EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Daryl Waters, Music Supervisor and Arranger for 'Holler If Ya Hear Me' on Broadway

By Jon Sobel on Jun 24, 2014 06:27 PM EDT

The new musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, based on the lyrics of the late rapper Tupac Shakur, opened last week as the first Broadway musical ever to be based entirely on rap music.

While Saul Williams, Christopher Jackson, Saycon Sengbloh, Tonya Pinkins and the rest of the cast are giving their all on stage every night under Kenny Leon's direction, what interested me most was how Tupac's songs had been adapted for the theater.

Daryl Waters supervised, arranged and orchestrated the music for Holler. He has performed similar work for After Midnight, Memphis, The Color Purple, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk and Jelly's Last Jam among others. He took some time to speak to us about his career and the genesis and process of Broadway's first rap musical.

Classicalite: Just before Holler you worked on After Midnight, and both shows are on Broadway as we speak. Between the music of Duke Ellington and Tupac, that's got to require a lot of versatility on the part of a Music Supervisor or an Arranger. Can you talk a little about the contrast between what was involved for you in working on those two very different shows?

Daryl Waters: On After Midnight I was working with Wynton Marsalis and his group of world-class musicians, as well as Warren Carlyle, the director, who with Jack Viertel shaped a really great story about the Cotton Club. I did a lot of listening to Wynton because that's his world, and I filtered that to come up with the arrangements that we needed to make it more theatrical.

With Holler I had a little more leeway because people were counting on my expertise a little more to help shape the piece. It was a little scarier because I'm dealing with a world I had not lived in as much as the jazz world.

CL: What was the process, or what were the challenges, in adapting Tupac's raps for a 10-piece orchestra while still keeping the original feel of the songs?

DW: It was finding a way to make sure the story was being supported theatrically, because there are times when lyrics or action can stand a little bit of comment from the music as opposed to just grooving through it. That's not to say Tupac's music really needs much help with that, because it's the lyrics that we're actually in tune with, but at times I could help with adding an accent or some melodic phrases to bring out a little bit more of the emotion of the piece.

CL: What about structural changes in the songs?

DW: Overall my intent was to make sure I respected Tupac's original vision of the music. The main structural changes came from the needs of the book. There are times when [book writer] Todd Kreidler had to do some edits on the lyrics, and so sometimes I might have to add or take out a phrase of music, but aside from that the structures pretty much stayed intact.

CL: It's remarkable to me that a lot of the songs chosen were some of Tupac's biggest songs. What is it about these songs that lent themselves to theatrical adaptation so that they could link together to tell a particular story about particular characters?

DW: I'm gonna go with the clichéd line: The lyrics are universal. Sometimes the more specific something is the more universal it is and the more it resonates with people. I don't know how he did it, but Todd spent a lot of time absorbing the material, and the songs fit the story he was trying to tell. He made my job a lot easier by choosing the songs; all I had to do was find a way to make them work with his words.

CL: What do you hope audiences, from any background, will take away from the show?

DW: The thing that I hope the most is [that it expresses] the connection between us all. Even though the language might not be the language of other people, you can filter it to see that we're basically all the same.

CL: You've been associated with groundbreaking theater centering on black music and culture for many years, including Jelly's Last Jam and The Color Purple, and of course Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk back in '96. That show may have brought hip-hop beats onto the Broadway stage for the first time, but Holler is, as far as I know, the first Broadway show with music that comes completely from the rap tradition.

DW: That's correct.

CL: How does it feel to have been so involved in history-making theater for so many years now?

DW: It's the natural evolution of theater. We go through these periods where theater, like politics, like literature, like everything else is reflective of the culture of the time, and I think it's overdue in that regard.

Ironically, we were putting Noise/Funk together as Tupac was dying.

CL: Is there a different attitude or atmosphere on Broadway now regarding the use of rap than there was back in '96? Could you have done a show like this back then?

DW: I'm not sure. I think it could have been done. I'm not sure it could have been done the same way.

CL: Even though Tupac has been gone for some time, his music still resonates with younger generations.

DW: Absolutely, and I'm surprised across the board by the kind of people who come up to me and say how much they really enjoyed not just what we did, but were interested to see it because they've been following Tupac for years, whether it's a 20-year-old who's just getting into the music or a 70-year-old college professor who's been following it since before 1996.

CL: There were a lot of black performers on stage at the Tony Awards. You yourself worked on After Midnight. This season we've also had Lady Day and A Raisin in the Sun, and of course Motown the Musical is still playing. Those shows celebrate great black artists of the past, or come out of the past, but Holler centers on an artist who is still very current in the younger generation's minds even though he died back in 1996. Do you think that Holler might be emblematic of a real moment for Broadway to draw bigger black audiences?

DW: I think, going beyond black audiences, it's going to draw a new audience. That whole hip-hop world that has not been embraced by theater is going to have some curiosity about what's going on. I was involved with The Color PurpleMotown's still playing; black audiences are absolutely coming out. What's fascinating about a show like Holler is the diversity that you see in the audience.

CL: How did you get your start in musical theater?

DW: When I was in high school I had a teacher who just needed somebody to play piano for Guys and Dolls, and it just went from there. My first Broadway show was Leader of the Pack. I was Associate Conductor on that, and then on Jelly's Last Jam. I guess my first big show really was Noise/Funk.

CL: Who were some of your own musical heroes when you were coming up?

DW: I ended up in theater my whole life by accident. Quincy Jones was by far the guy I had the most admiration for, the whole TV/movie thing he did as well as doing records, and that's what I wanted to do.

Trust me, I am not complaining, I like my life!

Besides him, and the other reason that I did gravitate towards theater, was that the first show I saw in New York was Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, and Danny Holgate was the Music Director. All of a sudden I saw somebody like me who was doing something that I knew I could do.

CL: Do you have another project coming up, or on the horizon?

DW: The one that's furthest out but excites me the most at the moment is Carmen Jones, a production that City Center Encores! is hoping to put on next year.

CL: And your role?

DW: Probably the same as usual - Music Supervisor, Music Janitor!

Holler If Ya Hear Me opened last week at Broadway's Palace Theatre. After Midnight (with current special guest star Patti LaBelle) is at the Brooks Atkinson until June 29.

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TagsHoller If Ya Hear Me, Tupac Shakur, Jelly's Last Jam, The Color Purple, After Midnight, Memphis, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, music supervisor, arranger, broadway, Broadway Musical, Musical, Rap

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