Where Broadway At?

Meditations On the Closing of the Tupac Musical.

The recent closing of Holler If You Hear Me, the Broadway jukebox musical based on the music of Tupac Shakur, has triggered some fascinating conversations and questions. Why didn’t it work? Was it that they couldn’t attract a younger Hip-Hop loving audience due to their steep ticket prices? Was it that the older, whiter Broadway-going audience simply ain’t got no love for rap and black folks on stage? Was it that people were confused; thinking they were going to see a musical about the enigmatic rap legend as opposed to a fictional story featuring his songs? Or was it just quite frankly not any good? Was it the book? Was it the songs?

Playbill for Holler If Ya Hear Me
Playbill for Holler If Ya Hear Me. 
Photo by Playbill. 

Well, you won’t get any answers here. I never saw it. But, to my defense, it wasn’t up long enough for me to get a chance to. Also, I don’t live in New York City. Unless a Broadway show tours, or Spike Lee films a performance, chances are I will only have the pleasure of reading about it or listening to the CD.

So what the hell am I doing here? Well, as a diehard Hip-Hop enthusiast and theatremaker, I followed the trajectory of Holler If You Hear Me as closely as I could from afar. As Hip-Hop culture, in it’s various co-opted iterations, becomes further embedded into the American tapestry of expression we will continue to see it in places we never expected. I keep an antenna up for what works and what doesn’t.

My question is: can Hip-Hop-oriented drama be financially and critically successful on Broadway?

I was curious as to how the show would be received. And though I hoped to be dead wrong, I am frankly not surprised by its early closing. This is, of course, in no way taking shots at it. Like I said, I never got to see it. From accounts of those I know who did and the varied reviews, the cast was strong and the adaptation of the music onto the big stage was well done. My question is: can Hip-Hop-oriented drama be financially and critically successful on Broadway?

My mind immediately goes to two plays. They were not marketed using the term Hip-Hop because it had yet to be coined. Nonetheless, I believe the aesthetics of both shows come from the same trunk from which Hip-Hop would branch.

Melvin Van Peebles’s 1971 musical Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death enjoyed 325 performances on Broadway. Van Peebles, a filmmaker, musician, and father to Mario was a major contributor to a black creative renaissance of the late sixties and early seventies. His independently financed film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song became the blueprint for an entire canon of “blaxploitation” films.

Based on one of his own recordings, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death is a series of dark comic vignettes set in a low income black neighborhood. Much like the DJs of Hip- Hop who came after him, Van Peebles sonic landscape drew from soul, rhythm and blues, and funk. There wasn’t much singing, but rather Van Peebles’ strange howling, chant-talk style over repetitive loops.

Just five years later Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf premiered on Broadway. Shange, a child of the Black Arts movement, presents an all female cast of women of color performing a series of poetic monologues accentuated by choreography. It told heartbreaking and riveting stories, examining the post civil rights movement state of black womanhood. Truly groundbreaking, it continues to be performed, taught, and adored in communities the world over.

Both of these shows, by the way, are in desperate need of revival!

Now, why do I consider these Hip-Hop plays? Is it because they feature casts of color? is it because they tell stories from “the hood?” Is it because they are overtly sociopolitical? By this same logic plays like Raisin in the Sun and Fences are Hip-Hop. They’re not. They are awesome but not Hip-Hop. The reason I put Peebles’s and Shange’s works into my canon of Hip-Hop-on-the-Broadway-stage is that they operate formally on their own merits presenting a specific largely misrepresented cultural point of view via the rhythmic traditions of the African Diaspora.

Raisin, Fences, many of our revered black American classics, are written in the fourth wall, two to four act dramatic form North American playwrights inherited from Europe. They are “plays” in the most traditional sense; infused with a specific cultural perspective. Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and for colored girls who have considered suicide do not formally aspire to be “plays” in the traditional American sense. They certainly do not appear to aspire to be Broadway shows. They function based on the context of their origin. Much like Stew and Heidi’s Passing Strange or Def Poetry on Broadway. They walk the line between what we consider a “play” with other forms of “performance.” Plays that seek to borrow from other oratorical forms should consider the performance context from which they were conceived.

Imagine if Tupac had written the book and lyrics for Holler If You Hear Me? Imagine his point of view and diverse background as a politically minded, art school trained, street-raised child of Black Panthers rendered into dramatic text.

