Saul Williams’ Tupac Musical Closes on Broadway

Interview

Friday, July 25, 2014

Saul Williams as John in Holler If Ya Hear Me Saul Williams as John in Holler If Ya Hear Me (Joan Marcus)

Holler If Ya Hear Me was talked about as the first big-time hip-hop musical on Broadway. The show is loosely based on the life of 1990s hip-hop superstar Tupac Shakur, and uses his songs to tell the story of a young man trying to survive life in the ghetto. But reviews were poor and the show played to a half-empty house. A month after it opened, producers have just closed the show. What does this mean for the future of hip-hop on Broadway?

Saul Williams, the poet and performer who played the lead role in Holler, tells Kurt Andersen it’s inevitable that hip-hop will carve out a place for itself on Broadway. What killed Holler, Williams says, were people who wrote it off before they saw it — like critics who thought a play about gun violence in the black community trafficked in clichés. “We wouldn’t be repeating the story if it weren’t completely still relevant and now,” says Williams.

Kurt wonders if the problem was partly musical — if Shakur’s lyrics were too dense for audiences familiar with Rodgers and Hart but not Kendrick Lamar. Williams disagrees. “The point of a musical is for the song to push the narrative forward,” says Williams, “Hip-hop does that better than your average musical.”

If anything, he believes the musical was just ahead of its time. “When A Raisin in the Sun was on Broadway, fifty years ago, what do you think the critique was?” Williams asks. “’Generic. We know the story, this is the Negro story, whatever.’ It took some time for us to say, ‘Oh wait, this is important.’”

→ Will rap and hip-hop ever be a hit on Broadway? If so, when? Tell us in a Comment below.

Bonus Track: Kurt Andersen's full conversation with Saul Williams

 

Saul Williams' 3 for 360
    Music Playlist
  1. Dear Mama
    Artist: Cast Recording of the musical Holler If Ya Hear Me
  2. Holler If Ya Hear Me
    Artist: 2Pac
    Album: Resurrection
    Label: Death Row/Amaru
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. Holler If Ya Hear Me
    Artist: Cast Recording of the musical Holler If Ya Hear Me

Guests:

Saul Williams

Produced by:

Hannah Alongi and Sruthi Pinnamaneni

Comments [22]

I didn't see the show, I see a lot of shows ON and OFF broadway. And anyone in the industry will tell you shows open and close on the flip of a dime. Does anyone remember Bonnie and Clyde? yeah... didn't think so.

Plus why was the show IMMEDIATELY on broadway? Hit shows like Newsies and Mormon are workshopped for years and see small audiences until they are ready for the big stage.

I was really shocked to hear that "black" publications like vibe and hot 97 were upset when they weren't approached by producers. OPEN YOUR EYES. Broadways consistent with at least one thing, and thats taking it to the streets. If you ride the subway, take a cab, ride the bus, walk the streets of Times Square shows are everywhere for as long as I can remember. I'm not blind to it, neither should they be. Sorry nobody passed out flyers at Summer Jam? WHAT?!

Jul. 28 2014 08:45 PM
James Wolf NYC from New York

I saw this show in previews and while I came in not knowing much of anything about Tupac Shakur, I came out with a great appreciation for his poetry. That being said, the story was just really weak, and greatly responsible for the shows demise. An out of town try out would have been helpful to get the story into shape.

Jul. 28 2014 10:26 AM
Wendy from NYC

We got free tickets to go see it before it opened. Our seats were in nosebleed, which leads to my first criticism : that theatre was way too big for that musical. We were so high up that we were just too far removed from the action on the stage. I'm not a fan of rap to begin with, but we could not clearly hear the words song after song. We also had no idea who had died, and why, in the first act. It just "happened" in the first 15 minutes of the show without any dramatic buildup. While I enjoyed the actors. and the more pop music aspects of the arrangements of Tupac's words, ultimately I felt that rap does not work as the sole musical style for a musical. It's too rapid-fire with no time to digest it, and if you don't already know the lyrics, it whizzes by you. There was one solo piece by Saul Williams that was very good in the first half, but the rest was a blur of cliched inner-city preacher, drug dealers, guy trying to go straight, mother of killed son, etc. We left at intermission.

