It’s rare that a Broadway musical is culturally important and socially aware, and for that, Holler If Ya Hear Me, the new show using the songs of Tupac Shakur, is to be commended. The road to Broadway is a long, slow one. Shows are usually 10+ years in development, worked into Off-Broadway and regional incarnations. Financially, original shows can be fickle things, and producers love surefire hits that won’t rattle or turn off too many potential ticket buyers. This is all to say that Broadway isn’t usually quite as up to date on progressive ideas and socio-cultural movements as other artistic mediums like film or Off-Broadway theatre.
Which means that we have a Broadway musical only now showcasing twenty year-old (plus) ideas that gained attention from theorists, rappers, and artists in the late 90s, early 00’s. Essentially Holler is about the black male urban experience. Two friends, ex-con John and gang leader Vertus, go down different paths when Vertus’s brother is killed in gang violence. Much of the musical discusses the cycle of poverty and violence that urban black communities undergo– men who are ostracized from or exploited by the ‘American dream’ of advancement find security and community in thug life. Once immersed in the business, however, it is difficult to get out, and its violence is felt by not only the young men in the community, but by its women, children, and innocents. Though this narrative of the black male experience isn’t a new one, it is certainly still relevant and provocative. The discussion surrounding Trayvon Martin and ‘Stop and Frisk,’ for example, clearly show we are still ill-equipped to talk about race and power.
Even as I read reviews about Holler, it’s apparent that Broadway itself doesn’t exactly know how to fit radically ‘other’ musicals with non-traditional music and socially conscious themes into its framework. Most of the reviews start off by trying to place Holler within a genre. It’s a jukebox musical!, they say. Except instead of Frankie Vallie or Carole King, we get a Mr. Shakur! I’d love to hear Tupac’s reaction to his music getting labeled ‘jukebox.’ Would he join Saul Williams on stage at the Tony Awards like Carole King did with Jessie Mueller?
Four big reviewers– Time, NY Daily News, Variety, and New York Times– make a futile attempt to contextualize Holler by giving a brief history of rap on Broadway. Spoiler alert! It’s not much. Each of the four mentions In the Heights and
Our Lord and Savior Lin-Manuel Miranda, because like, honestly… that’s …really …it. This need to fix Holler in relationship to musicals and trends that came before it loses sight of what really makes Holler so important. To label it as a jukebox musical is to ignore Holler’s aim to disrupt the overwhelming homogeneity of voices and experiences on Broadway. And to compare it to In the Heights is like confusing Samuel L. Jackson and Laurence Fishburne. Two very very different shows. The only thing, perhaps, that they share in common is that they’re both so incredibly unique.
Then, there’s the recurring question of who is actually supposed to go to this show. Who is its intended audience?!, they cry. Er, I dunno…I saw some black people in my audience. I also saw some white people singing along to every word. Hip-hop is making billions of dollars a day, and people aren’t exactly clamoring for another Sting album, but he gets his own musical without this omnipresent question of who will actually see it. Did we ask who was the intended audience for Bullets Over Broadway, whose cast had zero people of color? Isn’t that as alienating for audiences as not being able to catch Holler‘s lyrics (and then blaming the sound design when really we just aren’t rap-trained listeners)? I bet if we filled them seats with 17 year old kids from Bed-Stuy, they could understand the lyrics. Heck, I bet even your IT guy at the office can piece together a rap song or two.
The saddest part of all for me though is that because Holler is not selling well, it has been decreed ‘dead on arrival‘ and so many people have agreed that it marks a conclusive end to rap and hip-hop on Broadway. Right. So because something doesn’t make money, and since money is speech, Broadway audiences are actively voting against non-traditional musicals? This is bullshit. This is a common attitude towards any work from a minority culture. We take some very subject-specific details or events (such as Holler’s weak storytelling or its low revenue) and expand it to incorporate ALL works from that culture (NO rap musical can work, NO rap musical will make money). It’s a typical trait of racism (All Mexicans are…/All blacks are…) and it limits the opportunities for success. When Macbeth flops, nobody goes around saying we better cut down on the Macbeths. No! We make two more in the next year! If Rocky flops, no one’s gonna pull the cord on movie-musical adaptations. Hell, when Bridges of Madison County closed, no one was like, hey let’s not do that soaring score/beautiful music thing anymore. We assume that these productions had production-specific problems, or even that they had a stroke of bad luck. We hardly ever attribute their failure to some sort of false ideal or populist demand.
Oh Holler, you yearn for something far more than you or we are capable of, and instead of grasping the moment to see what you’re hollering for, we instead resort to bad ‘holler’ puns (Holler? I bet you will?) and predicting what new movie-adapted white-washed show will take your place.
June 27, 2014 at 1:29 pm
Well said, thank you. Let’s all get the word out, defy the establishment critics, and fill the house nightly.
June 27, 2014 at 7:20 pm
I was actually surprised at how good the reviews for this show were. Not because I thought it would be a bad show, but I didn’t give the critics enough credit to actually give it an honest try. I think the biggest problem with marketing this show is that the vast majority of people who buy tickets for Broadway are middle aged women. And hell, they didn’t even buy enough tickets for Bridges of Madison County! Anymore I don’t think there’s rhyme or reason to why some shows do so poorly at the box office.
