the coronavirus

For the Apollo Theater, the Show Must Go On

The lights are off at the Apollo, but they’re still invested in sharing music. Photo: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Timing has always been a part of the Apollo Theater’s lore. One of the many legends to come out of it, Luther Vandross, appeared at the famed Apollo Theater Amateur Night five times, once with a group, and didn’t win a single time. But the Apollo isn’t in the business of making stars. They’re building legends. And sometimes that requires being told to wait. “A lot of the legends have gotten booed,” longtime Amateur Night producer Marion Caffey told Vulture in April from his home in New Jersey, where his 16-year-old daughter was in Zoom school in the next room. “But what they’re telling the legends — well, they weren’t legends at that time — was that they’re not ready today. You know?”

The wait is worth it. Never has that been more true — not just for a 13-year-old Lauryn Hill or 16-year-old Dave Chapelle, who both got booed in their days — than right now, as the coronavirus ravages New York and black people around the world once again protest for their lives. The lights are off at the Apollo, but they’re still invested in sharing music. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on March 12 that all venues over 500 seats would be closed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it forced Marion Caffey, coordinator Kathy Jordan Sharpton, and their previous contestants to take Amateur Night auditions completely online. While digital auditions have been an option for years, this is the first time in the Apollo’s 86-year history that there won’t be a live audition. The videos are accepted on a rolling basis as both the Apollo and the country get a grip on when to reopen. “The Apollo Amateur Night is all about access,” the venue’s executive producer, Kamilah Forbes, says. “What that’s saying is that, yes, this is a coveted space, but we want to make sure that any and everyone can get on, right? [Moving] our auditions online is one of those key ways we can lower the barrier of access.”

Instead of lining 125th Street in Harlem, hopefuls are filling Marion Caffey’s inbox. Amateur Night’s coordinator, Kathy Jordan Sharpton, sorts “thousands” of online auditions into their tried-and-true rating system, five folders labeled one through five — five being the most impressive and one being “the worst.” Then Caffey reviews every single one. “I go through those folders and watch them myself,” he explains. “I determine whether we cast [the singer] or not depending on where they fall on our rating scale so that we know how to build the show.” But you don’t have to be a five to make it through. “You want good people, you want not-as-good people,” Caffey politely explains. “You have to sort of build an entertaining evening.” Despite the shake-up, Caffey is seeing the same timeless talent show out yet again. Even their song choices remain consistent. “It takes a lot more time, but the talent really is no different. I don’t get better talent live than I get online. It’s just that I have to look deeper and more for the online talent simply because there’s a lot more bad talent and a lot more mediocre talent and a lot more good talent.” Submitting online also means the panel has more time to sit with a performance compared to the 90 seconds in-person auditioners get.

But if you’ve got the talent, it’ll take a lot more than a grainy video to knock you out of consideration. Online, just as in person, Caffey will give notes to performers he thinks could use just a few tweaks and ask them to re-audition, trying to include as many performers as possible. “They may be a great singer but singing the wrong song,” he said. “So I’ll send an email back saying, ‘We love your voice. How about something by this artist?’ Saying, ‘Give me another song so that I can really dig in and see what kind of talent I’m dealing with.’” It’s how the competition solidified itself as not a place where dreams magically come true but where dreams can be earned. And with auditions solely taking place online this time, they’re hoping to hear from more talent not just across the country but across the world. The Apollo is a New York fixture, but some of its greatest success stories, like one of Caffey’s personal favorites, Machine Gun Kelly, aren’t New Yorkers. The feeling is the more, the merrier.

Last November’s winner, Azumi Takahashi, started her journey to Amateur Night at 18 years old, when she left Japan to study gospel music in churches in New York City. She was in the audience at the Apollo in 2006 when she first heard the song that would win her the Super Top Dog title, making her the grand champion of the entire season, over ten years later: “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going,” from the Broadway musical Dreamgirls. “I didn’t know the name of the song then,” Takahashi told Vulture over Skype, both in her own words and through a translator. “But next year, the movie came out.” She immediately recognized the song while sitting in the theater, watching Jennifer Hudson stand her ground. “I went ‘Oh, yeah, this song. This song. I want to practice this song forever,” she recalled. “This is my anthem. So if I was given the opportunity to perform at the Apollo, it has to be this song.” Over a decade and lots of “practice, practice, practice” later, she sang the song at all but one of her Amateur Night performances to roaring, adoring crowds. The Apollo’s magic took its time.

The Apollo’s digital auditions are just one way they’re upholding the theater’s traditions during the pandemic. On Thursday, June 4, postponed from June 1 due to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, the Apollo kicked off Black Music Month with an emergency-relief benefit concert, “Let’s Stay (in) Together” to help fund the theater, as well as a new micro-grant initiative to help small businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. “We knew it was important as an institution to show solidarity on Blackout Tuesday with our artists and the global community, and to use our platform to continue to help foster important dialogue across the country,” Forbes said in an email of their decision to postpone. The venue foresees an estimated loss of $4 million for the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2020, according to president and CEO Jonolle Procope. While the Apollo is still working on a reopen date, a short train ride away, the Met Opera has canceled all 2020 performances. “We hope that the funds we raise will ensure long-term financial and operational stability, guaranteeing that we are around for generations to come,” she added. A portion of the funds will go to “independently owned and operated businesses in Harlem,” whose owners can apply for the grant on the Apollo’s website through June 25.

“Given this moment in COVID, where we’re also seeing this horrific pandemic has been disproportionately hitting black and brown communities and mainly, obviously, the community that the Apollo is situated in in Harlem, we wanted to make sure that we use our platform to also be a resource for our community and to provide resources to our community,” Forbes explained. The theater plans to continue sharing resources and previous Apollo events, like the recent stage adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, for those looking for more ways to engage in conversations about racial injustice. The black community is all too familiar with waiting, but music is playing at the Apollo Theater(.org) to pass the time.

For the Apollo Theater, the Show Must Go On