Jul. 28 2014 10:13 AM

I saw the show, and it was just a weak show. And it is not just simplistic but totally misses the boat to blame its failure on a daft Broadway audience who can't appreciate hip hop or Tupac. That's totally off base. I'm a fan of Tupac, hip hop, dance, and Broadway, and I was disappointed in the show as a representation of any of these.

First, Tupac has great music, and the choices of songs to include here were way off--not a great selection of his music nor great choices for a musical. Where was Static Mix II? How Do You Want It? Untouchable (Swiss Beats remix)? Toss It Up? Do For Love?

Second, not every song that Tupac wrote was hip hop. He did a lot of R&B, and much of what the show chose was his R&B. Now, that's fine, but how can you conclude that audiences don't appreciate hip hop on that basis?

Third, the choreography was just weak. In Living Color had better choreo for its interstitial segments than we saw in this whole show. The only solid production number was California Love toward the end. Seriously, just watch any episode of the amateur show, America's Best Dance Crew doing hip hop--even these kids do better than the pros did on this show.

Fourth, as a Broadway show, the only original elements were the premise and the staging. The structure was hackneyed though by itself, that doesn't kill a show. But it does if you combine it with a plot and script that were a pastiche of "ghetto" life that was so superficial and simplistic as to be insulting. The pacing was lousy. The sequence of production numbers made no sense--completely ignoring what engages an audience, no sense of mixing fast/slow or upbeat/downbeat.

Overall, the show reflected the arrogance of its creators. They seem to think that starting with a clever premise and the work of an incredible musician can carry them without bothering to do the material justice. And to hear them blame its failure on the audience is just another reflection of the same arrogance.

Jul. 28 2014 09:56 AM
KEN from BUSHKILL PA

HIP HOP IS JUST A PHASE IN MUSIC AND WILL HOPEFULLY DISAPPEAR. THE LYRICS ARE GROSS AND DAMAGING TO THE EAR. PROPER ENGLISH SHOULD BE USED-NOT GETTO TALK.

Jul. 28 2014 09:56 AM
Manny Faces from New York

Several things plagued this particular enterprise, and hopefully, the experience won't prohibit future productions that relate or revolve around hip hop music and culture from attempting to make the leap to Broadway. However, with Holler, there were several issue which held this show back from being a "prime time player"... Many were mentioned in the comments, but in some ways it boils down to an identity crisis. I think the concept was solid, and the performers as well. But the storyline felt particularly contrived. In some places, the story took a detour that was clearly created simply to allow for the inclusion of a particular Tupac song. While executed nicely, it made the already-predictable storyline feel even more unnatural.

The other identity issue was marketing. Though Saul mentioned the lack of advertising among hip hop outlets, when the show finally did (i.e., ads, sponsored dialog and ticket discounts offered through NYC's Hot 97) it still showed a lack of knowledge regarding who its audience was supposed to be. Thinking that all "hip hop" is lumped together under the commercial radio flag was a huge mistake, as current commercial stations cater to an aspect of hip hop music that is not much interested in Tupac and certainly not much interested in Broadway. Those advertising dollars could have much better been spent on more niche/underground/independent hip hop media outlets and organizations who actually have the audience that was perfect for this show.

An off-Broadway or workshopped run might have given them the time to work these things out.

In any event, what should have been the takeaway was that Tupac was an extremely prolific writer, one who had written material that truly covered a huge spectrum of the human experience in a unique manner from a fascinating perspective. If one kept that in mind during this production, all else could have been forgiven, however the distraction of the lackluster story, the lack of a real heartstring-tugging protagonist, and not enough marketing reach to the right people, seemed to have been too many distractions for this idea to survive.

