All the press of late about recording stars on Broadway has been about Bruce Springsteen and David Byrne — and for good reason. Those two shows energized audiences and possibly brought to the Great White Way an audience who might never have thought to touch foot in a Broadway theater.
But Springsteen and Byrne were far from the first to put the Broadway spotlight solely on their music.
Going into the way-back machine, one learns that Bette Midler in 1975 was way ahead of the boys. Granted, Midler’s Clams on the Half Shell Revue was billed more concert than biography or political statement. Check that, it is up to interpretation whether her unique, sassy, sometimes raunchy, OK, damn raunchy sexual style of performing was biography or partisan message. That said, her show ran 80 performances from April to June 1975 after a Broadway debut more than a year earlier in Fiddler on the Roof. She also has had two other concert performances on Broadway and won a Tony Award® in 2017 for Hello Dolly.
Another memorable Broadway concert residency was Lena Horne’s revelatory The Lady and Her Music. Showcasing her life from her showbiz roots through then-present day 1981 (she died in 2010), the iconic African-American singer spoke to the racism and criticism she encountered. For example, Hollywood producers said she opened her mouth too wide when she sang and, saying she didn’t appear dark enough on screen, formulated makeup for her called “Light Egyptian” that she said was used on actresses Hedy Lamarr and Ava Gardner which got them roles Horne could have tested for and possibly gotten.
In 2017, Springsteen on Broadway began an initial four-month engagement that ended up being more than a year. Broadway was an unlikely venue for the Jersey Boy who was used to filling arenas and stadiums with devotees who sing every word and punctuate his shows with yelling “Bruuuuuuuuce” frequently. A 900-seat theater created a quiet, intimate setting for stories pulled from his autobiography Born To Run.
The stories he told demonstrated the arc of his life and work and allowed attendees to slip behind the mask Springsteen says he presents to the world. He called himself a phony for writing about factory workers when he’s “never held an honest job in my entire life … I made it all up.” The myth-busting stories were buffeted by hits and less-played songs with him on guitar or piano. In more than a few instances, he reportedly told the audience not to sing or clap along – a reminder that this was far from a typical Springsteen show. He spoke candidly about his parents – his adoring mother and sometimes difficult dad. He also gave the audience what it craved regarding his late soulmate and bandmate Clarence Clemmons. “Clarence was elemental, a force of nature in my life.”
While in his Broadway run Springsteen’s reflections seemed to be aligning things inside himself, David Byrne’s American Utopia seems to be a look at what is around him. It is part uproarious party with just the right amount social commentary, according to critics.
Those familiar with Byrne’s Talking Heads days might have a slight sense of déjà vu harkening back to the band’s concert film Stop Making Sense. American Utopia opens with Byrne on stage in a gray suit alone while as the first song progresses, like in the movie, backup singers and band members, dressed in matching garb, join him on stage.
That’s where the similarities end, with Byrne and his barefoot cast singing songs from his American Utopia album, as well as several Talking Heads hits. More than a concert performance, it presents as performance art – a celebration of inclusion – with a side salad social-political criticism. Byrne, an immigrant of Scotland, expresses views on the United States, the concept of “a perfect life” and how important it is to be an active, political participant.
Springsteen on Broadway is available on Netflix. Byrne’s American Utopia ended its initial run in February and is scheduled to return in the fall for another 17 weeks. Due to the COVID-19’s shutdown of Broadway, no information is yet available on the show’s status.
Next: There are just as many recording artists – from Elton John to Cyndi Lauper – behind the scenes on Broadway, we’ll discuss them next week.