But then again, if the theater is hip-hop's final frontier—having already taken over as the mainstream's genre of choice and proven successful in the film and television worlds—then who better than Tupac to bridge that gap? He's one of the most celebrated poets the game has ever seen, and his message stood for more than just the street life; 'Pac was an artist in every sense of the word, and his appeal crossed demographics and coasts to the point where today, nearly 20 years since his death in 1996, he still stands as a titan in hip-hop.
It was that broad appeal that attracted Eric Gold, a veteran television and film producer, to Holler If Ya Hear Me, which starred Saul Williams and told the story of a street-weary youth trying to break free of the violent cycle bred by the streets through the lyrics and songs of 'Pac. Gold, along with 'Pac's mother, Afeni Shakur, and fellow producers Jessica Green, Marcy Kaplan-Gold, Chunsoo Shin and Anita Waxman, brought ticket prices down to an affordable $40, plastered the NYC subway in banner ads and otherwise did what they could to bring awareness to the ambitious project. The show was the first of its kind to be centered completely on the world of hip-hop, with rap music as the basis of the musical's entire palette.
Its premise was bold from the start, but the project wound up failing miserably. Early positive reviews—Time and Rolling Stone among them—couldn't fend off the less favorable opinions of Billboard and, particularly, the New York Times. It was dogged by accusations of a shallow storyline and a lack of depth, but the more damning issue that arose was surprisingly low ticket sales that couldn't sustain the $8 million production, and stuck the show with the ignominy of being one of the worst-selling musicals in recent memory.
Before Holler If Ya Hear Me's final performance Sunday night (July 20), XXL spoke with Gold, one of the show's most vocal producers, to talk about the goals of the production, what went wrong with the execution and what this means for the future of hip-hop on the Broadway stage. —Dan Rys
Eric Gold: Well I had an idea in the late 1990s that rap could work on stage; we’ll see if that held up. [Laughs] And that Tupac was the artist who wrote about the significance of social issues and the sort of relevant things [that] were deep enough really to warrant it. So I approached Ms. Shakur and when I told her the idea, she had tears in her eyes and said that this is what Tupac wanted to do. She asked me who I thought could write it, and I said August Wilson, and she thought that was the exact right idea. And then we pursued that together.
What was the initial spark that made you think that hip-hop could work on a Broadway stage?
You know, I had been involved with a [television] show called In Living Color, and it was a smash hit. And the Wayans family, really specifically Marlon, were really into Tupac, and he was friends with Tupac. And they kept telling me about the significance of Tupac as an artist. And then I was in Vegas the night [Tupac] was killed, and you know, from that I just started to [listen]. I’m probably too old to be a rap fan. But I started to listen to the music and look at the lyrics and it really struck me that it was... I’m in the entertainment business, so I like to be counterintuitive and I like to be a little culturally disruptive, you know? My nose told me there was something special here.
So when you finally were going to bring it to Broadway and started rehearsals and everything like that, was putting it together easy? Did you have any trepidation in bringing it to the big stage?
Well, first off, you know, I have one of the most important directors on Broadway [Tony-Award-winner Kenny Leon]. And we had had workshops and everything that were phenomenal. We really loved the show. Our choreographer [Wayne Cilento] was a two-time Tony winner. Our music director was a three-time nominee. [Co-star] Chris Jackson was a nominee. If you see it, this thing is pretty phenomenal. And it's very different and it actually executes everything we were trying to do. And it’s usually entertaining. But the whole thing works in spite of what Charles Isherwood might say at the New York Times. And you know, we have nothing but standing ovations every night. It’s pretty amazing.
So the workshops were great. And I had these great experts and they felt it was also important that we go bold. Most shows have to go on the road, really, in order to qualify for a Broadway stage. And the theatre owners were all very supportive of the show, so we were able to get a theatre [on Broadway]. So the feeling was, maybe the time was right now, for a whole host of reasons, now proven wrong. And so we went for it.
Excited. But the New York Times was not. Charles Isherwood was not. He even did an article [July 15], where he claims it was the quality that sunk it, not the concept. And I think that’s completely unfair. I think he didn’t get it. I think he dismissed this. I’m seeing a backlash among the non-traditional audience, not happy about this. But you know, if all things would have gone correctly, you’d survive through the summer and then you’d be set up for the Fall. And you know, the big thing I thought was that this would be the kind of show that could unite two audiences, really.