I do believe and eagerly await the day that a multitude of Hip-Hop oriented dramas and spectacles, comedies and tragedies “gentrify the Great White Way” to quote Holler star Saul Williams. Is a successful jukebox musical featuring rap music possible? I think it’s inevitable, but not without a certain amount of consideration towards rap’s unique and specific position in the music sphere. Also, I am doubtful of its ability to be successful using the same formulas of other more successful jukebox musicals.

The same equation used for Motown or Memphis just won’t do. Rock, rhythm and blues, soul, pop, etc. and so on, share a foundational music language. Keys, chords, melodies—and a stripped down, universal approach to lyrics. Rap is coded, dense, purposefully irreverent, often raunchy, and incredibly specific. It requires footnotes. I have listened to the music my whole life. I teach it at the college level. I have made music of my own. To this day, I still stumble upon and uncover the meaning behind certain lyrics.

There is too much work to be done to shrink the chasm of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and ignorance between cultures before the masses unanimously adore rap as much as the sounds of Motown. Berry Gordy designed that music to be unanimously loved. By and large, rap is not designed to be adored by the masses. This doesn’t lessen rap’s value. It’s just a difference of intentions. Theatre is a niche market to begin with, so to put a subcultural precursor to it only further “niche-ifies” it. To focus on the music of just one rapper limits things further.

The chasm is too wide between the rap fluent and those who quite simply don’t know how to listen to it for it to be a mass appeal hit. I have read some reviews of Holler If You Hear Me that pinpoint the book as the problem, and other have lamented that the lyrics are “too dense,” which I find puzzling. You telling me Shakespeare ain’t dense?

While many musicals are allowed kind of a grace period, a rap show has to deliver right away or else the audience’s suspicions will only be confirmed. And the immediate conclusion is that it’s the fault of the content not the execution. On the other side of the coin, Hip-Hop fans like me are always suspicious of any attempt at co-opting and can be equally close minded.

The idea that a new audience can be built merely by creating a play with rap in it, even the music of an icon, is naïve.

One of the phrases within the clamor is “attracting a younger audience.” Phrases like this are only uttered whenever a show has Hip-Hop in it and fails to bring masses of twenty- and thirty-somethings into the lobby. There is this silly notion that “if you rap it they will come.” The idea that a new audience can be built merely by creating a play with rap in it, even the music of an icon, is naïve. No matter how cheap you make the ticket or how many tickets you give away. It is arrogant and unrealistic to assume that the children of the information age are clawing and fighting and lining up around the corner in droves to see any play.

Some years back the makers of the insanely popular Guitar Hero game made DJ Hero and it totally flopped. Why? Rap is maybe not as unanimously revered as we think? Or perhaps rap has yet to reach a point where it can be accepted outside of its intended context?

A few rap songs may dominate radio from time to time, but generally it occupies a particular ghetto in the realm of art. With the exception of hardcore Hip-Hop fans such as myself, rap is there for times people want to cut loose and dance at a party or club. Or when they want catharsis after a rough day at work. Rap is escapism for many. Even I, Hip-Hop till I die, can’t play it around the house as much as I’d like to. I got a two- year-old. I do play a lot of Motown though.

Much like for colored girls, a rap jukebox musical is probably better suited to build its legs off-Broadway for a while first. Building an audience, fine-tuning, and making its mistakes. Rap’s success is dependent on its context and the willingness of the audience to listen in a new way. Moreover, we of the Hip-Hop generation who work in the theatre industry must continue to explore innovative approaches in fusing the aesthetics of both. The context is imperative, the point of view is essential, and the margin for error is minuscule.

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fascinating discussion about a vexing topic ... albeit I am a white Australian looking on (with wistful envy) from his Melbourne bedroom. So obviously, I am in no position to judge the merits of the book, the staging etc.

however, I think an above commenter has a valid point in noting that "success" on "Broadway" should not be the only barometer of a piece's worth. More than a few have noted the "Broadway" is more of an amusement park than theatre district these days.

perhaps a production staged elsewhere might be a better indication of its pros and cons.

PS : Don't forget a certain Elizabethan playwright had his characters recite dialogue in rhyme, so that should not be considered a deterrent.

