Boogaloo Down Broadway or: My Worried yet Loving Thoughts on How to Stop a Bruce Springsteen Musical from Bombing

Earlier this week, Michael Riedel of the New York Post reported that Bruce (Springsteen…for those who don’t know me) – after years of purportedly refusing to sell his music for others’ artistic (and financial) gain – is now open to lending his vast musical oeuvre to a Broadway musical. 

First, if you’re unfamiliar with the theatre world,[1] that story is most probably apocryphal. As much as I love him, Michael Riedel is to journalism what Bruce is to stand-up comedy. Yes, Bruce clearly revels in telling jokes – as he showcases every year at the recent Stand Up for Heroes event – but that doesn’t make him a professional comic; similarly, as may be predictable given the hard-earned reputation of his publication, Riedel relishes in reporting juicy stories, but that doesn’t make him a news journalist since most of them are entirely fabricated. He’s a (personally) beloved relic of a bygone era of Broadway, when a popular gossip columnist – and don’t be mistaken: that’s all he is – could joyfully prod (and even influence) the relatively small group of the moving and shaking players that often made the power circle of the Great White Way feel like a glorified high society club.

Yet even with AAAAAAAALL of that being said, I have nonetheless still spent this week incessantly brainstorming what my ideal Bruce Springsteen musical would look like on the Great White Way. Riedel’s self-reported conversation with the Boss in all likelihood never took place, but that doesn’t mean E Street won’t eventually stretch to Broadway. In fact, the least realistic part of Riedel’s entire article was his claim that no producers had yet considered this idea.

Let me tell you: I worked as an Associate Producer under a major Broadway producer for years, and I interacted with an array of producers every day. I only point that out to legitimize this technically unfounded assertion: there is roughly a 0% chance that a Bruce musical has not been discussed MULTIPLE times by MULTIPLE different entities – be they commercial and/or artistic – over the years. Jukebox musicals – which is a quasi-vague term that simply denotes musicals that feature pre-existing, usually popular music –  are some of the most surefire hits in an industry where 80% of shows fail to make their money back. 

Given the wholly expected success of his recent autobiography, the predictable approach to such a musical would be to follow the model established by previously successful Broadway shows like Jersey Boys and Beautiful: that boasted the music of similarly popular musicians:[2]  tell the story of their life and career through their adored music catalogue. Heck, Bruce even used his own song titles to name sections of the book, so he’s already done some of the work for whoever is bestowed the Herculean task of writing this show.[3] Riedel himself went so far as to suggest potential hires: Doug McGrath – who wrote the book for Beautiful[4] – and Des McAnuff – the director of Jersey Boys. WHAT OUTSIDE THE FUCKING BOX THINKING THERE, RIEDEL BABY!!!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Even though this story is less than one week old, and even though it’s in all probability just bullshit in the first place, I nevertheless still feel the need to chime in because I’ve quite literally been dreaming of Bruce Springsteen musical for much of my adult life. To say I care about a potential merging of my two biggest artistic loves is an understatement on the scale of me making a statement like, “Oh yeah, I kind of like seeing Bruce live…” Short of telling my actual story, a Bruce Springsteen musical is the closest thing I have to ‘my life’s work’ – I’ve been exploring what such a show should and shouldn’t be for what feels like forever. Reading Riedel’s article brought back all of that cognitive work, and since I’m sure many of you have spent at least a few seconds this week wondering how Broadway and Bruce could best fit together, I wanted to share my thoughts here.

Unfortunately, if you’re expecting me to delve into an outline of my genius concept, I’m going to have to disappoint you. After revisiting and revising seemingly every conceivable approach over the years – and keeping in mind all of the memorable shows I’ve seen that have taken approaches to material I never thought would work…but somehow did much better than anything I could have come up with – I’ve learned that there’s no one way to tell a story. Even listing some ways I’ve envisioned could be good would project the implication that there is a finite number of ways of tell Bruce’s story through the musical format. 

I do, HOWEVER, feel comfortable expressing doubt in the viability of making this musical basically ‘Jersey Boy,’ i.e. adopting the aforementioned, exceedingly unimaginative, excessively conventional approach of simply telling the story of his life through his most popular tunes. I could while away the hours proclaiming all of the reasons that reducing the complexity of Bruce’s music to conform to the so-tired-its-fucking-exhausted dramatic structure of such jukebox musicals would spell doom for this artistic venture, but I’ll contain myself to only the most important ones:

First off, Bruce literally just told his story in his autobiography. I don’t care how talented the artists are that will be roped in to this project, they have at most a MINUSCULE chance of telling HIS story even HALF as well as the fucking Boss. Secondly, I reeeeally fear simply staging Bruce’s typical rags-to-riches story would highlight the now-extreme typicality of his story. Without the high level of detailed specificity and nuanced insights Bruce packed into his autobiography that simply could not be matched given the array of limitations posed by the stage as an artistic medium, Bruce’s story could very easily come off like yet another in a long line of ‘started from the bottom now we HERE’ jukebox musicals. Plus, Bruce’s particular mixture of authenticity and sentimentality is an extremely tough balance to strike, and the prevalent ‘play it to the rafters’ nature of the jukebox narrative structure will almost surely skew waaaaaaay too far towards the type of sentimentality that feels all-too-schmaltzy due to not being grounded in enough authenticity. 