I’ll give you one of the pro reasons we thought it could work. I come from a business where the content is King. If your content works, you’re supposed to be able to be massively successful. Right? So I got content that worked. That’s what drives me. It’s great. It’s authentic. It’s entertaining. So I say to myself, okay, if you look at marketing research, if I evaluated it correctly, it says that the Broadway audience has been aging down, and that the average audience member is a 42.5-year-old female who is well educated, democratically leaning—though not exclusively—somewhat affluent, that whole thing, but liberal in [their] outlook. Not 100 percent, but Young Broadway. Let's call it the vibe within; not the older people that are gonna come to just see the bus tours, the older ladies. They’re not coming to us in the first few rounds. But the Younger Broadway. And you look at what happened with The Book Of Mormon, where they kept it underground. I am dealing with Tupac Shakur. I mean, it's not like there’s no brand. There’s a huge undercurrent of interest in this man.
On the other side, when you do a little analysis of hip-hop, you know Tupac’s been gone 18 years. He’s certainly been revered through the generations, but his body of work has now started to separate itself from whatever charismatic, polarizing personality he was, and he has withstood the test of time. And what’s more important is that hip-hop has aged a little bit. While it still continues to have popularity [with the youth], it has come of age. So if you look at what would be now the average age of a hip-hop fan, it's not that far off from the new average [age] on Broadway. And Broadway itself has gotten very stale in a lot of ways. Not completely, because Mormon’s there. But you know, if we go into the heart of New York City, the birthplace of hip-hop, right? And we execute with Broadway pedigree? Including the director who won the Tony [for Best Direction of a Play] 11 days before opening?
Couldn’t be riding a higher wave than that.
We scaled the theatre in a way to make it affordable—lowest ticket price on Broadway, $39.99—and we stadium-seated the orchestra to make the Palace Theatre, which is one of the oldest Broadway theatres, more intimate and more of an event and more stadium seating for a more contemporary feel, and we think we got the goods, among other things. But at the end of the day, the non-traditional audience didn’t want to come to 47th street. They didn’t feel invited.
I think there [are] big social undercurrents to what’s happened with this. They didn't feel invited, they did not feel that if Tupac was on Broadway that it could possibly not be sanitized. And the New York Times and the Broadway audience never showed an interest. Now these interesting marketing questions you could ask, we’ve got a host of them.
Just in terms of the fact that Times Square is always looked at as either a tourist capital, or everything there is seen as so expensive?
I think those are a couple things, although I was hoping that a new and exciting show... We didn’t have a revival name to have instant recognition from the tourist, but we did have mass media attention and press and, you know, an artist who had had massive success. But I would say those are two sub-reasons.
But I think there’s a bigger story here, if you wanna know the truth. I think that I ran into some headwinds on both sides that were very...sort of uneasy. I mean, there’s something underneath this, especially with the way I think that Isherwood [went] at it, and establishment Broadway has looked at it, that it is a...sort of doesn’t feel welcomed. Now, am I jumping to these conclusions? I don’t know. Let's look at the shows. I certainly didn’t feel welcomed with this show from the mainstream powers, except the theatre owners, who were great. But nobody wanted to finance it, nobody really supported it, nobody really turned out for it. And on the non-traditional side, the hip-hop fans would say, "We didn’t even know it was there," even though there’s been a lot of marketing thrown at the marketplace on all sides.
If you lived in New York City I don’t think you would be able to escape it. With Subway ads, even on Spotify, the marketing seemed like it was there.
We thought we went early to the subways to get the message out and highlight some of his most positive stuff to sort of tease and provoke. The other thing is, you know, everybody says you’ve got to get these advocates. Well, it wasn’t like people didn’t know and weren’t invited, but not that many really bothered to drive uptown or downtown to see the show. It's the first show of its kind that’s on the stage, and it's probably only two, three miles from anybody in Manhattan. Every train goes to 42nd street. What’s so hard?
But Skip Gates felt upset enough that he writes an op-ed in Daily Beast. Michael Eric Dyson feels upset enough that he goes on television and says, "You gotta go see this." Al Sharpton feels upset enough that he says, "We gotta support this." Whoopi sees it and goes on television and says, "You need to bring your kid to go see this." So I wish I would have had the financial wherewithal to keep it through the summer, but the show is the lowest-grossing one on Broadway. We didn’t even get to a middle zone on it. When a show this good is being rejected this bad—and as you say, you believe the marketing was there, you saw it—then there’s something [else].
I’ll take some of the blame, I guess, but this show’s too good to miss. So you tell me. The New York Times says it’s the quality. The quality, Charles? And we should be excited because there’s gonna be an Alexander Hamilton rap show coming? And this is heavy-handed, he said, and cliché. If you don’t really pay attention to what’s going on and you live in an insulated world, then maybe it feels cliché. But it seems more like reality to others.
