By Karsten S. Andersen

The estranging triumph of Springsteen on Broadway

Published 2018-12-10
How one of Bruce Springsteen's biggest artistic successes will also make fans breathe a sigh of relief now that it's coming to an end.

Springsteen on Broadway is coming to an end. 238 shows, 14½ months, more than 200,000 tickets sold. It’s been Bruce Springsteen’s longest stretch of shows under the same billing and within the same concept.

It may also have been his most low-key period in recent memory. The buzz and excitement that normally surrounds his tours has been all but non-existent in the fan community. This, of course, doesn’t include in the minds of the relatively few people lucky – and wealthy – enough to attend. And while 200,000 tickets may sound like a lot, on a regular tour with the E Street Band, 200,000 tickets equal about a month’s worth of work.

Part of the reason for the absence of a buzz has been the fact that all these shows have been more or less identical in terms of setlist and flow. There has been no reason for those fans not in attendance to sit at home anxiously waiting for the setlist on internet forums such as Greasy Lake’s own.

And it’s not just the setlist. Another reason is, of course, that the show has been stationary. This time around, Bruce wasn’t coming to you. You had to come to him. For most fans that meant they would miss out. And when there is no hope of getting to see your hero, many fans have chosen to put their fanhood on standby and wait for things to go back to normal.

As much as Springsteen on Broadway has flown under the radar compared to other Bruce Springsteen affairs, not many question the artistic merits of Bruce giving his autobiography a musical/spoken word treatment. Media and attending fans have universally praised the 2½ hour show and often categorized it as one of Bruce’s biggest artistic achievements. This wasn’t just Bruce giving spoken intros to acoustic song performances like during the Ghost of Tom Joad Tour in 1995-97 or 2005’s Devils & Dust Tour. This was Bruce performing up to 10-minute long scenes, or vignettes, consisting of intro music, a spoken built-up, then singing, then more spoken words, before finishing the song. The most obvious comparison that comes to mind is how Bruce would wring out his soul performing The Animals’ “It’s My Life” in 1977. Only this time around many of the scenes were not only drawing tears of emotion, but also interspersed with Bruce’s self-deprecating humor.

More than any other Bruce show, Springsteen on Broadway was one where you had to be there to know what it was like. The setlist’s constitution of almost exclusively well-known, played-a-million-times-before compositions said very little about the show. The songs almost took a backseat in favor of the stories, the closeness, and the intimacy of the venue – the venue where you walked right from the street into the theater. Not a lobby. Not a hallway. The theater. Where the stage, even from the “cheap” $300 seats, seemed almost close enough to touch, and Bruce as if he was playing just for you and a few of your friends.

For many fans, the intimacy started even before you went into the theater. From the start of the Walter Kerr run, Bruce made himself available to people waiting outside. As he arrived at the theater, he would meet fans lined up outside, chat with them, and write autographs.

So, while in many ways, Springsteen on Broadway brought Bruce closer to his audience, no summary of it would be complete without talking about the alienation from Bruce that this last year has also resulted in. The main culprit has been the, in Bruce connection, completely unheard of, ticket prices. Spanning from $75 to $800, with most ticket costing several hundred Dollars, Bruce has deliberately chosen to uninvite a large portion of his fan base. Not only would most fans have to pay for transportation to and lodging in New York, of itself an unfeasible task for many, but entrance to the show would be close to what average people spend on entertainment in an entire year or more.

So Bruce, whose ticket prices have always been in the lower end for performers of his status, decided to target his show toward a more wealthy segment than his common man image normally dictates. That included scores of celebrities, from Courtney Cox to the Obamas. Sometimes It has seemed like anybody who is anybody in entertainment and liberal politics has had a picture on their Instagram where they pose with Bruce Springsteen backstage at the Walter Kerr Theater.

All of this has contributed to Springsteen on Broadway being among the least exciting periods in Bruce Springsteen history when you look at it from an average fan point of view. But maybe that’s exactly what Bruce wanted. To be able to play his music, tell his stories, and possibly exorcise a few of his old ghosts in the process, without the hoopla that normally surrounds his performances. Reading his autobiography, you learn that psychotherapy, psychoactive drugs, and performing is what keeps Bruce sane these days. The last 15 months have allowed him to get the performing part out of the way and still be able to focus on other things in his life.

Time will tell if his lack of focus on the hundreds of thousands of fans who were not able to make it to Broadway – and who have, from afar, witnessed celebrities and well-to-do New Yorkers take over their hero - will have resulted in permanent damage to his brand.

Most likely, that won’t be the case, although many fans will probably breathe a sigh of relief now that it's coming to an end. A new album in the first part of 2019 could go a long way in restoring the bond. And if 2020 will be the year of another E Street Band world tour, with regular ticket prices, new music, and unpredictable setlists, few people who have ever called themselves Bruce Springsteen fans will want to miss it.

Until then, the Broadway live album and Netflix movie will give everybody a chance to relive, or experience for the first time, what buzz or lack thereof, was all about.


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