Kate Tempest, because she's been on Charlie Rose, tried to shout down Chuck D, sampled slam poetry and MCing from the creators while not giving credit where credit is due and to think how many 15 year old females in NYC high schools, who would shout Kate down in a minute with there slam poems but don't have access to producers like Kenny Leon or Pac's moms to put up loot because they believe in their projects like the folks who produced Kate's. "The New" and put it on at St. Anns and if you ain't connected you can't play that broadway game cuz it's a betty crocker formula all day long, Kenny knows he should not have done that, jump head first onto a broadway stage, how 'bout a workshop, out of town run cuz like good new orleans cooking, it got to marinate, simmer before we can eat but he burnt the cornbread and now it's in the hefty trash bag with flys and gnats buzzing like drones and the powers at be want an opening # that tells you what the shows about and what the rules of the evening are which is how it goes and the dance, what about the dance which is used to convey complicated emotions, created by lame wayne from wicked fame while so many black/latino choreographers sit twiddling their thumbs because someone won't let them in the door, get the name, get the folks who have been there before even though they don't know jack about the form, rhythm, structure, style and thanks Idris for not mentioning Noise/Funk which could teach everybody a thing or two about the process of pimping broadway without getting pimped and do you really think George C, Wolfe could not have made Holler work, of course he would have thrown out 3/4 of the book, hired a real choreographer and made Tanya Pinkins the focal point of the story which would have really let Pac's music shine as if Dear Mama could not have been the opening and closing number which would have created a melody and theme which resonated in every ear in the theater and on their way home, because you shape the way in which you tell the story by simply staying true to the opening moment which then allows the rest of the musical to reveal itself which is how discover the proverbial, cliched actors truth and did some cat just below me actually mention Elizabethan actors kickin' it in rhyme and once again we get bombarded with the shakespeare bullshit about relevance to our times but Pac is our time and it's sad that 8 million dollars is gone cuz I can only imagine how many projects in my community could be created with a pittance of that money which would recoup for the investors cuz rule one of the drug game you buy as much weight as you know you can move and theater is in a state of transition as the powers at be hide in their fox holes deep in survival mode looking for the next low risk investment which is Kate Tempest, one mic, one light, stealing raps, and rhymes and fables and tales of things she thinks she knows using structures she most surely stole because when I type the word theatre in the way shakespseare and his ass kissing pawns tell me is the right way, my computer says I've spelled it wrong...

Few shows now-a-days even use a half orchestra, so quit acting like Hip-Hop is somehow not suited for the theater. The article is a discussion on the viability of the genre for Broadway, and that has very little to do with the "full-on harmonic progression" as you call it.

Thanks for thinking of writing-wish you could've made it to the play, but cool that you watched from afar.

I only got a few lines in me: -The spirit of Tupac was not represented - The book should have been written by a young artist- maybe a Kendrick Lamar-The piece would have done better to have more producers that were in the land of music/hip hop/activism -No piece on broadway will ever pull the young crowd because each time if refuses to include us in the until the last minute- and only wants to draw us in to buy a ticket- not to be a longtime friend...-The cast was fierce-Without blues/folk/RAP-HIP-HOP could not be...-in my life, Hip Hop is not my culture Blk folk are -August and Lorraine wrote plays so yours could even have a form- they are just as important to the progression of "hip hop" theatre as Ntozake and Peeples-when we stop trying to fit inside a cylinder that is not our own- we will find not only liberation but spiritual peace of mind

Best to you.-

Thanks Erin . And by NO means am I suggesting August and Lorraine's influence doesnt reach wide and far. They are giants. August Wilson is a personal hero of mine. I was merely drawing aesthetic distinctions between the various forms and approaches african american writers have taken. As a teacher of plays this is important to me.

Also, I am not suggesting blues folk or any other kind of music doesn't inform rap music--- but rather describing what is unique to rap music. Rap is of course a continuation----but it foundation-ally operates under different formal rules than blues, rock or any other melodically based music form.

Gems all over the place. Thanks everyone for keeping the conversation going. I appreciate the consideration and ideas.

I read a Rolling Stone article that made it seem like the creative team was expecting the show to fail.

"Every day at rehearsal, Kenny Leon was saying, "Let's be very clear with the fact that this play is probably going to be hated coming out the gates."

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com...

I can't imagine that hearing that really helps people do their best work, or speaks to the confidence people have in the project. Perhaps that's why it wasn't given the time it needed to be great? They never genuinely believed in it? I think it's demise was firmly rooted in a poor product (which is why it didn't get word-of-mouth momentum. the word was not good), and out of touch marketing. All of the adverts and communication I saw spoke to a musical theatre audience, who isn't naturally inclined to buy tupac products. His core audience wasn't ever really properly spoken to IMO.