June 28, 2014 at 2:54 am
brilliance. thank you from one unbiased theatre lover to the next
June 28, 2014 at 7:15 am
Well they better get ready because there are definitely more hip hop musicals to come. Look even those of us in our 40s and 50s grew up on hip hop, are influenced by it, and it literally breathes in every thing we do creatively. There are a ton of playwrights of color that write with a hip hop aura. They just aren’t published yet or aren’t getting produced on regional stages. Many self-produce just to get their voices heard. I believe support is definitely the key. I hope #Holler doesn’t close soon. I do plan to see it this summer. I have heard some good and some bad about it. But I have to make up my own mind. And even if I’m not impressed by it, it will never stop me from wanting to see other shows.
June 28, 2014 at 1:29 pm
I have seen “Holler” twice and Book of Mormon once. They were both great. “Holler” stuck with me longer. It is a strong story, very emotional, incredible performances, and brilliant staging. The projections were original and powerful.
June 28, 2014 at 8:37 pm
I really enjoyed this article and completely agree with all of it. Just for future reference there is a person of color in the ensemble of bullets over broadway. Do the full research! Again really enjoy the article.
June 28, 2014 at 11:24 pm
Hi! Yes you’re right, there is a woman in the ensemble who is a PoC, my mistake! Though I still think it’s fair to say that Bullets and many other shows don’t do enough to diversify their casts or the experiences they portray
June 29, 2014 at 10:06 am
Wow, thank you so much for this article. Very well stated, and greatly appreciated.
June 29, 2014 at 7:18 pm
THIS is said so perfectly! i just saw HOLLER on Thursday and honestly just like you said it spoke volumes. me being a soon to be broadway performer I told another African American Performer Colleague. it’s so good to see shows like this coming to the Great “WHITE” Way. because it’s unheard of. The show was amazing I laughed I cried i connected. Praying for it’s success!
June 30, 2014 at 11:43 am
“To label it as a jukebox musical is to ignore Holler’s aim to disrupt the overwhelming homogeneity of voices and experiences on Broadway.”
But it IS a jukebox musical, whether you find that term limiting or not. It’s being promoted as the Tupac musical in every bit of publicity, even on the poster included in your post. Just because Tupac’s body of work was more recent than the Four Seasons or Carol King doesn’t mean it’s not a jukebox musical.
It’s also worth noting that when Holler opened Raisin in the Sun, Motown, and After Midnight are on Broadway and even Broadway institution Phantom of the Opera now features an African American actor in the lead role. I can’t think of a time when so many productions that employed African Americans in major roles were on Broadway, which is a wonderful thing.
“Hip-hop is making billions of dollars a day, and people aren’t exactly clamoring for another Sting album, but he gets his own musical without this omnipresent question of who will actually see it.”
I’m certainly not a Sting fan by any stretch of the imagination, but Sting’s music is certainly more in line with the type of audiences that go to Broadway in the largest numbers (i.e., older white women), so that answers that omnipresent question. He didn’t so much “get” a musical but found producers who think that a musical based on his music would appeal to that crowd. Hip-hop fans (of any race or age) are obviously not as quick to buy Broadway tickets because Tupac is arguably the most acclaimed rapper in rap history and even his music can’t sell tickets.
Broadway is a business, and while it would be wonderful to see more diverse productions producers are wary about investing in anything that isn’t a sure thing. I’d much sooner gamble on a Sting musical than a Tupac one even though I’d much prefer the latter.
“Would he join Saul Williams on stage at the Tony Awards like Carole King did with Jessie Mueller?”
It’s entirely possible. Let’s not forget how “Hollywood” Shakur was getting toward the end of his life with his various movie roles. None of us have any idea what his public perception would be like had he not been killed. He could’ve ended up as mainstream as Jay-Z or Ice T or ended up on stage rapping to a song from The Music Man at the Tonys, as TI and LL Cool J did this year.
June 30, 2014 at 3:00 pm
I think you make a lot of great points about the business and about African Americans on stage. In some ways, African Americans actors are getting a lot more stage presence, but there really isn’t much that rocks the boat the way In the Heights or Holler do. I was super excited about Norm Lewis getting Phantom, for example. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of the casting but it’s still one that is happening within a very canonical/traditional Broadway world. I’m more interested in the rhetoric of how Holler is getting discussed because it is so mold-breaking, and I feel like there are all these double standards. And these aren’t double standards that just exist on Broadway but in other circumstances. For example, the thing about who the audience is for the show, or whether a rap musical would ever succeed totally ignores the fact that a ton of people listen to hip-hop. Maybe Holler just isn’t the show they’ll go see because of poor marketing or poor story structure or no famous stars, etc. But all those show-specifics go out the window and now rap-musicals in general will be harder and harder to produce. That wouldn’t happen though if, let’s say, The Last Ship bombed. Critics would give it the benefit of a thorough and thoughtful analysis. It’s a bit like identifying one singer who raps about drugs and whores, and then saying all rap music is depraved and immoral.
June 30, 2014 at 3:07 pm
Saul Williams will soon be a famous star. See him now. The story is not week. One lame critic says that and it is repeated. That same lame critic referenced Westside Story, which was Romeo and Juliet set in a later time. He completely missed the point. He also faulted the hip hop dancing for some crazy reason. I have won a Grammy for directing and producing music videos that involved dance. The New York Times theater critic is WRONG about the dancing and the story, and has done a disservice to theater goers everywhere.
June 30, 2014 at 3:08 pm
that would be “weak’ in the above comment.
June 30, 2014 at 3:08 pm
I also just want to add that I by no means think that Holler should be exempt from criticism or that reviewers should not be able to find flaws in it. We should treat it like any other musical that arrives on Broadway with a chance.