A year ago (and one week, because let’s face it, I know we’re all counting), Holler If Ya Hear Me closed on Broadway, and I still mourn that loss. While Holler was in no way a perfect show, it’s presence on Broadway meant so much. A modern black musical on Broadway. And not just that, but a modern black story being told with unflinching honesty that was at times hard to digest, but guess what? The world is full of terrible stories that most of us don’t have to think about on a daily basis.
Many of its detractors griped: “a hip-hop musical? rap on Broadway? featuring mostly people of color? a summer opening? a show that deals with guns and violence? a show that discusses the current socio-political climate?” Isn’t it funny how all of these things could easily describe Hamilton, the biggest show to hit Broadway since the Book of Mormon, so much so that the actual President of the United States went to see it during previews. Since when were preview performances the hottest (and most expensive?) tickets in town? Holler deserved a chance to thrive. Hamilton is a beautiful, wonderful musical that everyone is seeing with an open mind. Why didn’t Holler have that chance?
Holler was nowhere near perfect. But it had moments of such brilliance that it’s disappointing it didn’t have a longer life. Nothing is more mesmerizing than an angry Saul Williams. I had no idea who we he was before the show, but I am such a huge fan of his now, and watched all his interviews after the show. His intensity and ferocity on stage is so engaging. I knew he was a long-shot, but I was really hoping he would be Tony nominated, because he gave one of the most captivating performances of the year. I know he has a whole other career going for him, but I hope he comes back to Broadway soon, because he was hands down the best part of the show.
From the opening bars of “My Block” as Saul Williams descended from his jail cell in the sky, I knew I was in for a show. Unfortunately, the show didn’t maintain that high level of excellence throughout the show. Act I dragged and got boring. Friendships, relationships, and characters were lazily drawn out. A random love triangle was there just for the hell of it. But then the last few scenes of Act I picked up the pace, and ended on a high note with the title song. Act II was full speed ahead, and even though you saw the inevitable outcome coming, you hoped you were wrong.
The show’s kinks could have easily been fixed with an out-of-town tryout. I would have loved to see this show open in Chicago, where another gone-too-soon show, The Last Ship, premiered. Given Chicago’s terrible statistics when it comes to crime, Holler‘s message is so prevalent, and the show could have been so meaningful and powerful. After all, isn’t art supposed to reflect life and challenge our thinking?
In any event, a pre-Broadway tryout would have given Holler a chance to work out its problem areas. The book could have been tightened. I’m sure it’s hard when you have a set catalogue of music that you cannot change lyrics to, but the love triangle between John, Corinne, and Vertus was pointless and the fallout of those relationships weren’t even addressed in the closing. Kenny Leon, who had just won the Tony for A Raisin in the Sun, was directing his first musical, and it unfortunately showed. Some of the songs just didn’t land, and while not every song needs to the big production that “Dopefiend’s Diner,” “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” and “California Love” were, some of the songs were just too quiet or distracting and unnecessary to the larger story. Also, if you have a Tony winning director, market that! When the show got it right, it was brilliant, and that’s thanks to the director. With a relatively young and inexperienced (at least in the musical realm) creative team, the show as a whole never soared. And the producers didn’t help. I understand the appeal for getting the Broadway stamp of approval, but going out of town or going through a longer workshop phase would have helped drastically. Instead, they rushed to Broadway, where it swiftly died before any other show of the 2014-2015 season even entered the arena. The show needed time to gestate, and money ran out.
The end of Holler was extremely moving and was like a punch in the gut that stayed with me a long time. My friend and I saw the show after they announced their closing, and spent our entire dinner discussing and dissecting the show and our sadness that it was closing. We kept emailing each other interviews or other thoughts we had (he worked at a nonprofit that works with currently and formerly incarcerated people) during the week after we saw the show. And now here we are, a year later and I’m still thinking about it. I’m glad Hamilton is doing so well and making the case for more diverse casting while reaching a wider audience, but the loss of Holler still hurts. Modern stories deserve to have a spot on Broadway. Holler deserved a better life than it had. But then again, so did John and all its other fictitious characters. And so did Tupac, and everyone that lives the real life versions of Holler If Ya Here Me. The show may no longer run on Broadway, but its story and message live on.