Christopher Jackson first stepped on a Broadway stage while understudying the role of Simba in the original 1997 Broadway production of “The Lion King.” Since then, he’s appeared in five other Broadway shows, including his breakout role in 2008’s “In the Heights.” But for Jackson, working in the theater and building a family with his castmates has never gotten old.
“That’s Christmas morning every morning,” says Jackson. “You’ll always remember the first time and your first show, but every time you go into the theater, it’s a new experience. You’re going to discover something new about yourself or someone else. It’s the kind of thing that makes you get up in the morning and be happy to go to work.”
Work these days is in the Tupac Shakur musical “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” the first musical of the season, which opened last week to critical acclaim. NBC New York sat down with Jackson, a husband and father of two who’s also an Emmy-winning composer for “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company,” to discuss his experiences in “Holler” and what he’s learned about hip-hop through jazz.
NBC4NY: Did you have a relationship with Tupac’s music before the show?
JACKSON: Tupac was the first artist that I really related to. Growing up where I grew up, in southern Illinois, it was very rural, very isolated from the world. It took awhile for us to get a lot of music. Once I got ahold of Tupac, that was really all I needed for a very long time. He’s an incredible artist, incredibly eloquent. Hearing his art made me feel different about the world. He was speaking to a greater purpose.
NBC4NY: Have you learned new things about his music having to perform his songs now?
JACKSON: Once you strip away what his songs were as records and look at them on a page, you can reflect and connect with what he was saying. The essence of hip-hop is in a beat, so sometimes he goes so fast you miss certain words and iterations. And the same type of injustices, struggles and hardships that Tupac was talking about in the early 90s are exactly the same things that are going on today. It’s equally as relevant then as it is now.
NBC4NY: This is the first time we’ve seen a musical built around a catalog of hip-hop songs play Broadway. What took so long?
JACKSON: If you look back throughout the history of Broadway, there’s always been periods where writers and producers have delivered the kind of things that people want to see, while at the same time pushing the form along. So it makes sense that there’s hip-hop on Broadway now because that’s the popular style of music. Our writers are growing up around it. It’s projects like “Holler” that move the needle along and attract an entirely new audience. Broadway is at its best when it represents as many people as possible.
NBC4NY: What I found so fascinating about the piece is that it didn’t feel like the typical jukebox musical.
JACKSON: In a lot of respects, it feels like a play with music. The storyline works seamlessly with Tupac’s music. [Book writer] Todd Kriedler was inspired to write the piece from the music itself. The way that he discovered it, it’s almost as if these characters were speaking to him through the lyrics of what Tupac was saying already, in the context of what he was speaking in. You know, Pac was a multi-faceted artist. And I think it takes the seven or eight principal characters and the ensemble to really bring to life all the different facets of what Tupac wanted.
NBC4NY: Do you think we’d have “Holler” if “In the Heights” hadn’t been such a success?
JACKSON: “In the Heights” paved the way for “Holler” in that it helped show that hip-hop is an incredible tool to use in storytelling. With hip-hop on Broadway, there isn’t a huge sample size. But jazz paved the way before that.
NBC4NY: You have some experience with jazz on stage, having made stops in “Cotton Club Parade” at New York City Center and “After Midnight” on Broadway before this.
JACKSON: Yes! Jazz is all about being in the moment. Whatever the music is making you feel, jazz gives you the freedom. That’s the same genesis as hip-hop. In “Holler” I’m expressing the things that my character is feeling at that moment. There’s always nuance in the execution of a particular lyric, especially lyrics that are as poignant as Tupac’s are.
NBC4NY: As an actor, there are so many ups and downs in this business. Do you ever get past that fear of “What if this show closes - what will I do next?”
JACKSON: There’s a certain sense of inevitability to each project, because you know nothing can last forever. But until there’s something else, there’s nothing else. And the greatest advice I ever received was from a mentor who said “There’s no reason you should ever wait for a job. You’re creative, so create.” So I have a studio in my house and I’m always at my laptop or keyboard or guitar. There’s always possibilities for something new to happen.
“Holler If Ya Hear Me,” with an open-ended run at The Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway. Tickets: $59-$139. Call 800-745-3000.