“Good evening, everyone, and welcome to Whitney Houston, very much live,” a holographic Whitney tells a small crowd of reporters in Los Angeles during a dress rehearsal for the late singer’s upcoming “An Evening With Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour.”
While Houston has been dead for eight years, the creators behind the singer’s hologram tour are looking to give a new tour experience to her audience. “An Evening With Whitney” was designed with Whitney’s image in mind, Pat Houston, the singer’s former manager and head of the Whitney Houston estate, said. Whitney planned on giving a more intimate, unplugged-esque tour before she died. And while that never took place when she was alive, the production team behind the hologram has ensured her vision will happen posthumously.
“We had a discussion about her doing ‘Whitney Unplugged’ or some type of ‘Evening with Whitney,’ and that was really her idea,” Pat Houston said. “It’s a dream that was realized by her. So that’s the production. This isn’t something that we’re just putting together. This is something that she wanted to do, and I get very emotional watching this because it is so close to what she wanted. The only thing missing was her, physically.”
The tour, set to kick off February 25th in Sheffield, England, is the latest from Base Holograms, the company behind the recent Buddy Holly/Roy Orbison outing. While more hologram tours have sparked up in recent years, some critics are still quick to label the idea exploitative or creepy. But the Houston shows suggests that what seemed like one-off gimmicks when a virtual Tupac Shakur joined Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at Coachella may still become a mainstream entertainment medium.
But those banking on hologram features becoming mainstays still have a long hill to climb. Ticket sales were weak for the Holly/Orbison tour, averaging at just over half of tickets sold at each venue, according to Pollstar. The tour’s two lowest-selling shows sold just 36% of their available tickets. Frank Zappa’s hologram tour, which also took place in 2019, fared slightly better, selling a lukewarm 66% of tickets per show. Still, Houston is by far the biggest-selling artist to have their likeness tour as a hologram – she’s No. 19 in all-time sales according to the Recording Industry Association of America – which could make her shows a bigger draw.
The show is the result of five years of discussion, Base Hologram Productions CEO Marty Tudor said. Once the project got off the ground, it took another year to make it.
The dress rehearsal showcased about two-thirds of the show, which will feature a live band and dancers choreographed by Fatima Robinson, who previously worked with Houston. The show will give audiences many of the singer’s biggest hits, including “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “I Have Nothing” and her beloved rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” The hologram also performed Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” a 1990 cover that gained traction well after Houston’s death when Norwegian DJ Kygo remixed it last year.
Pat Houston said fans should come into these shows simply to appreciate Whitney’s music and see something new rather than to expect an exact recreation of one of her live concerts.
“It’s primarily just paying homage to her legacy. How many times can you just hear the same song over and over? This is a new way to experience the music,” Pat Houston said. “Realistically, it’s all about the Whitney experience. She preferred doing small shows, and it was something she couldn’t really do when she was alive. People need to understand, no one is trying to recreate our Whitney. This is a show to celebrate her music and introduce her to people who never got to see her live.”
Still, the show is designed to be as close to the real thing as possible, Tudor said. But the technology still needs improving to truly obtain that goal; the holograms are two-dimensional, which severely limits the show’s stage dynamics, and a particularly scrutinizing eye can still see an occasionally translucent holographic image from certain angles.
But the show is peppered with small details to try and heighten a sense of realism. Producers have “Whitney” wear multiple detailed outfits, from a bright orange jumpsuit to a more frilly gold dress. Whitney’s hologram looks wet when they pour rain on her, and there’s the occasional virtual fan outburst yelling “I love you Whitney!” While a deceased artist’s hologram could come across dystopian to some, Tudor said that done tastefully, he sees these hologram shows as homages.
“It’s a complicated mix of disciplines if you will,” Tudor said. “I could’ve made Whitney fly around stage if I wanted to, but she didn’t. One of the things that’s really critical is we want to be authentic. To me, it’s creepy and eerie if you make the artist do something they never would’ve done. But if you are authentic and live within the rules of who they were, this is a celebration of her legacy.”