IN ADDITION, the inevitable and already-rumored movie adaptation of Bruce’s autobiography will no doubt be better suited to present a more literal dramatic telling of Bruce’s story; movies simply don’t have the same limitations that make such tellings so difficult for theatre. Also, since movies take waaaaaay less time to churn out than musicals, Bruce’s story will already have been revisited in a different, more widely accessible artistic medium years before any show could realistically reach the Great White Way.[5] It will be a recipe for failure if a producer believes people – besides all of us nutsos who will buy a ticket regardless of quality – will actually pay Broadway’s exorbitant prices to see yet another straightforward version of this same story; chances are, they will have had their fill after the book AND movie.

But I can already hear now how that producer would pitch such a show to potential investors and eventually potential ticket buyers: “Broadway, more than any other artistic medium, can capture the magically infectious energy of Bruce’s live performances – the same energy that compels so many to buy tickets to his concerts again and again and again in all parts of the world, which has allowed him to become one of the most successful AND long-lasting live entertainment acts IN THE HISTORY OF HUMANITY. Bruce IS the Midas touch: whatever he’s involved with TURNS TO GOLD!!!” 

The hole in that rationale: the little crossover between the affluent majority of theatregoers and the predominantly working man roots of Bruce’s followers. There are obviously exceptions in both instances, but many of the people who buy a ticket to see Bruce every time he comes to town won’t necessarily blindly purchase a ticket to a Broadway show featuring his music.

A big reason for that: why would you when you can still spend your money on the real thing?! Even if the most phenomenally talented Broadway performers are cast, no one – and I mean NO ONE – can trump the performances that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band still give night after night after night on their recent tours. Musicals like Jersey Boys and Beautiful provided audiences with one of their best ways to experience again the heyday of some of their favorite artists when they were at the top of their live performance games. Since many musicians basically become glorified tribute acts in their old age, a musical boasting seasoned performers turning in top shelf imitations can be quite appealing, especially when audiences know witnessing their personal stories unfolding around the musical performances make them that much more enjoyably resonant.

But you know who none of that applies to? BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE HEART-STOPPING, PANTS-DROPPING (blah blah blah you know the rest…) E STREET BAND, that’s who. They’re not only still blowing us all away, but Bruce has always been in the business of theatrically telling his and the Band’s story during his concerts. Since trying to compete with that may be a death knell for any musical, perhaps it’s better that the gestation process on Broadway is so lengthy?

Ideally, this longer development time will hopefully result in a more creative end product, one that understands the stage is a prime artistic medium to explore a subject integral to both theatre and the story of Bruce Springsteen: theatricality. I know that I promised not to get into suggesting possible approaches…but I just want to point out that the best adaptations of material written for other mediums almost always find the most essential shared elements between that material and the chosen medium. 

One of the reasons I’ve SOOOOO passionately believed for SOOOOO long that Bruce Springsteen and Broadway could be such a perfect match – despite the obvious superficial dissonance between people’s commonly held perceptions of each – is because some of the most crucial themes explored throughout theatre history also deeply pertain to Bruce. The search for one’s own identity, the blurry line between truth and performance, the power of human connection and the relationship between the physical and emotional components of that power, the all-consuming spiritual communities that can be created simply by sharing a space, the pros and cons of artistic escapism, the artificiality of life – these are merely SOME of the connections that can be drawn between Bruce’s life’s work (which includes his personal life and music) and what’s always been best suited to be explored on a stage in front of a live audience. And that’s not to mention Bruce’s much lauded storytelling and character-building talents, traits that are far too scarce yet far too essential on Broadway. Bruce himself has often stated that he’s been having one long conversation with his audience for his entire career, in the process developing his own life’s story AND those of the characters in his songs. That’s the stuff that Broadway dreams are made of…

…ok, I swore I wasn’t going to do this, but since the seemingly endless wealth of lively characters – and I mean that literally: they really feel alive – to be found in Bruce’s catalogue was just mentioned, allow me to propose this one idea: as temptingly easy as it will be to use the autobiography as the main basis of the musical, perhaps Bruce’s personal story should only be one story versus the story of the musical? To phrase it another way: instead of making Bruce the main character, what if he’s just one of many characters in the show, surrounded by other personified amalgamations of the sorts of characters he’s repeatedly depicted in his songs? Bruce’s own story needs to be a part of any equation to artistically represent the full breadth of his music, but the depth of that music cannot be fully expressed without dramatizing the transcendentally realistic characters that sets his work apart from so many others. 