Young people don't want to See a show; they want to Be the show. If Holler had been an immersive and/or interactive experience it might have had a chance (Sleep No More-ish). But you can't put a new sock in an old shoe and expect it to walk better for much longer. Be happy that HIYHM even made it to the big show - that's progress. And keep in mind, Waiting for Godot was a flop when it first premiered.

You know I had to chime in on this conversation.

First off, I want to thank you Idriss for be so thoughtful and nuanced around the finer points of what has worked, what hasn't worked and what could work with respect to the culture of Hip-Hop realizing some success on Broadway. Tragically, "Holla" (like many Broadway productions that go bust) was misinformed on a number of fronts -- the book, the marketing, the audience. No need to reiterate.

What I find more interesting is what you point to as examples of the work. You made specific aesthetic distinctions between an August Wilson play and between Melvin or Ntozake's work. And I wholeheartedly agree that those two works are important reference points of what a "Hip-Hop" musical could look like -- in its aspirations of scale and commercial goals -- as well as in aesthetics and form.

I would ask, "What if Idriss wrote a musical" and would answer, he already has. "How We Got On" is a great example of a playwright (you) writing a play w/ lots of music in it, but also exploring and nudging the edges of the traditional form and structure of a play, or further, an evening of theater.

Maybe a follow-up questions would be, "What if Idriss and Tupac sat down and collaborated to develop a musical?" Just because you are good at "rap" doesn't automatically make you good in another form like theater. I don't care how nice you are, paying dues is still paying dues. So there are some real translation issues to understand and get right in order for this work to realize the type of success rap music and Hip-Hop culture have realized in other arenas of arts and entertainment (see Film, TV, Media, Fashion, Marketing and Advertisement).

Unfortunately, the Producers of Holla only saw things one way and to their credit, "went for theirs." Can't fault them for trying.

I don't think their is a danger in this because their are other works coming down the pipe because "audience issue" isn't going away -- ever. An example of a project is "Fortress of Solitude" which has been in development for seven years, is adapted from a novel and is being developed by Hip-Hop generation artists steeped in theater, but have a passion for the culture. Whether it resonates remains to be seen.

But that is just another example. One thing we do know for sure, when Hip-Hop finally breaks down the stage door there will be no denying it, no turning back and it will happen sooner than we think.

So thanks again Idriss for taking the time to write this, the conversation will continue. Let's all keep pushing.

Brother Cylde. Thanks for the insights. I'm honored. I think the Tupac / Idris collabo would be off the charts. But on the real though, he was a theater kid--a great actor---apparently loved shakespeare---(a fellow sampler). I think he coulda done something interesting.

I can't say for certain how long the show would have lasted with a better book, but the one they had here was cliched, tired, and often just boring.

IN THE HEIGHTS is a little overrated, but it was an organic work. It might not be that the rap musical will always be doomed, but that the rap jukebox musical is. An MC's song will always be an MC's song; no one can pull an Aretha Franklin/Otis Redding "Respect" on them. There's a reason why hip-hop doesn't have as extensive a history of cover songs, and why efforts to the contrary, like the useless IN THE BEGINNING...THERE WAS RAP compilation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wik... ultimately don't work as art.

Idris – great article. Here are a few random thoughts to add:

1) Holler closing is not a referendum on the viability of hip-hop on Broadway. The fact is that most Broadway shows flop. It’s difficult and rare to make a Broadway show that is successful. We’re going to have to run this experiment a number of times before we make a show that works.

2) In the theater – particularly musical theater - we’ve created this box called “the black show.” If your show is about black people or has the potential to reach a black audience, all other specifics of your show become irrelevant and you go in the box. When you’re in the box, you become a special case. You can only go in the designated “black show” slot of a theater’s season. Producers start worrying about ticket sales. If one show in the box performs poorly, all of the other shows in the box become suspect. This box is a problem, particularly since no one wants to admit it exists.

3) Is anyone concerned that Rocky closing is going to make it difficult to produce new shows for white audiences on Broadway?

4) Theater gatekeepers don’t know hip hop. Walk into the offices of your local theater company. Ever catch anyone listening to Biggie? Nas? Even Kanye or Drake? Multiply that by ten for Broadway producers. Maybe this is a generational thing, but hip-hop’s been out there for thirty-five years. We need to catch up.

5) You hit the nail on the head when you asked “Imagine if Tupac had written the book and lyrics...” This is what needs to happen. We need to engage hip hop artists from the beginning of the process and let them create something from the ground up.

