A middle-aged gentleman makes his way into Manhattan’s Walter Kerr Theatre to see a performance of Springsteen on Broadway, the one-man show of monologue and mostly solo-acoustic music from the Born to Run balladeer. An usher asks him if he wants a playbill. “What’s a playbill?” he responds. The man then makes his way to the concession stand, where he orders a $30 double whisky. A few minutes later, Springsteen appears on stage to full applause and a few scattered calls of “Bruuuuuuce …”
It’s late November. Springsteen has performed this show off and on for more than a year, and now, the 69-year-old rocker and temporary thespian is just weeks away from the final performance. And, no, this isn’t your standard Broadway theatre crowd – not a monocle wearer or hand-fan waver in the house.
A pack of 975 has come to see a rock ’n’ roll hero explain himself and play a few songs. Opening cold with a passage from his 2016 memoirs, Springsteen rattles off a list of the elements he deems essential for a successful pop-music career. Among them are a natural ability, the study of craft, a development of (and devotion to) an aesthetic philosophy and a naked desire for fame, love, admiration, attention, sex and money. “Then, if you want to take it all the way out to the end of the night,” he continues, in a Midwestern twang not indigenous to his native New Jersey, “you will need a furious fire in your belly that just don’t quit burning.”
He’s shouting at this point – preaching, really. More often, he’s wistful, anecdotal and recollective as he tells his story in between career-spanning songs, like a Will Rogers with six strings, one-rack harmonica and a platinum-plated back-catalogue. Although face value for tickets ranges from US$75 to US$850, online scalpers are asking for (and getting) much more. On stage, he describes what he does as a “magic trick.” How many singer-songwriters beside Springsteen, though, could pull off this Broadway venture?
To succeed with a high-priced evening of scripted soliloquy and an unplugged jukebox of material, an artist would need to be of a certain stature – a Neil Young or a Joni Mitchell or a Bob Dylan or even a Billy Joel come to mind. But where Springsteen is folksy, identifiable and rootable, Young, for example, is a curmudgeon – standoffish and less than cuddly.
I’d pay $400 to see and hear Mitchell tell her life story through a cloud of cigarette smoke, but she suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015 and hadn’t performed regularly in years prior to that (not to mention her bouts of stage fright).
Joel has the hits, likability and hometown bona fides to perhaps succeed with a one-man show. But why would he bother? He’s content to take a helicopter from his Long Island mansion to Manhattan for his monthly residency at Madison Square Garden. The 2002 jukebox musical Movin’ Out, featuring his hits but not his story, is likely as close as Joel gets to Broadway.
Springsteen was once one of the young rock troubadours billed as the “Next Bob Dylan.” Now, when it comes to an intimate evening of talk and song, perhaps Dylan is the next Bruce Springsteen. Certainly, Dylan’s memoirs – 2004’s Chronicles – are rich in story and poetic prose, and written with a playwright’s eye for detail:
“Lou shut off his tape machine and switched on some lamps,” Dylan wrote about his early days in New York, referring to Tin Pan Alley music publisher Lou Levy. “Night was coming on. Amber lights glowing from the windows across the street. The freezing sleet hit the side of the building like steel drums. Out the window it looked like diamonds slung onto black velvet. In the adjoining room I could hear the sound of Lou’s secretary’s racing feet going to shut tight one of the windows.”
Some scene, right? Unfortunately, where Springsteen is approachable, Dylan is enigmatic. “I’ll let you be in my dreams, if I can be in yours,” he proposed on 1963’s Talkin' World War III Blues. It was an intriguing proposition, but most people didn’t feel comfortable with the offer. Dylan would need to be worshiped from afar. He’s a brilliant songwriter, of course, and likely a fine raconteur if he wanted to be. As it stands, though, Dylan’s concerts these days feature barely a peep out of him at all other than croaked-forth lyrics.
Springsteen, though, is relatable, chatty and vulnerable. “Buy land,” Rogers once advised, “they’re not making it any more.” It’s now 2018, and they’re not making rock stars like Springsteen any more.
Make no mistake, Springsteen was manufactured – to some degree, anyway. Early on, the native of Freehold, N.J., resisted the scheme proposed by his record label to present the musician as a New Yorker. Springsteen’s resistance was shrewd. He’d create his own story, thank you very much. In Springsteen on Broadway, and the 2016 autobiography Born to Run it is based upon, the rocker freely admits that his street-racing, factory-man persona was fiction. “That’s how good I am,” Springsteen explains, about his gift for melody-based fiction.
Although 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. was a purposeful declaration of his blue-collar outskirts origins, songs such as It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City offered a streetwise narrative and a gritty urban character. Laughably so, really. “I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra,” Springsteen sang, perhaps listing the unfortunate side effects of strong prescription medicine. If he was trying to copy Iggy Pop’s potent prose – “A street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm” – Springsteen was failing miserably.
Unlike Iggy and the Stooges, Springsteen and his E Street Band were not out to search and destroy. Springsteen built a community – tramps like him. He self-mythologized. He was wild, he was innocent, he wanted to know "if love was real.”
On Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), he offered escape: “I'm coming to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man.”
Moreover, he suggested a promised land. Critics threw water on the whole rock ’n’ roll saviour thing, but fans worshiped away. “Remember how I kept you waiting when it was my turn to be the god,” he sang in 1973. How could anyone forget?
There are other recording artists built for the theatre stage. What’s Tony Award-winner and adored Funny Girl star Barbra Streisand up to these days? Paul Simon, who wrote and produced the Broadway bomb The Capeman in 1998, has announced his retirement from performing.
Others that come quickest to mind are dead: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, whose musical Lazarus had a limited off-Broadway run in 2015.
With the Boss now returning to his recording and touring career, fans of classic pop and rock looking for residencies and stage shows are left with Las Vegas options and jukebox musical choices.
Two weeks before Springsteen’s run ended, The Cher Show bio-musical made its debut on Broadway. It features the songs and story of the actress-singer, but not the pop icon in the flesh. In all likelihood, Springsteen on Broadway, like Springsteen himself, was a one-of-a-kind venture. And now, as the Sonny & Cher song cynically put it, the beat goes on. La-de-da-de-de, la-de-da-de-da.