, for which he has been nominated for a Tony Award as Best Director of a Play (the awards ceremony is June 8), Leon began rehearsals for what promises to be one of the new season’s most adventurous, if not controversial shows. Here he talks about his doubleheader on the Great White Way, his work ethic and why Tupac Shakur and Broadway are a match made in theatrical heaven.

You must be the busiest guy on Broadway.

That’s a good thing. I’ll take it. I grew up in Florida, where grown folk got up and went to work. So, when I can get up and go to work, it’s a great thing. 

What’s it been like juggling these two seemingly dissimilar shows in such quick succession?

You know, they’re actually not that dissimilar. Raisin and Holler are both exploring the idea of the American dream: its status and access to it. One of the first things Tupac laid his hands on was A Raisin in the Sun. He acted in it when he was a kid. [Editor's note: Shakur made his acting debut at 13 in a production of Raisin at New York’s Apollo Theatre]. I think he’s exploring the same kind of thing that Lorraine [Hansberry] did, but with a different voice and in a different neighborhood. Both were trying to say something about America.

They're soulmates then?

Lorraine was, what, 28 when she wrote Raisin; Tupac was 28 or thereabouts when he was killed. The great thing about Holler If Ya Hear Me is we’re not telling an autobiographical story about Tupac’s life. We’re using his music and looking at him as an artist, seeing what he was saying. And what he was saying, what he was exploring were topics like family, love of mother, honor, betrayal and how to live in a country if you are not in the 1 percent. To my mind, it’s the same kind of thinking [as Hansberry’s].

Was it a difficult decision to divorce Tupac’s music from his life and just present him as an artist?

Absolutely. When I was first exposed to Tupac in the 1990s, I thought this is great. At that time, I was working with the great August Wilson. And I’m like wow: Tupac is just like August Wilson. He’s a prophet. He’s as profound and as prophetic. But the only thing that gets in the way of people seeing that could be the way he lives his life]. When people think of him, they think of what his world means to them. But if you take those things away that people think they hate—some people may hate black folks, some people may hate violence, some people may hate profanity—but if you take all that away and look at him as an artist, he’s in that army of great artists who died too young and died trying to say something that would have an impact on the world and make it different. So, if you erase all the things you think you hate [about Shakur] and just listen to the words, he’s talking about things like: I love my family, I love my mother, how bad have I been to my mother, how do I get by on minimum wage, how do I live in this world and how do I have access to all those things that all Americans want. When you erase all those [negative] things, he’s a true artist saying some beautiful things. Once I saw that, I knew that I didn’t want to cloud the picture. I just wanted to tell that story. I wanted to let the world hear him as an artist by putting all that in a fictitious world, in a world concerning two brothers who grew up in the Midwest and had a strong bond with each other. How do you make the world different. Can you make it different by yourself? or do you need other people? the government? Do you need all of us to make it different? His words are strong and powerful.

You’ve said in a previous interview that you want everyone, every age group and every race to relate to Tupac’s music. How are you going to make fans of traditional Broadway musicals sit up, take notice and buy the original-cast recording?

Audiences want something that they can reach out and touch and understand with a clear beginning, middle and end. They want songs with melody that they can walk away humming. In Holler If Ya Hear Me, we’ve got 17 songs, and almost every one of them has been an international hit. All I’m trying to do is expose them to an even broader group of people. So, once I give you that melody and conceptualize a story you can relate to, the music is going to be even more powerful.

How so?

Take a song like "Thugz Mansion." The hip-hop world understands it one way, but you and I look at it and wonder, what is this? Then you find out that this is a song about asking the question, "Is there a heaven for people like you and me?" In the show, I make that simple. I lead up to the song in a way that asks the question, "Is there a heaven for everybody?" In Holler, a white guy and a black guy who are friends sing that song as a duet, whereas Tupac would have sung that song alone. Is there a heaven for us? If we grow up in the ghetto, is there a heaven for us? No matter who we are, do we have equal access to heaven? It’s my job [as director of the show] to break [the song] down in a way that’s clear for you in terms of beginning, middle and end, and set it up so that it's understood in a universal way. I know you will walk away humming the songs. There's r&b, music with melody—and also rap in a way that the broader community can understand.

Does the physical production come out of this?

The next thing was to create a visual vocabulary. Wayne Cilento [Tony Award-winning choreographer] is working with me. We’ve hired not only traditional Broadway dancers, but we’ve also hired dancers from the hip-hop community, and we’ve put them all together with major Broadway actors. Now we’ve created a different language for even the physicality of the show. In the 1990s, we moved in a certain way. We’re combining 1990s and 2014 to create a fictitious place called Now. You will see some exciting movement on that stage that you haven’t seen before. Hopefully, that will energize folks. The main character is an artist. He became an artist while he was in prison. He paints the world in which he lives. Everywhere he goes, he’s always drawing on his pad. We have technology in the show which takes what he's drawing and brings it to life. You will see things differently than you usually do in a Broadway show. You will see things that are visually, scenically exciting. You will see things that are choreographically exciting. And you will hear hummable tunes that you didn’t even know that you would grow to love. I’m very excited. I think it’s an important time to do this particular story.

Why?

I think there’s a generation in our country that needs to hear the voices of our 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds and what they are trying to say to us. They’re trying to understand the world as it is growing internationally and as technology is expanding. I think to have that voice on Broadway is important now. I think it’s important for generations to reach across generations, to sit down and, if we can all enjoy this [theatrical experience] together—a 20-year-old, a 40-year-old, an 80-year-old—I think that’s art at its best.

It sounds like you’ve chosen another mountain to climb.

Absolutely. [Laugh] Everything you do is a challenge. I love the challenge. The goal is to have something that is racially, culturally and generationally meaningful and that lots of people come out to see. I’m excited. And nervous, but in a very good way.

By your own admission, you thrive on work. With all this going on, how do you relax? 

I’ve told everybody that as soon as we open A Raisin in the Sun on April 3, I’m going away for the two weeks before I start rehearsing Holler If Ya Hear Me. I’m going to the Caribbean. I love golf, and I love church. I’m going to find some time to do that: to get spiritually centered and hit some golf balls.

>> Holler If Ya Hear Me, Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, at W. 47th St., 877.250.2929. Previews begin June 2, opens June 19.