I don’t think it's just racial lines—that’s like saying that hip-hop is only black. But hip-hop is not. Hip-hop is urban. Hip-hop is more multicultural, more blue collar, more Occupy Wall Street, more 99 percent against one percent. A lot of people probably said, wow, these tickets are too expensive. Did they really look at it? We brought the tickets down as low as we could allow in order to try to get the general public in. So I don’t think its racial lines. I think its socio-economic lines.
It does seem like a little bit of what you’re saying goes back to perceptions of the production. Broadway has always been perceived as expensive. I gotta dress up, go all the way to Times Square, and people…
If you go to the theatre lately it's not that dressed up.
Yeah, but that’s kind of what I’m saying—most of us who are listening to Tupac all the time haven’t gone to the theatre recently.
And that’s the ballsy move. Right? I mean, I understand it failed. I’m an idiot. But isn’t that the ballsy move? Wait a minute, why shouldn’t you? I heard Ebro and Buckshot on the radio. I don’t know if you heard that. It was very interesting. Isn’t it actually a cool thing to take your girl to the theatre and see a show you both are going to enjoy? Or your kid? Or your mother? Isn’t that a great thing that could start something new?
Afeni Shakur, when she spoke to the cast. She said, "There is no social movement in the '60s without the theatre and the arts." Tupac went to the theatre. The theatre is supposed to be a democratic institution. But I guess at the top it’s self-riveting. So to me, it was a bold move to go there. Maybe too bold. You know, Kenny and I had reason to believe the world was ready for it, and I still believe that if Mr. Isherwood would have gotten it... He was the most important filter to the Broadway audience, and when he shit on it, and he shit on it again, not only does he miss it and dismiss it, but it's not even in Broadway’s best interests that you can’t encourage everyone else to come and enjoy the party for once. We were hoping to have Hair on our hands—the way Hair changed Broadway at that moment as it reflected society and the counter-culture movement. We were hoping to be able to do this Occupy Broadway. And I have the feeling it may stick down the road, but you know, I’m so punched in the face.
[Short pause] I probably wouldn’t go straight to Broadway.
You would take it on the road first?
Well, yeah. But that wasn’t in the cards in terms of what the Shakur estate wanted, and what Kenny wanted, and what this top-line talent—it's all Broadway talent. They’re not available to just go on the road. This is big time on every side of this thing—lighting, set design, you know. These are big-time people, they're Broadway people. And Kenny especially, was adamant about, everybody’s on the road to get to Broadway. We can get to Broadway. Why do we have to accept doing something second-class?
You said you think this kind of show will catch in the future. Well, if not Tupac, then who? Or is just that this play needs a couple of years to get to that point?
I don’t think we know yet. On one hand, I worry that this hurts the chances. But yeah, I think that maybe... I’m very proud of the show. I don’t want to change anything in the show. But we’re really a drama. We didn’t try to be a feel-good musical. We were true to what he was talking about. Somebody may come with a lighter, audience-friendly version of something, but I think if you step back and try to look at it historically, [this is] probably a very important moment.
Hip-hop’s the number one music genre in the world—not just in New York or the United States—in the world. It has been in dance. It’s in fashion. It’s in magazines. It’s in every aspect of pop culture except theatre. Again, when you think about it, is this the worst idea in the world? Why wouldn’t it be in theatre? We figured out one way to do it. It looks like it works pretty good. So why doesn’t it work well? Maybe because the marketplace needs to be set up better.
So what do you think is next then? Do you think it needs a different approach?
I have no idea. It's not gonna be my problem. I don’t know.
You seem a little defeated about this whole thing.
Well, I am. I’ve had my head kicked in. I stuck my neck out, broke my jaw. I’m sure at some point it's gonna work. My instinct tells me it's gonna have to be lighter. But it's too bad. You have to see the cheering in the crowds with the show at the end. Tuesday, a woman yelled out, "This is ridiculous that the show is closing. Do you have to be Disney to make money?"
There’s a little bit of validation in that for you, though.
It is. But not $10 million worth.
Well, that’s true.
So I don’t know what the future of hip-hop and Broadway is. I just know it's not gonna be me. And what I’m hoping is that we can get this show on tour worldwide and let the masses see it. I know that if I have the kind of capital and integrated plan, that if I go, I’m gonna succeed, and I’m not gonna just be a martyr and get my teeth kicked in again. But the show’s so good. You can’t believe the letters we’re getting from people. You can look in the blogosphere yourself. You know?
Previously: Everything You Need To Know About The Tupac Biopic
Review: Holler If Ya Hear Me Tries To Bring The Words Of Tupac To Life
Tupac-Inspired Play Holler If Ya Hear Me Isn’t Selling Well On Broadway
Tupac Broadway Musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me, Is Shutting Down Early