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NEW YORK – The 2014-15 Broadway season is barely underway, but it already has a major casualty that seems likely to earn a place among the legendary flops whose posters adorn the walls of theater-district hangout Joe Allen.
Holler If Ya Hear Me, the non-biographical rap musical set in a tough inner-city neighborhood in the industrial Midwest, will have its final performance July 20, just a month after opening.
Assembled around the lyrics and poetry of murdered hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur, the show began previews at the Palace Theatre on June 2, and officially opened June 19. Some insiders speculated that producers might pull the plug even before opening night given the alarmingly low audience turnout during previews.
The Palace is one of Broadway’s larger venues, with a prime position in the heart of Times Square and a standard seating capacity of roughly 1,700. However, the $8 million Holler production reconfigured the theater’s orchestra section, downsizing by 600 seats, ostensibly to create a more intimate experience with a stadium-style view.
But even in that smaller house, the musical failed to fill seats. From the start, it posted catastrophically low numbers, never once reaching $200,000 during its six weeks on the boards.
Hit shows on Broadway now regularly gross more than $1 million a week, with blockbusters like The Lion King and Wicked often exceeding $2 million. And while the average ticket price for those top-sellers runs from $130 to $160, or as high as $190 on a smash like The Book of Mormon, the average paid admission for Holler ranged from $24 to just under $45 at its highest, according to figures published by the Broadway League.
For the week that ended Sunday, the musical grossed just $154,948, bringing its cumulative total to $942,493.
Critical response to the show was mostly lukewarm. While many reviewers appreciated the attempt to stretch the jukebox musical format in new directions, going beyond the safe parameters of Baby Boomer hits, most found the story of racism, poverty, crime, violence, community and redemption mired in plot cliches and stock characters.
However, the show’s fundamental problem for some critics was that Shakur’s lyrics don’t lend themselves to being contextualized in a traditional story-driven musical.
It was apparent from the outset that not only was the show’s marketing not working, but also that producers had made a mistake in bypassing the developmental opportunities of an out-of-town tryout and the fine-tuning window of a longer preview period. Opening in June, when theatergoing momentum on Broadway tends to focus largely around the previous season’s fresh crop of Tony winners, also appears to have hurt the show’s chances.
Holler If Ya Hear Me has a book by Todd Kreidler, a frequent collaborator of the distinguished late playwright August Wilson. It was directed by Kenny Leon, hot off a Tony win for his staging of the sellout revival of A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington. The cast is headed by Saul Williams, Christopher Jackson, Saycon Sengbloh and Tonya Pinkins.
Lead producers on the show are Eric L. Gold, a Broadway neophyte whose background is in Hollywood management and production (notably on a number of Wayans Brothers ventures), and South Korean theater promoter Chunsoo Shin. Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur, represents the rapper’s estate on the producing team.
“My hope is that a production of this caliber, powerful in its storytelling, filled with great performances and exciting contemporary dance and music, will eventually receive the recognition it deserves,” said Gold in a statement. “It saddens me that due to the financial burdens of Broadway, I was unable to sustain this production longer in order to give it time to bloom on Broadway. Tupac’s urgent socially important insights and the audiences’ nightly rousing standing ovations deserve to be experienced by the world.”
The musical will have played 17 previews and 38 regular performances by the time it closes. No plans for a tour or subsequent regional productions are in place at this stage.
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