If you take the time to hear me, maybe you can learn to cheer me.”
Those words, from rapper Tupac Shakur’s Ghetto Gospel, are among the last spoken onstage in Holler If Ya Hear Me, the Broadway musical inspired by Tupac’s music and lyrics. The show had many of the ingredients needed for a long, successful run: a subject widely beloved in life and still idolized nearly a decade after his death; a Tony-winning director and praised cast; and an original concept during the quiet summer months. And yet it died swiftly after just 17 previews and 38 performances. So why were so few people willing to take the time to hear Holler?
Lead producer Eric Rose and his team hoped to appeal to both hip-hop and traditional Broadway audiences, groups that aren’t as far apart as they appear. The average New York theatergoer is 42.5 years old, according to the latest demographics from Broadway League—“much younger than you’d think,” said Rose, who hoped those young 40somethings would have listened to Tupac in their 20s. Two-thirds of theatergoers are female, “and he had a tremendous female following,” Rose added. “It starts to get close to an overlap and what that could potentially be. […] Ultimately we captured neither the Broadway audience nor the non-traditional audience.”
Though it’s impossible to pinpoint any one reason for a Broadway show’s failure, Rose identified Holler’s marketing strategy—both in content and timing—as a weakness.
Problems started with the show’s subway campaign, which emphasized famous, but purely uplifting, Tupac lyrics, such as “You Are Appreciated” from Dear Mama. Neither audience was sold. “The Broadway audience thought there was way too much Tupac in the campaign, and the non-Broadway audience felt there wasn’t enough,” Rose said.
The show also changed its promotional strategy late in the game. “They went after the Broadway crowd initially, and the show just didn’t find its audience,” said Jon Cohen, the CEO of Cornerstone, a creative agency which was hired after the show’s opening. “The hip-hop audience is a very tricky thing,” Cohen said, explaining the challenge of persuading a community that “doesn’t typically allocate their dollars to go to theater.”
Marcia Pendelton, a grassroots marketing theater-world veteran focused on the African-American and African diaspora communities also came onboard late—in early May, just a month before previews started. (Holler had a compressed preview period of just two weeks—most shows have closer to five.) Pendelton promoted Holler at community events and via e-blasts and social media, but stressed the importance of timing. “To do that at a time in May when there was no availability in churches” for cast appearances, and when cast members’ schedules were less flexible due to rehearsals, she said, “we’re talking about issues of time and timing.”
Summer can also be a challenging time to mount a new show: much of the theatergoing public loses interest after the Tony Awards. Reviews were middling.
The show also forewent a regional or off-Broadway run, a decision Rose still stands by, though he also acknowledged that opening on Broadway might have been an unsurmountable obstacle. As Pendelton noted, it’s an effective way to “get great intel about audience development and marketing.”
Ultimately, financial losses forced Holler to close. The show lost $1 million in previews alone, and, until its last week, its weekly gross never cracked $175,000. Sales shot up at the end, but only to 29% of potential gross. “It was eating up capital too fast,” Rose said, even as the producers continued to lower ticket prices in hopes of bringing a mainstream audience.
Now Rose is exploring options which might make Holler “more of a cultural experience,” including a television broadcast (akin to The Sound of Music Live). This time around, he says, the Holler team will have to set things up differently. “You know you’re going to fail when people say, ‘Boy, that was a lot better than I expected,’” Rose said. “That so many people loved it once they got there is great, but a bad sign. They weren’t hooked into what it was going in.”