Bruce Springsteen Singer’s theatre success set to reinvent Broadway
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
▼ Bruce Springsteen on stage and, below, with his wife, Patti Scialfa, who joins him for two songs