Bruce Spring­steen Singer’s theatre suc­cess set to rein­vent Broad­way

The Guardian - - NEWS - David Taylor

At the end of an acous­tic ver­sion of Born to Run, some­time around 10.30pm next Satur­day, the Walter Kerr theatre on Broad­way will fi­nally go dark on Bruce Spring­steen.

Even by the stan­dard of his own en­durance-sap­ping sets, it has been a marathon run – 236 shows in the same tiny theatre, about five nights a week since Oc­to­ber 2017.

As Spring­steen has en­joyed telling the New York crowd night af­ter night, it is the clos­est the great chron­i­cler of blue-col­lar Amer­ica has ever got to hold­ing down a full­time job. And in the process he has qui­etly rein­vented what a Broad­way show can be, gross­ing more than $113m in ticket sales with a stripped­down, in­ti­mate hy­brid of mu­sic and sto­ry­telling.

Five blocks south, Harry Pot­ter and the Cursed Child, the big­gest Broad­way open­ing of 2018, makes $2.3m a week in ticket sales for a pro­duc­tion so elab­o­rate it cost $68.5m to bring to New York and de­manded a com­plete re­fit of the Lyric theatre. But Spring­steen has stayed a whisker ahead, bring­ing in $2.4m a week in ticket sales for a show with a min­i­mal “jan­i­tor’s base­ment” set and a cast of just two peo­ple – Spring­steen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, who joins him for two songs in the mid­dle of the show.

A few hours af­ter the fi­nal show, the rest of the world will get a chance to see what Spring­steen has been up to, as Net­flix premieres a film of the pro­duc­tion. It is pos­si­ble that the magic will not trans­late to the small screen, but for Spring­steen fans and Broad­way vet­er­ans, the run has been al­most uni­ver­sally ac­claimed.

The Tony award-win­ning pro­ducer Ken Daven­port, who writes The Pro­ducer’s Per­spec­tive blog, said: “This one for me hits the tri­fecta for what a the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion on Broad­way should do: it was an in­cred­i­ble piece of art; it made money; and it ex­panded the Broad­way theatre-go­ing au­di­ence … when­ever you can do those three things, you’ve hit the bulls­eye.”

The show was ex­pen­sive for fans – tick­ets started at $75, ris­ing rapidly to an av­er­age of $505 and a top price of $850, but a ver­i­fied fan sys­tem in­volv­ing pr­ereg­is­tra­tion en­sured tick­ets were not all in­stantly in the hands of scalpers and touts.

Few who got in­side the 948-seat venue ap­pear to have gone home un­happy. Chris Phillips, the ed­i­tor of Back­streets.com, a web­site for hard­core Spring­steen fans, said: “We’ve heard from fans from all around the world who have made the trip to New York. This was not an easy ticket, not a cheap ticket, but to a per­son, ev­ery­one I talked to that ac­tu­ally got to be in that theatre thought it was worth ev­ery penny.”

The show is not a play, not a mu­si­cal, nor a solo concert. “It’s re­ally it’s own thing, a mono­logue with mu­sic,” Phillips sug­gested.

At first, it is a sim­ple run through his life story – the work­ing guy who has never set foot in a fac­tory, the rebel who was born to run but lives 10 min­utes from the town where he grew up – in­ter­spersed with solo ver­sions of ca­reer-span­ning songs, Bruce alone at the piano, or cen­tre stage with a bat­tered acous­tic gui­tar.

But as he moves from child­hood, par­ents and home­town, his scope widens to take in Amer­ica as he makes the case for the se­ri­ous­ness of the job he set him­self, try­ing to both cap­ture and ac­count for his coun­try. Born in the USA, once hi­jacked as a na­tion­al­is­tic ral­ly­ing cry on the pres­i­den­tial trail by Ronald Rea­gan, is played as the raw protest song it was al­ways in­tended to be.

Peo­ple who have seen the show more than once say it has evolved, be­com­ing fun­nier and more topi­cal. In June Spring­steen in­tro­duced The Ghost of Tom Joad, a song that burns with anger about in­equal­ity and set up a cri­tique of Don­ald Trump’s “dis­grace­fully in­hu­mane” pol­icy of sep­a­rat­ing fam­i­lies at the US border.

There was also no deny­ing the in­ten­sity of see­ing a per­former able to reach the back of gi­ant sta­di­ums bring his power to such a con­fined space – 16 rows down­stairs, and a cou­ple of bal­conies stacked above (the Oba­mas were up­stairs one night and Anna Win­tour sat with Colin Firth down­stairs at an­other show).

“The in­ti­macy of the theatre was re­ally an el­e­ment you can’t dis­count in how dif­fer­ent it was,” Phillips said. “Ev­ery­body in the room got to feel like: ‘I’m see­ing a Bruce Spring­steen concert in my freakin’ liv­ing room!’”

What next? Phillips said chat­ter about trans­fer­ring to Lon­don had gone quiet af­ter an eight-week Broad­way run was ex­tended three times. Spring­steen said: “Be­fore I go back to my day job, the year will be con­sumed with a break af­ter our Broad­way run and var­i­ous record­ing projects I’ve been work­ing on.”

Other per­form­ers – and the­atres – will surely wish to copy the $113m model of Spring­steen on Broad­way.

Daven­port said: “I get ner­vous when I hear num­bers like that. I’m afraid we will see a ton of other peo­ple try to rip that off and repli­cate it that don’t go as deep into the the­atri­cal sto­ry­telling ... It will be done again and it should be done – I just want it to be done with the care and the de­sire that Bruce had, and not just the de­sire to make a buck.”

Spring­steen on Broad­way is on Net­flix from 16 De­cem­ber

‘Ev­ery­body got to feel: “I’m see­ing a Spring­steen concert in my liv­ing room!”’ Chris Phillips Ed­i­tor, Back­street.com

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: KEVIN MAZUR/NET­FLIX/EVAN AGOSTINI/AP

▼ Bruce Spring­steen on stage and, be­low, with his wife, Patti Scialfa, who joins him for two songs

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