There’s of course an untold number of ways to pull that off, too many to even start to consider here. Whichever one the Broadway powers that be decide to go with, however, must provide some sort of theatrically-minded insights into Bruce’s story, and not just repeat sentiments he expressed in his book. Otherwise, what the hell’s the point of bringing his story to the stage at all? 

Fortunately, Bruce is in total control of his Broadway show’s fate. Since he owns all of his music – thanks Mike Appel! – he has the power to control how any adaption for the Great White Way uses his songs. If I could, I would beg Bruce not to immediately sign off on the most obvious, money-grabbing pitch that he will surely receive in short order, if he hasn’t already. Rather, he should wait for the right pitch, one that properly embodies not only his story but specifically the unconventional, unpredictable, daring risk-taking that has almost always been a staple of his personal life, music, and career. Everyone loves the big hits like Born in the U.S.A., but it’s the Nebraskas and Tunnel of Loves of Bruce’s career that sufficiently differentiate him from the achingly familiar. He should patiently await the pitch that understands that…but he can’t wait too long because no one in their right mind would want to embark on this artistic quest without the guiding voice of the Boss.

Towards that end, since this is obviously a seemingly un-exhaustible topic that’s clearly near and dear to my heart, I’d love to hear any and all of your ideas for what a Bruce Springsteen Broadway musical should be. Who knows – maybe the right people will read it and listen to us…

Oh, and if you happen to be the right people (or can send this to the right people), I just want to end by pointing out that I know a certain aspiring writer who has spent his entire life basically working on this musical, and would love to keep doing so on a more formal, professional (and paid) basis! I won’t even back charge you for all of that time…

All jokes aside, a Bruce Springsteen Broadway musical deserves the time and thoughtful, heartfelt consideration to avoid all of the many ways it can be a total disaster – which would make the aforementioned aspiring writer nothing short of despondent – to instead become yet another lasting tribute to one of the greatest musicians ever to live, to be performed eight nights per week for years to come just across the river from where his whole story began.  

If handled correctly, this musical could be…

…wait for it…

…oh yeah, it’s coming…

…BORN TO RUN FOR YEARS!!! 

Am I hired?

FOOTNOTES

[1] Aka 99.9% of the readers my Bruce writing brought here.

[2] In their cases, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Carole King, respectively.

[3] Bruce should of course consult INTIMATELY and perhaps even co-write with whoever is hired, but I’m dubious that the Boss could successfully pull off this artistic endeavor alone. Writing an autobiography is almost an innate talent for storytellers like Bruce, especially since he’s basically been telling his own story through his music and live shows throughout his career. Writing a musical is an entirely different ball game, and as such he will most probably be much behooved by relying on the talents of other artists with more experience in this game.

[4] Another FYI for my theatre-illiterate Bruce fans: the word ‘book’ for musicals refers to the script; it basically includes everything spoken but not sung on stage, in addition to providing the narrative structure of the show. Basically: the music and lyrics = the score; everything else written on the page = the book.

[5] My brief response to this circulating movie idea: Leonardo DiCaprio – who’s apparently spearheading the efforts to convince Bruce to sign off on his cinematic take – may be one of the best actors working today, but that doesn’t make him the best choice to play Bruce. Leo’s talents are seemingly endless, but his brand of acting is not conducive to Bruce’s ‘everyman’ persona. DiCaprio honestly doesn’t feel of this world, and he very rarely gets so lost in a performance that audiences forget they’re watching Leonard DiCaprio. The actor entrusted with this larger-than-life-yet-still-of-this-life portrayal must be a chameleon capable of totally giving himself over to the force of nature that is Bruce’s personality. My pick for the role: Oscar Isaac. AM I CRAZY OR DOES HE LOOK VERY BOSS-LIKE IN THESE PHOTOS:

rs-241071-r1262_fea_oscar_isaac_aoscar-isaac-subway-video-2015-billboard-650

And let’s not forget that Inside Llewelyn Davis proved he’s got the vocal chops (my dream scenario is that he in fact gets cast in the musical since he’s recently started dabbling again in the theatre world, but I’m well aware that’s merely a pipe dream for so many reasons. A BOY CAN DREAM, CAN’T HE?!). Regardless, I’d still want Leo to produce because he has nearly unparalleled artistic instincts for quality projects.

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