After years of safeguarding the legacy of Whitney Houston, the late singer’s estate – led by her sister-in-law Pat Houston – announced big plans for the singer on Monday, thanks to a publishing deal that could spawn an album of unreleased music, a Broadway musical and, for the second time, a hologram dedicated to the legendary singer.
Soon after news of the Houston estate’s plans, Rolling Stone spoke to BASE Hologram CEO Brian Becker, whose company will create the Houston hologram, about the upcoming stage show, tentatively titled An Evening With Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour.
In addition to the hologram, the concert experience will feature “a complete band onstage, backup singers, dancers, etcetera,” Becker says. “We will substantially increase our use of the creative elements that are available to us with this technology because it is cinematic, which means we can do animation and special effects to really enhance the show.”
The burgeoning hologram industry doesn’t have the most dependable track record with bringing late icons to the stage. For every Ronnie James Dio and Frank Zappa – two deceased artists whose digital visages now entertain audiences on hologram tours – there are dozens of holograms that don’t make the leap to actual illusions: Promised world tours from the holograms of Liberace, Selena and Patsy Cline never materialized, the ballyhooed comedy club featuring the holograms of late stand-up comedians never opened and planned holograms for artists ranging from the Notorious B.I.G. and Tammy Wynette never appeared.
However, BASE has been the architect of two of the more successful hologram concerts: The pioneering Roy Orbison show – soon to be joined onstage by a Buddy Holly hologram – and a concert dedicated to late opera star Maria Callas. “The Maria Callas hologram doesn’t get as much coverage in the pop world, but the Maria Callas hologram is really extraordinary,” Becker says. “We’ve received acclaim from classical audiences and classical critics for not only the visual presentation but also the music and how we treated it, so that’s something we’ve been able to point to as what is needed when doing something with the vocal range and impact that Whitney Houston had.” (BASE Hologram is also working on a show dedicated to another troubled diva, Amy Winehouse, which was postponed in February due to unspecified “unique challenges and sensitivities.”)
For the Houston production, scheduled to premiere in early 2020, BASE enlisted renowned director and choreographer Fatima Robinson, who has worked on everything from the Grammy Awards to Aaliyah videos to Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time.” “Whitney was a groundbreaking icon with a transcendent style that evoked emotions in a way very few artists can. To be involved with something like this which will honor her memory in such a unique way is a dream,” Robinson said in a statement. “The show is going to be a tribute to her grace, her charisma and her passion for music.”
Becker added that Robinson, as the director of the show, would have final decision on whether the concert will feature one Houston hologram or if the hologram will reproduce numerous eras from the singer’s career.
In 2015, the Houston estate endeavored to bring the singer to digital life with Hologram USA. The following year, leaked rehearsal footage of the Houston hologram’s debut “performance” – a duet with Christina Aguilera on The Voice – was met with so much online backlash that the Houston estate nixed the performance. “We decided the hologram was not ready to air,” Pat Houston said at the time. The curtain ultimately never raised on Hologram USA’s Whitney.
However, BASE is collaborating closely with the Houston estate to avoid a similar situation. “I can tell you this: Everything we’ve done with the estate, they’re side by side with us. They have the approval rights of creative; they have given us those approval rights thus far for everything that we’ve done,” Becker says. “The estate, and Pat Houston in particular, is incredibly protective to the quality and legacy of the artist.”
“Whitney prided herself on her family and that included her fans. She adored her audiences and that’s why we know she would have loved this holographic theatrical concept,” Pat Houston said in a statement. “An event at this level is something special and BASE Hologram’s track record to be fully authentic and respectful made them the perfect partner. This upcoming tour will allow audiences to experience Whitney’s amazing voice and passion for music for a long time to come and help them share that magic with future generations.”