The musical, based on the late rapper’s songs premiered on June 19, and will go dark at the Palace Theatre this Sunday (July 20).
It’s the first certified flop of the new season, which may be contributing to the finger-pointing during what is shaping up to be a banner season for New York City theater.
So far, Ebony magazine has weighed in with the lengthiest analysis. But it’s opening argument that theatergoers may have been expecting a Ragtime or Showboat is off base, if not patently racist.
Particularly offensive is the suggestion that musical was destined to fail without “your grandparents’ type of show tunes replete with ‘jazz hands,’ or soft-shoe dance techniques…”
Holler if Ya Hear Me, certainly wasn’t any of those things.
But it’s an insult the theatergoers’ intelligence to say they were expecting anything more than what Holler was–a show based on Shakur’s music, poetry and racial politics.
His mother, Afeni Shakur, real name Alice Faye Williams, and father, Billy Garland, were high-profile Black Panthers in New York in the late 1960s. Afeni was tried and acquitted as part of the infamous “Panther 21” case.
Tupak was not only viewed as a musician but as an heir to the political movement that consumed his parents. He was gunned down at the age of 25.
The musical got off to a bad start after a spate of negative reviews. The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood called the production “heartfelt but heavy-handed.”
“[It] punches home its message with a relentlessness that may soon leave you numb to the tragic story it’s trying to tell,” he wrote.
Variety damned the show with faint praise. It called the performances “soaring” and the music “searing” in the service of “a generic gangland saga.”
In the wake of the show’s failure, the staging and marketing have predictably come under scrutiny. But there is an undercurrent of criticism that suggest white, 45-year-old-plus theatergoers steered clear of the show because they “hate rap.”
“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,” Woodie King Jr., a pioneer of black theater in New York City told Ebony.
Gwendolyn Quinn, a public relations and marketing expert, who was involved in the marketing, delivered another searing criticism of Broadway.
“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,” she said.
She describes “non-traditional” as African-American.
But comments like that defy the success of such musicals as FELA! based on the life of Nigerian singer and radical political activist Fela Kuti.
In 2010, the Broadway production snared eleven Tony Award nominations. It won Best Choreography, Best Costume Design of a Musical and Best Sound Design of a Musical.
In the end, those involved with “Holler” and African-American theater are not the first, or likely the last, to blame the audience for a show’s failure, instead of the show itself, when, clearly, it’s the latter and not the former.
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