If theatergoers were looking for Showboat or Ragtime, they were surely barking up the wrong tree when it came to Holler if Ya Hear Me. The 2014 musical—inspired by the lyrics and poetry of late rap icon Tupac Shakur—did not include your grandparents’ type of show tunes replete with “jazz hands” or soft-shoe dance techniques for that matter. The play was provocative and powerful (though most critics didn’t agree). It also had more usage of the N-Word than an old Richard Pryor album.
Ask one person and the show’s grittiness was its problem. Ask someone else, and they might say Holler is just the splash of color that the Great White Way so urgently needs.
Either way you look at it, the Kenny Leon-directed vehicle experienced some challenging times at the legendary Palace Theatre, where it officially opened June 19. Last night, representatives for the production announced that the show will close on July 20.
Following a battery of mixed reviews from traditional theater critics, the Todd Kreidler-scripted musical drama struggled to find its footing at the box office. Five days after opening, a noted New York Post columnist sent shockwaves through the industry after reporting that the groundbreaking show (starring slam poetry superstar Saul Williams, Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins and new Broadway veterans Saycon Sengbloh and Christopher Jackson) would be shuttering due to poor ticket sales.
For the week of July 6, Holler took in a paltry $144,773 at the box office and played to a 53.2% full audience with an average ticket price of $30.63, according to Playbill.com.
Late last week, Variety reported that the show’s lead producer, Eric L. Gold, was hoping to raise $5 million to sustain the production until box office improved.
How did such a promising project find itself in such a conundrum?
As polarizing a figure as Shakur (killed in Las Vegas in 1996) could be considered, the timelessness and relevancy of his music is undeniable. Director Kenny Leon, one of the chosen few Black directors coveted on Broadway, just won the Tony Award for Best Director for his recent revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Dramaturge and playwright Kreidler, protégé of the late great Broadway playwright August Wilson, recently won raves for his adaptation of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. And with music by Daryl Waters (Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk) and choreography by Wayne Cilento (Wicked), the creative ranks of the show boasted the best of Broadway.
And then there’s the talented cast—some new to Broadway, some not, but all superbly talented and totally committed to their stagecraft.
How and why this did not work on Broadway?
Ask some experts and the fingers point to the marketing of the show, which producer Eric Gold admits has been quite daunting to grasp. “Maybe I was blind to think that if Broadway understood that [this is] classically a great story with great characters and important social messaging with great songs and dancing, then everyone would give it equal footing,” he says.
Gwendolyn Quinn, a public relations and marketing expert specializing in music for the past 20 years, believes the initial marketing outreach of the show was “off-base.” “Before seeing the show, I was never given a definitive message about the show’s theme,” says Quinn. “After seeing the show, it was clear to me that the music, lyrics and poetry of Tupac were the central theme and focus of the show.”
An avid theatergoer, Quinn has first-hand knowledge of working with a challenging theatrical project. In 2006, she was hired as a consultant to help retool TransAmerica’s big Broadway splash, the Maurice Hines-directed musical Hot Feet, which used the music of Earth, Wind & Fire as its backdrop. Critics unanimously panned the ambitious effort. Yet the show played at one of Broadway’s biggest theater houses for four months.
“One thing I’ve learned from that particular experience is that the traditional Broadway community is too reliant on a positive New York Times review to sustain a show,” says Quinn. “While that may work for some shows, it doesn’t for others. It’s an antiquated view of marketing. Look at what happened to After Midnight. That show was praised across the board and had one of the most excellent marketing and media campaigns I’ve ever seen. And it closed eight months after opening.
“You must go the extra mile to reach niche audiences, especially for niche shows,” maintains Quinn. “And not as a last ditch effort either.”
Of the initial marketing efforts, Gold explains: “When we put together our first materials and got feedback from the marketplace, we got two very equal feedbacks. One was that there was far too much Tupac is what we were hearing from the Broadway world, and everyone thinks this is a Tupac story, and no one wants to see that story, and so on.
