Saul Williams: Why Broadway's Tupac Musical Closed Early

'Holler If Ya Hear Me' closed after only one month and 55 performances. The musical's lead thinks he knows why

Saul Williams
Walter McBride/Getty Images.
Saul Williams
By |

Holler If Ya Hear Me, the Tupac Shakur-inspired musical directed by Kenny Leon and starring Saul Williams, was forced to close Sunday after one month and only 55 performances. Last week, producer Eric Gold blamed the "financial burdens of Broadway" on the musical's demise, which starred Williams as an ex-con in a midwestern city trying to right his life.

Tupac's Final Words Revealed by Police Officer on Scene of Murder

Despite the musical's untimely end, Williams remains optimistic about the show and the future of hip-hop-themed musicals in general. "I just hope more people find the way to bring it back because it was the shit," Williams tells Rolling Stone.

The multi-hyphenate performer has already moved on to Dreamstatesan upcoming feature film about two people who meet in a dream before they meet in real life. Shot on two iPhones and edited by Jean-Marie Legelles (Blue Is the Warmest Color), the film is currently in post-production. For now, though, Williams spoke to Rolling Stone about what went right and wrong with Holler If Ya Hear Me.

Could you foresee at all that Holler If Ya Hear Me would close this early or was it a surprise?
We've known what was going on all along. Every day at rehearsal, Kenny Leon was saying, "Let's be very clear with the fact that this play is probably going to be hated coming out the gates." We see how full or empty the house is every night. Twenty-six thousand people have seen the play and, of those people, we've had fucking standing ovations every night and tremendous support from the people that have seen it. But the producer, Eric Gold, said to me, "We expect that the first two months are going to be really difficult."

Why do you think more people didn't come out to see it?
One of our producers came in really angry because he had spoken to one of the TKTS people [who man Broadway ticket-selling booths] — not saying she was a producer — and asked them, "What about Holler? Should I see that?" And the response of the person who is supposed to guide tourists to plays was like, "It's a bit of a downer. It's not necessarily as fun as" whatever other play they mentioned. Then she approached another one and that person was like, "Oh, it got really bad reviews." We started a street team at the last minute to counter those TKTS people who are really supposed to be promoting everything on Broadway. I also cannot go without saying that there was something deeply embedded in a lot of the reviews that went deeper than just a dislike of the play. 

What do you mean by that?
The idea of having a play that centers around, How do you stop the cycles of gun violence in our community? It's weird to hear someone feel like the story is generic when it's the front page of every fucking paper to date. And when you look at the reviews and compare them to everything from Do the Right Thing to Menace II Society, it's always the same fucking review. There's actually a generic response when I don't think critics realize they're playing into the hands of something that runs deeper than how this made you feel. I am speaking to that American race psyche; that thing that Harry Belafonte said to me after he saw the play, which is, "You took an afrocentric-themed play and placed it on a eurocentric stage. The problems you'll face are larger than you think." 

Do you think the subject matter played any role in the lack of attendance?
We knew that we were entering a zone where entertainment had been fully aligned with escapism. Broadway or America prefers their stories packaged like Rocky at this point. So when we're onstage with this thing, we knew that it was going to be a struggle and an uphill battle going into it.

Your producer also blamed it, in part, on the "financial burdens of Broadway."
Yeah, but everyone knows you can't come to Broadway with short money [Laughs]. In the email he sent me a few days ago, Eric said, "Look, you've done every fucking outlet and have had every type of review and all the media behind us in particular ways and I don't get it. Basically, I'm starting to think that there's some deeper sociological reasoning behind this." And that's where I am. I think it's something deeper. There is no disconnect between this and Iggy Azalea, an Australian girl rapping with a southern accent, being Number One on the charts. It's all related to where we are right now as a culture and within the culture of the arts.

With the musical closing after one month, is there a future for other hip-hop musicals?
Who are we fooling? More hip-hop musicals are inevitable if Broadway wishes to survive. Broadway may sleep. Most people I saw were like, "Yo Holler, I've heard about it, man. I'm going to come check it out in August or September." They just had that thought that it was going to be there and didn't move soon enough. But I didn't really experience hate. It was just that sense of "Oh, it's there; it'll be there." People don't necessarily realize that actual support is needed at the beginning of a new idea.  

Can you imagine a future for Holler If Ya Hear Me in a different form?
It's clear that Tupac is never going to die. I have no idea what Eric is up to, but they went into this knowing that they could have started with a tour before Broadway, but they wanted that Broadway stamp and this is the cost of that stamp. Anything that involves struggle involves finance. America's been on the wrong side of history lots of times. We were allies with Germany until Charlie Chaplin came out with The Great Dictator and then we were like, "Holy fuck" and we switched sides. When you do something fresh and new, you're going to face obstacles and I promise you this story isn't over.