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 fill the 975 seats of the Broadway theater 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.
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”).
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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 another kind of trailblazing crossover. Here is a superstar 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 long-term commitment to Las Vegas, for instance. Broadway, though, has resisted becoming an extended personal-appearance platform for the rock ’n’ roll elite, which 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; we’ll have to wait to learn 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.
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 has 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,” says Steven Strauss, a journalist who wrote extensively about recent Springsteen concert tours 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.
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 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 says.
If Springsteen is able to bring a certain drama to his Broadway debut it will surely mute the concerns of some theater types about a rock star taking up space on a Broadway with already limited real estate for new musicals and plays.
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 there are bundles to be made.
Asked whether he’s willing to book other stars into his theaters, Roth says: “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.”