6) We give our over-the-hill white pop musicians plenty of room to start a second career tinkering in theater, hit or flop (Paul Simon, Cindy Lauper, David Byrne, Bono, Elton John, John Mellencamp, that guy from Bon Jovi who wrote Memphis). This isn't just the commercial producers - non-profits, your hands are in the cookie jar too.

7) Why not extend that same offer to the hip hop artists entering their middle age? Rakim, Chuck D, KRS-1, Andre 3000, Nas, Common, Big Daddy Kane…

8) “…coded, dense, purposefully irreverent, often raunchy, and incredibly specific…” That could also describe the work of Cole Porter or Larry Hart.

Whether rap is a viable form of music for Broadway is not the real question. It has worked from time to time. But in this case, Holler If..., the issue stems from a conglomerate of issues not simply a single fallacy. In our modern society we are always looking for a single root cause of any failure as though there can be only one reason for the failure. Like with so many other things, this show failed to draw fans because of a large host of reasons, not just one. And for my money, rap was the least of the issues with the show.

In no particular order of importance:• should have started off-Broadway• played to a house too large for it• the story was as cliched as possible with regards to the "urban" culture• The marketing focused too much on Tupac, hip-hop, and urban culture rather than story (which makes some sense, seeing as the story was obvious and cliched)• Holler If Ya Hear Me as a title alone turns non-rap fans off

Add to all this the sheer cost of mounting a Broadway production and I'm surprised that the show made it out of previews. Don't get me wrong... I want to see shows like this succeed on mainstream theater stages. I think the theater need new voices, new vibes, new blood. But this show simply didn't deliver the product in a way that made it remotely accessible to Broadway.

I do hope to see this revisited elsewhere though for sure.

It would be interesting to see if "Holler" has a life outside of Broadway. Perhaps remounted elsewhere with an attempt to fix some of the shortcomings of Broadway production. Plenty of shows fail on Broadway. It's not clear that the failure of "Holler" was due to it's hip-hop content. Nevertheless, mounting something that is not mainstream white America is always daunting.

When I heard that it was closing, I scrambled to see the show. Sadly, It wasn't very good. The characters were thin and the story moved in predictable ways. The look of the play was incredibly grim and as thrilling as hip- hop dance can be, the choreography was incredibly tame, mediocre. As for dense lyrics , does the name Stephen Sondheim ring a bell? What became obvious to me is that the declamatory style of hip-hop/ rap was theatrical but the show's writer and director had to work very hard to find make the music dramatic.-Dramatic in the sense of conveying character, story.suspense and conflict. It probably would have been better to jettison the cliched story and to devise a revue or cantata of Tupac's work.

Thanks Jonathan for joining the conversation and contributing.I agree rap is here to stay---but I am always curious/interested/disappointed by the ways in which it is used. And if anything my hope is that we begin to see the differences and multiple approaches in execution.

I'm with you on Ntozake Shange’s show, which I actually cited in my review of Holler If Ya Hear Me:

http://newyorktheater.me/20...

"...There are enough arresting moments, the music is often exciting enough, and the large cast is talented enough, to have made me wonder while I was watching the show, whether it would have worked better without a plot – like the “choreopoems” of Ntozake Shange’s “For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf “

And that leads me to my first of two points

1. You imply (or at least I infer you're saying) that there was something intrinsically hip-hop about the book of the musical. But I think most critics, and probably many theatergoers, thought that Todd Kreidler's book was a problem precisely because it followed the tried and untrue formulas of stage (and screen) shows about street life dating back many years.

2. You don't define hip-hop in your essay but you imply (or, again, at least I infer) that Holler was the first explicitly hip-hop musical on Broadway. But what was Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk, which was nominated for 10 Tonys (and won five of them) and lasted three years on Broadway in the 1990s? It starred Savion Glover, whose "hip-hop style" of tap-dancing is credited with bringing a revival to that dance form. What about "In The Heights," which was nominated for 14 Tonys (and won five of them, including best musical) and lasted three years on Broadway, until 2011? Yes, it was in many ways a traditional book musical, and there were certainly salsa rhythms in its score. But if Lin-Manuel Miranda's songs weren't mostly rap music, what were they?

Rap is here to stay. It's already been on Broadway. And it'll soon be back.

*I'm not sure if this is irony, but as I was writing this comment, I got a package delivered from Fed Ex -- It was the Holler If Ya Hear Me mug and t-shirt I won in a contest.