“And then from the non-traditional audience—and I think of non-traditional as African-American—it’s hip-hop; it’s urban; it’s multi-ethnic; it’s younger, being under 45 and not under 25. And from that world, we got an equal amount of feedback that said there wasn’t enough Tupac in the messaging.
“And that was the riddle that is very hard to solve. Because every time you do one, you alienate the other. And one of the things that we talked about that I didn’t understand is how much the non-traditional audience did not feel invited to Broadway. “
Eric Gold has an extensive background in entertainment himself. He’s worked with notable talents ranging from comedy superstars like Keenan Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans, Ellen DeGeneres and Jim Carrey to music acts as diverse as Jennifer Lopez, Howard Hewett, Kashif and Jennifer Holliday. He knows the trials and tribulations of going up against the grain.
As a producer of the groundbreaking sketch comedy series In Living Color, Gold and Wayans were on the frontlines of bringing a fresh, new, and quite colorful perspective to the FOX network in the early 1990s. As the manager of DeGeneres, Gold guided the comedian’s derailed career to upward mobility in the aftermath of her revealing she was gay. “When we decided to do a daytime talk show, everybody told us forget it,” says Gold. “And when we got over the hump, all we did was have massive mainstream success.”
A self-described “counterintuitive strategist,” Gold believed the same outcome could happen for Holler. “I may have underestimated how much resistance from the Broadway establishment there would be for a show that is so different and unique,” he admits. “I may not have been as astute as I’ve should’ve been about some of these cultural resistances.”
Speaking of cultural resistance, Black theatre trailblazer Woodie King Jr., founder and producing director of New York’s landmark New Federal Theatre, never minces words about the racial dynamics at play on Broadway. “I thought it was a top-notch show and has some of the best acting on Broadway, especially with Saul Williams,” King says. “But the problem is that White theatergoers hate hip-hop, and White New York conservative critics hate to see that many brilliant Black artists in one place at one time.”
Renowned for his bold mission to integrate people of color and women into mainstream American theatre, King has provided a platform and opportunity for emerging artists and groundbreaking theatre works, using the young talents of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Debbie Allen and Leslie Uggams to name a few.
Chuck Creekmur, co-founder and CEO of the hip-hop website allhiphop.com, is a “non-traditional theatergoer.” He’s also a fan of the show, despite the breakdown in how Holler was marketed.
“People didn’t fully grasp what they were walking into,” Creekmur says. “I heard voices of disappointment. One person said they didn’t know there were going to see ‘hip-hop karaoke,’ which I thought was a terribly misguided view of the play. I don’t feel like the hip-hop crowd was truly educated before they walked into the show, and the marketing and promotion could have been better.”
The Cornerstone Agency was thought to be the saving grace for Holler if Ya Hear Me. The digital marketing agency and publisher of Fader magazine came on board two weeks ago and breathed new life into the show’s marketing efforts, which included street teams, savvy social media messaging, non-traditional digital media outreach and advertising, and bolder, hip-hop-centric promotional tools.
Gwendolyn Quinn says many people have become comfortable in the notion that the hip-hop audience doesn’t spend money on shows, which is a misnomer. “There’s a reason why Dave Chappelle could sell out Radio City Music Hall for a week, and Beyoncé and Jay Z could do great business at arenas across the country. The audience is there. You just can’t automatically assume that they will come to you if you don’t go to them.”
Recently, some ticket prices for Holler if Ya Hear Me were scaled down to $39 to accommodate non-traditional theatergoers. Jessica Green, another producer for the show, said efforts like those are a call to action.
Eric Gold, who introduced the idea of a 2Pac play to Afeni Shakur 14 years ago, concludes: “My goal and objective was to present a production that would have universal appeal and unite all audiences. I believe we have delivered a powerful and entertaining show equal to any of the competition. The decision to open on Broadway probably sealed our fate before we ever got here. I feel that is a shame and should not be acceptable in today’s America. I always thought of myself as a cool-headed objective realist. Maybe I am an idealist after all.”
Karu F. Daniels’s work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in Jet, Playbill, Billboard, The Daily Beast, Essence and CNN.com. On Twitter, he’s @TontoKaru.