In the days before talent shows took over our televisions there was only one place to go if you wanted to watch enthusiastic would-be stars mangle tunes and flub lyrics in front of the loudest (and arguably meanest) audience in America: Harlem's Apollo Theater, which has held a raucous amateur night every Wednesday at 7.30pm for more than 70 years.
And it wasn't only New Yorkers who got to join in the fun. For amateur night also formed the centrepiece of the long-running US TV series Showtime at the Apollo, which celebrated the best and worst of the performances in addition to featuring live turns from showbiz's biggest names.
Showtime at the Apollo, which boosted the careers of everyone from comedians Mo'Nique and Sinbad (both of whom presented the show during its run) to hip-hop stars such as the Notorious B.I.G. and Mary J Blige, was cancelled in 2008 after 21 years following a decline in ratings and internal wrangling over the rights and name.
Now the actor Jamie Foxx has announced plans to bring it back. He will executive produce the show, renamed Showtime, with its original producer/director Don Weiner for the cable channel BET (Black Entertainment Television). Speaking at a Hamptons' benefit for the Apollo, he said he was confident that the contest, which will air in the US next year (there are currently no plans to show it elsewhere), could appeal to a new generation. "The Apollo did it long before American Idol, except the audience were the judges."
But will it be a hit? The early consensus appears to be yes, with Hip-Hop Wired magazine calling it the "best decision BET has made since bringing back [sports dramedy] The Game", celebrity news site Bossip.com asking "Are you as excited as we are?" and the entertainment website Innthe basement.com hailing the fact that "Showtime at the Apollo brings the greatest reality of all – a live audience that nixes you on the spot."
That audience is probably the new series' biggest appeal and the main reason why the Apollo's amateur night remains one of New York's biggest tourist attractions, even though the programme is no longer on air. The Apollo, which has given starts to everyone from Ella Fitzgerald (who in 1934, aged 17, was the first woman to win amateur night) to Mariah Carey cuts no one a break. James Brown was booed here (although he later went on to win the competition) as was Luther Vandross. Lauryn Hill sung through the catcalls as a 13-year-old (and was rapturously received when she returned, at the age of 19, with The Fugees) while comedian Dave Chapelle, who was booed off stage aged 14, credits that moment – "even the old people were booing" – with having given him the determination to succeed.
Nor was Foxx spared the audience's wrath: "They heard the words 'from LA' and started booing," he said of his first appearance at the theatre, calling it one of the toughest gigs of his life. But can that gladiatorial atmosphere translate to television in an era when the more kindly approach of The Voice is gaining viewers? Doubters argue about everything from the featured performers ("I'm not interested if it's Rihanna or Drake and Lil Wayne," wrote one poster on a US music forum) to whether the show is still relevant: "It was cancelled because it was no longer enjoyable," said a fan on IndieWire's influential Shadow and Act blog.
Those who do believe that the new show can work cite the marginalisation of black artists as a key reason for its revival. "Black artists only get to perform on shows like the BET awards and that's once a year. Where's the venue for us to perform?" wrote another poster on Shadow and Act, while others talked of the need for an "urban competitor to the likes of American Idol and The Voice".
Ever astute, Foxx has spotted a hole in the schedules, which the Showtime revival will neatly fill. This is not a programme about blandly marketed singers following the orders of a panel but something less easy to control. If its makers can capture the occasionally harsh reality of performing at the Apollo, then they'll be showing us that rare thing: a music show which is surprising, passionate, cringeworthy and frequently extremely funny as well.
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