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.