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Howard Sherman: Is Broadway finally ready to rock?

Bruce Springsteen, who will be performing on Broadway until February next year. Photo: Andre Luiz Moreira/Shutterstock
Bruce Springsteen, who will be performing on Broadway until February next year. Photo: Andre Luiz Moreira/Shutterstock
Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. He is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts.
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I’ve been hearing about the divergence of popular music and the Broadway musical for my entire life.

Born in the ‘60s and an avid theatregoer since the ‘70s, I can still remember the last vestiges of Broadway songs playing on the so-called Top 40 radio.

Aquarius from Hair and I Don’t Know How To Love Him from Jesus Christ Superstar come to mind, with perhaps a last gasp in the ‘80s from Chess’ One Night in Bangkok.

The idea of the rock musical was on the rise – included those shows – as well as some lesser examples of the form, such as Rockabye Hamlet.

But the majority of the shows called rock musicals were more musical than rock. They nodded towards popular styles, but weren’t likely to appeal to the crowds that were filling ever larger arenas and amassing collections of vinyl and later CD recordings.

The split between popular music and show tunes was largely sealed because of a lack of rock authenticity in the writing – though countless superb musicals in contemporary idioms have emerged in the subsequent decades.

It’s just that we weren’t hearing Sondheim covers alongside New Wave hits on rock radio and Dee Dee Ramone wasn’t writing the score for book musicals.

What has happened, instead, is that popular music – often rock music –  has become Broadway music, rather than the other way around.

It’s what has driven the rise of the jukebox musical and what brought The Who’s Tommy to Broadway in the mid-‘90s, a quarter of a century after its debut on record.

After all, while the songs might be musically or vocally rearranged for a more Broadway sound, their roots were rock and pop.

The shows that have resulted are legion – everything from Jersey Boys to Beautiful to Rock of Ages to American Idiot – and shows about Cher and Donna Summer are coming up fast.

We also now see rock and pop stars writing directly for Broadway, rather than simply having their catalogues mined by producers and book writers.

While some notable attempts failed to last or even reach New York – I think offhand of Paul Simon’s The Capeman, Randy Newman’s Faust and Sting’s The Last Ship – Broadway has long running hits in Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots, Elton John’s The Lion King and Sara Barreilles’ Waitress.

Countless people cautioned me before I saw Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country, with its vivid Bob Dylan score, at The Old Vic, that it was a play with music not a musical.

Yet, the experience I had in the theatre – and the cast recording I brought home – was much closer to the latter, even if its somber story aligns it more with Caroline or Change or Fun Home than with Hello Dolly.

Though his grounding is in musical theatre tradition, Lin-Manuel Miranda pulled off the feat of bringing original hip-hop, rap and R&B to the Broadway musical.

He did it at such a high level of authenticity that it has proven massively successful both on stage and as recorded music. So much so, it has even yielding a companion covers album by many of the artists Miranda echoes and admires, The Hamilton Mixtape.

Instead of softening Hamilton for broader appeal, the musical styling gave it even more street cred, as if that was necessary, in contrast to the once popular reinterpretations of Hair by The Cowsills and Aquarius by The 5th Dimension.

I ponder this as one of the most singular voices in American rock music of the past 40 years, Bruce Springsteen, begins his unprecedented solo run on Broadway.

Rockers from Duran Duran to Elvis Costello have played short Broadway bookings, while Springsteen’s songs were also put to theatrical use indelibly some 30 years ago in the Steppenwolf-Circle Rep production of Lanford Wilson’ Balm in Gilead. But this is altogether different.

The poet laureate of New Jersey is truly taking up residence in a show of his devising, incorporating both songs and stories.

It is possible to look at the Springsteen stint as the Broadway-isation of the pop and rock concerts that long ago colonised our public television network, especially during periods in which donations are solicited.

But, I find myself wondering whether it could be the next iteration of the long, slow and often uncertain dance between Broadway and rock, a further reconciliation of divergent paths in music and theatre.

I’m reminded of Ray Davies’ theatrical tour some two decades ago. He performed stripped-down Kinks hits alongside readings from his newly released autobiography X-Ray, and was one of the most satisfying and intimate evenings of music and autobiographical drama I’ve had the privilege of experiencing.

I don’t know that I’ll have the same privilege when it comes to seeing Springsteen on Broadway, though I live in hope and enter the lottery for $75 seats daily.

But, I’m sure there are lots of people in both the theatre and rock music fields who will be watching the Springsteen closely, not merely as eager fans, but as artists and business people.

They will all be wondering whether Bruce, especially in the wake of Hamilton, is indeed at the start of a new era – and that together, rock and Broadway are at last born to run and run and run.

This week in US theatre

One of the foundational sitcoms in US history, The Honeymooners, has been in development as a musical for years, with productions announced and then pulled.

It at last reaches the stage at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, opening Sunday night, with a book by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss, music by Stephen Weiner and lyrics by Peter Mills, under the direction of John Rando.

The estimable Michael McGrath takes on the role of bus driver Ralph Kramden, created by Jackie Gleason more than 60 years ago.

Ten years after its US debut at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Brian Friel’s The Home Place reaches New York this week, opening Sunday night Off-Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theatre. The company’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, directs.

Elevator Repair Service, the inventive company behind an acclaimed trio of literary adaptations, including the marathon Gatz, turns its attention to Shakespeare this week at The Public Theatre with its version of Measure for Measure.

It opens Tuesday under the direction of the company’s artistic director, John Collins, in a production that marketing materials boast as having “athletic theatricality and Marx-Brothers-inspired slapstick.”

As discussed above, Springsteen on Broadway opens on Thursday, as critics case the promised land. The doors open, but the ride it ain’t free. Still, I’m dying to take that long walk.

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