Monday, July 28, 2014

I'm going to talk about Holler...

I keep my opinions mostly to myself when it comes to Broadway. Sure, my circle of friends and I will talk about what shows we liked and which ones we didn't, but basically, I keep that out of the public forum. Most of the reason is because I know and am friends with people who are working on Broadway in various capacities. Are they aware that not every show they've been a part of has been a winner? Yes. But they don't need me spewing that out on my Facebook feed. However, this summer, the debate about Broadway criticism has become almost more of a newsmaker than a show itself.

Holler If You Hear Me, the Broadway musical that used the music of Tupac as it's guide, opened and closed quickly. This wasn't surprising to most, especially among the people I know who saw the show, including myself.

I'll admit, I saw the show early on in previews. There were a couple weeks worth of changes that could have taken place between the time I saw it and when it opened, but in talking to people who went to see it after me, it didn't sound like much change had taken place.

My root-level thoughts are these: a large cast and crew were employed on Broadway. That's a win. The amount of talent within that cast list read like a gleaming beacon of belting divas and powerful men. That's a win.  The show was unlike anything else that was on the Great White Way. Win.
From the get-go, it was billed as the rap musical on Broadway. This was the selling point. Rap on Broadway with an almost entirely black cast. I think that's great. The Lion King and Motown both employ large mostly black casts, but that's about it. Broadway was and is a predominantly white person medium, something that is changing and needs to continue to do so. Even in BLEEP, I have written about the need for color-blind casting in classic shows. So having a big show in such a huge theater employing these actors was a win.

But when I got to the show, the excitement of something new quickly wore off as I was pummeled with the n-word in every other stanza, fed a less-than-compelling story and presented with performers who were not in the least bit utilized to the potential I've seen them have in other works. Another of the selling points was Tupac's poetic lyrics, which told the story of what was happening on the streets at the moment he was writing. The problem is that those lyrics were nearly impossible to understand as they were shouted sans any diction. Yes, I'm a white male with a masters degree in Communications from a private university, but for someone who doesn't know every word of the Tupac catalog (and I would argue that was 95% of the audience) that immediately sucked the poetic meaning out of the story...because you can't understand the story.

Even the ending, although borrowed from the book of West Side Story, felt like it could have been a poignant moment, until the shouting commenced again, utterly ruining any sort of emotional and teachable moment that existed.

After the show closes, star Saul Williams, did an interview with Rolling Stone where he blamed racism as the reason the show closed. There's no other way to read what he said. He is wrong. The show closed because it was a sub-par show, on too large of a stage, in a giant theater they could never fill in the middle of the summer. Motown sells out. Trip to the Bountiful was a hit. The Color Purple was a hit. This season, After Midnight was a hit and one of the best nights of theatre I have had. But when After Midnight closed, there wasn't any talk about racism being the reason.

Absent from most of the conversation was reference to In The Heights, the rap musical that won four Tonys, a Grammy and was nominated for the Pulitzer. But those were Hispanic people...so in some conversations I had, that nullified my argument apparently. But what I know, and this is coming from someone who actually lives in the heights and I experience the culture daily, is that In The Heights was rap. It was rap on Broadway that was insanely successful, launched people's careers and opened the door for more musicals in the same genre. The difference between In The Heights and Holler was that Holler wasn't a good musical. 

At the end of the day, it was poorly constructed, and rather than going Off-Broadway where it wouldn't be such a financial loss and also give the creative team time to gauge audience reaction, edit and change the show before spending Broadway money on it, they jumped at the chance to make a statement on a big stage. That statement didn't end up being what they wanted. 

I struggled with whether I was going to post this, but I've decided that just because I didn't like one show doesn't mean that I don't support art and the continued diversity of the art that's presented on the world's biggest stage, Broadway. After all, Broadway is the artform I love the most. I think that's why I just had to write it out and say what I wanted, because both audiences and the cast of Holler deserved better. Tupac deserved better than what was done with his lyrics. His writing serves as both a time capsule and a voice for people who feel voiceless. The intention was for that voice to roar on Broadway and instead, it shuttered with a whimper. 

What this show did do was ignite a conversation that needs to be had. Unfortunately, the conversation became about racism instead of what it needed to be about: producing better shows that warrant the $100 price tag attached to the tickets. 

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