NEW YORK - What would Walter Kerr think?
It’s a safe bet that Kerr’s name will mean nothing to many of the Bruce Springsteen fans who, starting Tuesday, will be filling the 975 seats of the Broadway theater on West 48th Street that honors the late, great drama critic for the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times. And that in itself seems only fitting.
For the arrival at the Walter Kerr Theatre of “Springsteen on Broadway” – an all but sold-out five-nights-a-week stand running (at this point) through Feb. 3 – is in its way a revolutionary convergence for Broadway, a blending of theater and rock-star concertizing of a magnitude unlike anything the Great White Way has ever hosted.
For sure, rock long ago solidified its impact on the music of Broadway, all the way back to “Hair” in the 1960s, and then through a variety of artists, including the Who (“Tommy”), Elton John (“The Lion King”), Paul Simon (“The Capeman”), Cyndi Lauper (“Kinky Boots”), Abba (“Mamma Mia!”), Bono and the Edge (“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”) and Sting (“The Last Ship”). The list goes on and on. And tribute shows such as “Beatlemania,” and jukebox musicals such as “Jersey Boys,” many with special appeal to nostalgic baby boomers, created hybrid new avenues for musical theater – while generating new financial goodies for the writers of oldies.
But “Springsteen on Broadway” represents yet another kind of trailblazing crossover. Here is a superstar – a veritable rock ’n’ roll messiah to some of his followers – who’s committing at least the next four months to a Broadway residency, a length of stay unheard of for a rock singer-songwriter of his fame and reach. In other entertainment meccas, such visitations have occurred: Celine Dion made a famous long-term commitment to Las Vegas, for example. Broadway, though, has resisted becoming an extended personal-appearance platform for the rock ’n’ roll elite, a fact that makes Springsteen’s decision all the more intriguing.
“The theater is a place for artists to come and expand their canvas,” says Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, owner of the Walter Kerr and five other Broadway houses. “For an artist like Bruce to say ‘I want to be a part of that’ is extraordinary.”
How extraordinary, exactly, remains to be seen, for whether “Springsteen on Broadway” is a bona fide expansion of Springsteen’s performance art – or just a much smaller room than usual for him to play – we’ll have to wait to learn.
He’ll be appearing without his longtime friends and collaborators, the E Street Band, so the evening is likely to be closer in tone and format to the solo shows he’s toured with. Will it, though, conform to the etiquette of Broadway, or will Broadway yield up its conventions to the Tao of Bruce?
Will Springsteen devotees, surely a majority of the ticket buyers, be allowed to indulge in familiar rituals of stadium concerts that normally would be taboo in a Broadway theater – flashing handmade signs, holding smartphones aloft and loudly chanting “Bruuuuuuuuuuce”?
Or will “Springsteen on Broadway” be a comparatively sedate affair, with a “song list” rather than a “set list” and a refined, linear story to impart? Springsteen has provided some hints of the framework on the production’s website:
“My show is just me, the guitar, the piano and the words and music,” the 68-year-old songwriter is quoted as saying. “Some of the show is spoken, some of it is sung. It loosely follows the arc of my life and my work. All of it together is in pursuit of my constant goal to provide an entertaining evening and to communicate something of value.”
Which leads you to wonder: Come June, is it remotely conceivable that rugged idol Bruce Springsteen, troubadour of the working man, could rush to the podium at Radio City Musical Hall in a tux to accept the Tony Award for best musical?
“He has to tell a story. He has to be committed to it, night after night,” said Steven Strauss, a Columbia-educated journalist who writes about theater and music, and who followed recent Springsteen concert tours to Australia, Europe and across the United States, and wrote extensively about them for Backstreets.com and his own blog.
Strauss says Springsteen has always lived for the stage: “Absolutely no one - and I mean no one - works as hard, enjoys themselves as much or is as good at their job as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band,” Strauss wrote during the Australia tour earlier this year. Of this newfangled gig, Strauss says: “I think he has a story to tell, the story of his life. And he’s an amazing storyteller.” That seems to have been confirmed with his 2016 memoir Born to Run, from which he’s expected to draw narrative material for the new production.
“Take my hand and move with me down Broadway,” Springsteen sings in “New York City Serenade,” a song from his 1973 studio album, “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.” Where the rocker takes his Broadway audience is a matter of sustained fascination in Bruceland: Another blog devoted to Springsteen, blogitallnight.com, reported what it said was the set list from a rehearsal of “Springsteen on Broadway” at Monmouth University in New Jersey last month. “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road” were all on the list, as well as less frequently heard pieces from his vast songbook, such as “The Wish.”
“That’s what die-hard fans want to hear,” Strauss said.
For sure, other entertainers – film star Marlene Dietrich, magician David Copperfield – have sought to conquer Broadway with one-person shows. In 1981, it was actress and jazz chanteuse Lena Horne who created, in “Lena Horne: The Lady and her Music,” a show that in its earliest days struggled for its identity but ultimately catapulted Horne to another level of celebrity.
Joshua Ellis, the Broadway press agent who handled the show, which would run on Broadway for 333 performances, recalls a rocky, shapeless first performance, during which it was clear that Horne had not found a powerful rationale for the evening. “At the first preview, she wore a wig,” Ellis said, “and I remember her taking it off after and throwing it into a trash can.” By the second show, the savvy Horne realized several songs had to be cut, and by virtue of her song list, the audience had to know they were seeing and hearing something special.
The song that made it happen, he says, was the second that evening, Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox’s “I Got a Name,” originally recorded by Jim Croce. “It’s jolting, serious,” Ellis said. “It was the number that made people understand that they were not going to hear Lena Horne just doing song after song. It was a statement of who and what she was.” And although Horne had only begun the show, the number got a standing ovation.
If Springsteen is able to bring that kind of drama to his Broadway debut – Horne’s show had a director, but none is listed for Springsteen’s – it will surely mute the concerns that some theater types might have, about a rock star taking up space on a Broadway with already limited real estate for new musicals and plays.
In any event, it’s not hard to imagine other big names seeing what Springsteen is doing and wanting to bask in Broadway’s glow, too. Perhaps a “Gaga on Broadway”? A “Mick Jagger at the Al Hirschfeld”? (And yes, fans of the Rolling Stones probably don’t know who Hirschfeld was, either.) Given the modest size of its theaters – the largest ones are only in the 1,700- to 1,900-seat range, and most are much smaller – Broadway probably has only a boutique appeal for concert performers with global followings and international commitments. What it specializes in, and what Springsteen, who lives nearby in New Jersey, seems to have responded to, is a business model built on longer tenancies.
Clearly, though, Broadway landlords are happy to give entertainers of this caliber the keys to a theater. The speed with which tickets were gobbled up, at face-value prices of up to $850 each and on the resale market for thousands more, suggests that there are bundles to be made.
Asked whether he’s willing to book other stars into his theaters, Roth said: “The short answer is yes. The longer answer is, this is one show, and the experience is about a unique kind of storytelling from a unique artist. So there’s nothing else that will ever be exactly this.”