“Springsteen on Broadway” begins with The Boss explaining what it takes to play before “80,000 screaming rock n roll fans,” but the two-hour show is mostly a lesson in intimacy. This was true when he performed solo for 900 or so nightly audience members in Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater, where it was supposed to run for just eight weeks, but closed last night after 14 months. It’s even more of a lesson, paradoxically, now that it’s playing for some 100 million streaming subscribers. Few are likely to be screaming while sitting on their couch looking at the screen, but many of them are surely fans; Springsteen has reportedly sold more than 135 million records during a rock career that spans half a century.
Some who aren’t already fans will likely become so because of this lovely show, which brings to life his stories and observations from his 2016 memoir, Born To Run, interspersed with a concert of 16 of his songs, taken from albums as long ago as 1973 and as recent as 2012. (See the song list below.) It’s just him, a guitar, a piano, a harmonica – and Patti Scialfa, his wife, who appears on stage to sing two songs with him from the album Tunnel of Love, speaks not a word, and then disappears until the curtain call.
Watching “Springsteen on Broadway” on Netflix is a fascinating and frustrating experience. It is frustrating for all those theatergoers who simply could not afford a ticket to see it on Broadway; the top ticket price was $850 (beating Hamilton by one dollar) – and that’s at the box office; secondary sales for the last weekend reportedly rose into the tens of thousands of dollars for a single ticket. There’s an irony in this exclusionary pricing for a performer whose music is inspired by his background as a working class kid who grew up in a blue-collar New Jersey town. In typical self-deprecating candor and humor, he tells us during the show: “I’ve never worked 9 to 5. I’ve never worked five days a week until right now. (I don’t like it.) I’ve never been inside of a factory. And yet it’s all I’ve ever written about.”
It’s hard to knock the producers for wanting to maximize their profits. “Springsteen on Broadway” was not a charity. (And they did offer a lottery.) But it’s also easy to wonder whether such an elitist Broadway is an unsustainable business in the long run, unless it changes.
And maybe the deal with Netflix is a glimpse at what could change – a two-tiered system, on stage for the rich, on screen for everybody else.
This already seems to be happening. It seems a mindset is preparing us for it. Earlier this month, the Rodgers and Hammerstin Organization Tweeted this chart celebrating the fifth anniversary of the live television broadcast of the Sound of Music.
#TDIH in 2013, the @SoundofMusic Live! aired on @nbc starring @carrieunderwood, @smoyer, @AudraEqualityMc, @LauraBenanti, @arianerinehart, and @michaelcampayno! The live event was seen by over 21 million people! Retweet if you were one of them! #SoundOfMusic #CarrieUnderwood pic.twitter.com/KYagvvRvtq
— Rodgers & Hammerstein (@RnH_Org) December 5, 2018
“More people saw a live Broadway musical in one night than….the longest running show on Broadway in 25 years.” This seemed an odd boast, hardly something passionate theatergoers would celebrate, unless they thought that a Broadway musical live on television was the exact same thing as a Broadway musical live in a Broadway theater. I don’t think it is. Television is a different medium.
This doesn’t mean the medium is inferior. Yes, surely, as theater advocates frequently argue, there is excitement in seeing a performer live in the same room (no matter how big the room is), breathing the same air as you do.Some of this is an electricity that’s hard to describe. More practically: If you’re a lifelong fan, you might be able to shake hands with him; if you’re not really a fan, you’re likely to be infected with the feeling from the fans around you that this is a special event. (And, let’s face it, an absurdly high ticket price can help boost the sense that this a special event.)
But what Netflix offers to “Springsteen on Broadway” is something the Walter Kerr did not – close-ups. It seems especially apt to watch Bruce Springsteen talk about his father, “my hero and my greatest foe,” in close-up.
On the other hand, some of his poetic riffs energetically delivered momentarily seemed….exaggerated? They were meant for the stage.
They could put screens in the theater, as they do in many rock arenas (and as they do in the stage adaptation of Network), but it’s not the same thing. It feels jarring to look at both the stage and the screen. Viewers at home are conditioned to seeing performers in close-up. It feels natural.
The transfer of “Springsteen on Broadway” to Netflix made me aware of how different media come with different expectations and assumptions, many of them so ingrained that we’re mostly unconscious of them. When Springsteen talked about The Big Man, his saxophone player Clarence Anicholas Clemons Jr. – how they met, how he mourns his death – I momentarily expected at least the insertion of an old photograph of the musician, if not an old video.
1. “Growin’ Up” (from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., 1973)
2. “My Hometown” (from Born in the U.S.A, 1975.)
3. “My Father’s House” (from Nebraska, 1982)
4. “The Wish” (from Tracks, 1998)
5. “Thunder Road” (from Born to Run, 1984)
6. “The Promised Land” (from Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
7. “Born in the U.S.A.” (from Born in the U.S.A., 1975.)
8. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (from Born to Run, 1984)
9. “Tougher Than the Rest” (w/ Patti Scialfa) (from Tunnel of Love, 1987)
10. “Brilliant Disguise” (w/ Patti Scialfa) (from Tunnel of Love, 1987)
11. Long Time Coming (from Devils & Dust, 2005)
12. The Ghost of Tom Joad (from The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995)
13. “The Rising” (from The Rising, 2002)
14. “Dancing in the Dark” (from Born in the U.S.A, 1975.)
15. “Land of Hope and Dreams” (from Wrecking Ball, 2012l)
16. “Born to Run” (from Born to Run, 1984)