Jul. 28 2014 09:23 AM
msa from Washington Heights

I saw the show in previews. I didn't think it was all that great. One of the big problems, to me, is that the producers or the people who conceived it couldn't figure out what it really was. It used Tupac's lyrics but the story was made up - and it was rather shallow and predictable. The script was mediocre. I'm a regular theatergoer and I like to see all kinds of things, from the magnificent Fela! of a few years ago to experimental Off-Broadway to August Wilson to Tom Stoppard to great comedy (A Gentleman's Guide was one of my favorites - I saw it in previews so I could afford it then!) to more traditional musicals when done well (and if I can afford them). I saw "In the Heights" when it was Off-Off-Broadway and then when it was on Broadway.

Holler probably should have started the way "In the Heights" did, in an off-off-Braodway venue where it could develop - find its identify and find an audience. It seems to me that Kenny Leon, with his brilliant direction of "Raisin," jumped too fast too soon with Holler. It's too bad it flopped and I was disappointed - it seemed to have a lot of promise but need MUCH more work!

Jul. 28 2014 08:22 AM
jack from Vineyard Haven, MA

yeah, sure. as soon as its audience takes its place in society and starts making substantial money, that's when you'll see lots of hip hop musicals. in fact, i predict that if shrimp somehow become top earners in this country, you will soon see the groundbreaking shrimp musical!! a brash prediction I know, but still . . . . sorry, folks when you charge the prices that you do on broadway and when it costs so much to put on a musical no matter its genre, you will not be able to sustain an audience. this must be a newsflash -- broadway has nothing to do with art, unless art is a multi-millionaire.

Jul. 28 2014 07:57 AM
Gabriel

Umm....a little history lesson might be in order if you think Holler was the first hip hop musical.

Bring in Da Noise/Bring in Da Funk, anyone?

Jul. 28 2014 02:34 AM

Come on, Saul. Be a little honest about the effort. There was a ton of talent on stage, I'd agree. But, the story lacked in so many places that after a while, it became tedious to continue trying to put it together. So, what I know I did was use all the cliche story lines that I've seen over the years that address the issues and come close to story y'all tried to put on. In turn, it became the same as everything else with very few differing elements. It was a truly noble effort but fell extremely short in its execution. For instance, "I Get Around" came out of nowhere. I sat there like what the hell just happened?? And, I'm not supposed to do that while watching a show.

Jul. 27 2014 01:06 PM
Rosa from NYC

One aspect of this interview seemed glaringly wrong to me: "the first big time hip-hop musical on Broadway." There has already been a big hip-hop musical. Hello? Did no one see In The Heights? Or is hip-hop not considered hip-hop if it's latino based. Seems rather narrow.

Jul. 27 2014 11:26 AM
Darryl Johns from Philadelphia

This show had a marketing problem. Had the producers invested in some market research they might have avoided a flop. Tupac is not a major historic figure, he is an icon of a subculture, a subculture not known for their support of Broadway products. I'm curious as to how well the show might have done on the West Coast.
However, to equate this work with a Raisin in the Sun was hilarious. Sam Williams seems to have an overblown opinion of this work. He made mention that his initial impression was negative before he became immersed in the project. He should have went with his gut and declined to participate.

Jul. 26 2014 04:58 PM
Paden from Pittsbutgh Pa

I dont feel that hip hop or rap should ever be considered music. Its idiotic and jevinile with little or no value. it belongs on the getto steps and a million miles away from a real art form like Broadway

Jul. 26 2014 03:28 PM
Anita Friday from Philadeelphia

I saw the play on closing night. It was one of the best musicals I've ever seen. I am a regular theatre goer, not part of the "hip hop" community. The play had me in tear, laughing, thinking. I am just so very sad that preconceived notions about what the play was kept audiences away. I hope that it is somehow revived, goes on tour and is seen by the world.

Jul. 26 2014 02:36 PM
Monique Ortiz from Austin, TX

I would be more likely to see a Broadway show if it wasn't so saccharin and boring, and it it was more relevant to my lifestyle and to real life in general. I have never enjoyed Broadway shows when forced to go (on school trips as a kid, or when a friend buys a ticket, assuming I'd enjoy it). I would most definitely go to a show that was about hip-hop culture, punk rock, grunge, street art...anything besides classic show tunes, and the problems of upper middle class white folks.

Jul. 26 2014 01:21 PM
Matt F from Philly

Saul complains that they went to traditional broadway marketeers not hip hop. Then he complains that traditional broadway didn't complain. Then he complains that people knew it would be there and didn't rush out to see it.

To me this is the problem with the hip hop culture ... everyone else is to blame, hip hop will complain and we are always victims.

Also Saul let your kid read what he wants to read to learn to enjoy reading first .. don't oppress him.

Jul. 26 2014 08:02 AM
Amelia from Connecticut

Listening to the show in bed this morning, I was thinking "Yeah, it shut down, who would want to listen to that?" but thinking about it, made me realize that this show was kind of like opera in that when they wanted us to watch opera as kids, we were too cool. So, now as an old guy, I was kind of saying I was still too cool. But I've come to love opera. Part of that is understanding what is being said, so I could follow the story. Hip Hop and Rap sounds like just so much noise to me. I don't even try to understand the words; no interest. But the story as described, hmmn.

After listening to the interview, I was interested. (I was also surprised at myself.)(but happy, maybe my mind was more open than I thought, eh?) One of the things that made opera accessible was the closed captioning in lit letters above the stage. It was good for foreign language opera, but also good for shows preformed in English, which I was also have had trouble understanding as the show roars by.

I think for Rap and Hip Hop, making the show more accessible might make more people willing to access it. If they recorded the show, and put it on tv, with closed captioning, I would watch it.

These guys have to open the door. They just can't expect people to walk through on their own because it is "important." Now I do want to see this show though, but not on Broadway so much.

Jul. 26 2014 07:40 AM
Reginald Brittan from New York

Kiss Me Kate is a comedy. It isn't that dense. Shakespeare isn't a musical. Blue Suede shoes was written by Carl Perkins, a white rockabilly artist. Critical response of Raisin In The Sun was not generic. Brook Atkinson in the NY Times wrote "Lorraine Hansberry touches on some serious problems. No doubt, her feelings about them are as strong as any one's.But she has not tipped her play to prove one thing or another. The play is honest. She has told the inner as well as the outer truth about a Negro family in the south-side of Chicago at the present time. Since the performance is also honest and since Sidney Poitier is a candid actor, A Raisin in the Sun has vigor as well as veracity and is likely to destroy the complacency of any one who sees it."

Jul. 25 2014 11:45 AM
Kristine Tague from The Colony, TX

I think that music on Broadway needs to become more diverse. Many of the shows have music that sounds the same. I liken it to as if the music scene had gotten stuck in the 50s/60s and just kept to the same styles for 50+ years. I LOVE the classics but they are exactly that- classics and the sound is outdated. Sure it's catchy, but it's not telling everyone's story. In my opinion, for musicals with a different modern sound to succeed, you need to apply them to a great story. It sounded like the story that they were trying to tell didn't capture the audience and didn't do enough to reach out to those who might not be familiar or comfortable with hip hop and current music.

Jul. 25 2014 09:36 AM
Bob in Nevada from Las Vegas

In my opinion, hip-hop is simply not music and hip-hop artists are not accomplished musicians in any sense of the word. For sure, the lyric threads in hip-hop can be very insightful and creative - but it is not music.

Jul. 25 2014 12:50 AM
Seth Christenfeld from New York

Also: the original production of A Raisin in the Sun was met with good reviews. There was some argument as to whether the play was universal or specifically "black," but it was named Best Play by the New York Drama Critics Circle, which doesn't usually happen to plays that don't get good reviews.

Saul Williams is a brilliant performer and poet, but he knows squat about theatre.

Jul. 24 2014 11:34 PM
Seth Christenfeld from New York

Rap and hip-hop have already been a hit on Broadway, in the form of In the Heights.

Holler If You Hear Me closed because it wasn't any good, and there was virtually nobody involved who had any clue how to make a musical work. The book was written by Todd Kreidler, a dramaturg who'd never written a musical (I think he's written a play or two); the show was directed by Kenny Leon, an experienced director of plays who'd never directed a musical; the lead producers were neophytes who appeared to have no clue what they were doing.

Holler If You Hear Me was a noble try, but it wasn't a good one.

Jul. 24 2014 11:31 PM

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