Sunday, December 23, 2018

Goodbye and good riddance to 'Springsteen on Broadway,' a low point for The Boss

{A contrarian's point of view...jtf}

By Bobby Olivier
December 16, 2018

Related image
(Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

"Maybe I was wrong," I thought as I entered the screening room in Manhattan last week, to watch a newly filmed recording of "Springsteen On Broadway" -- a pop-culture phenomenon whose universal acclaim has mystified me for the last 14 months.

Outside the small theater hung a Netflix-branded poster of The Boss in all his one-man-show glory, strumming an acoustic guitar, a silver harmonica clasped around his neck just as it's been for all 236 sold-out performances at the Walter Kerr Theatre, a few blocks south on 48th Street. The final curtain for this record-breaking run fell on Saturday.

Perhaps I was, in fact, too harsh in my initial review, which labeled Springsteen's choice to play director for his thrice-extended, "this is my life" residency -- without the assistance of a proven theater vet -- as "cavalier and foolish." Maybe I'd even prefer the Netflix version, considering it was filmed across two July 2018 performances, by which time Bruce would have surely settled into the rhythm of the show, with less propensity for "uh" and "um" between his acoustic numbers.

And then the lights dimmed in the theater and the recording began. Akin to the Broadway performance, the streaming rendition -- which premiered Sunday morning and was filmed and directed by longtime collaborator Thom Zimny -- begins with a cold open of Springsteen speaking, wearing a dark gray t-shirt.

"DNA," Springsteen starts with a sigh. "Natural ability. Study of craft. Development of and devotion to an aesthetic philosophy. Balls."

So much for second-guessing myself. It's just as dull as I remember.

For those who chose not to spend a month's rent on tickets for the live show -- or never got off the waiting list -- rest assured that what you watch on Netflix is almost exactly what fans who sat in the room saw: It's the same rumble through 15 staple-songs on acoustic guitar and piano, and the same drab, disjointed storytelling weaving it all together.  

I stand by what I wrote last fall, now more than ever after watching this new, two-and-a-half-hour special, which only underscores my issues with the show. The arc of this laborious production is rescued only by its music and the exclusivity of its venue -- a 947-seat hall that provides well-off superfans the opportunity to see Springsteen, 69, jam a while and spin his folksy Jersey yarns in closer proximity than ever before.

The Walter Kerr comprises the smallest venue The Boss has played with any regularity in the last 40 years. For the 223,000 or so bodies that have occupied those worn velvet chairs since October 2017 -- a list that includes the Obamas, the Clintons, Oprah Winfrey, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Howard Stern and droves more celebrities -- that privilege alone may have been worth the exorbitant ticket costs and months spent in lotteries, hoping to be the next one in to see the show.

Image result for springsteen on broadway
(Rob DeMartin)

Though to consider the full impact of "Springsteen On Broadway," we must also dive into the mammoth financials that surround this show, which exalt this project as the single most lucrative live run of Springsteen's career -- likely more so than any E Street Band stadium tour -- and, in terms of genre, notch it as the most successful one-man show in Broadway's history (and it's not even close).

According to Playbill, "Springsteen On Broadway" has raked in more than $2 million each week on average in box office revenue; retail tickets have averaged about $500 each, while secondary market prices have soared many times higher -- tickets on Stubhub for Saturday's final night began at $2,100 a pop. Multiply that by the 52 weeks of total runtime and that's well over $100 million in gross ticket revenue.

Assuming Springsteen takes home half the pot -- he is, after all, the only star as well as director -- and that's a cool $50 million for Bruce, plus a limousine waiting to drive him back home to Colts Neck every night. No travel, no hotels, no fuss. And lest we forget the sales totals for "Springsteen on Broadway" merchandise, the official "Springsteen On Broadway" soundtrack that was released Friday, or the reported $20 million Netflix paidthe Springsteen camp for licensing rights to the show.

All of this for what? A well-aged rock star reshaping a handful of stories from his best-selling 2016 autobiography -- for which he was granted a $10 million advance -- and wistfully staring into the void as he wrestles with the irony of having "never held an honest job in my entire life" yet spending his career representing his ostensible blue-collar brethren in song? Springsteen refers to this as his "magic trick," and man-oh-man it's been a good one: 14 months of Mr. Man of the Working Class corralling his music into an ossified luxury brand, where tickets are absurdly expensive -- even the once-in-a-decade blockbuster "Hamilton" pales in comparison -- and the vibrant improvisation of his revered live performances is replaced by something so cloying and precious in its design.

Further, the "Springsteen On Broadway" sensation has in effect created a whole new channel for cross-branding indulgence, wherein iconic musicians can (and will) try their hands at a new art form and wring out their fans for a few more bucks. Of course, not every Rock and Roll Hall Of Famer possesses the proper panache nor the physical and emotional endurance to fuel a run of this magnitude. That being said, couldn't we all imagine Billy Joel or Neil Young or even Madonna or Bono saying "hey, I want a Tony, too!" and giving it a go for a few months?

When I read Springsteen's admission in The Dec. 2 Sunday Times (U.K.), that "it's time to get back to my day job," my immediate response was "no truer words, Bruce." While it's certainly been an interesting 14 months, it's time we let this sleeping dog of a show lie for good and prepare for the something that isn't simply a masked retread of well-worn stories and songs: 2019 is likely to deliver a new solo album that Springsteen has reportedly had finished since 2016. The so-far unnamed LP would be his first true release since 2014's "High Hopes" and, for me at least, a much-desired palate cleanser.

That "day job" line also reminded me of something I saw in late spring of this year and will never forget. Asbury Lanes, the beloved Jersey Shore punk-rock haunt and bowling alley, was preparing to reopen in Asbury Park after two years of renovations. Springsteen, on his night off from Broadway, attended the June 19 grand opening and sat in with the Tangiers Blues Band for a few songs (the group includes his longtime photographer Danny Clinch). Bruce rocked four covers with the band -- the best of which were crunchy renditions of Huey Smith's "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" and the Rolling Stones' "Down The Road Apiece" -- and in that 30-minute clip, Springsteen was again that man on fire, slamming chords on his worn Telecaster, dancing in time, finally unbound from the measured stage presence and manicured script to which he'd been tethered for the previous eight months to that point. In these moments he appeared years younger, and overjoyed to be performing without the prerequisite of mentally investing in his own rock-god mythos.

And who can blame him? He has to be sick of himself by now.

Bobby Olivier may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BobbyOlivier and Facebook. Find on Facebook

No comments: