Bruce Springsteen concerts in the 1970s and 1980s are fondly remembered as near-operatic affairs, four hours in length, emotionally rich and exhaustive, and loaded with wall-to-wall music (and even an occasional recitative). But a Springsteen opera?
Well, if Darrell Larson and librettist Stephanie Kerley-Schwartz have their way, that's just what Broadway will see in a couple of years: a sung-through musical drama comprising famous and lesser-known tunes by The Boss. Larson is directing and spearheading the project, which is holding auditions next week for workshop readings due in late February. Titled Drive All Night, the piece will have no dialogue, just Springsteen tunes forming a story arc.
"What we're doing is a rock opera," Larson told Playbill On-Line Jan. 17. "We took [Springsteen's] entire catalogue and extrapolated a story told completely in the songs, with minor adjustments. Or, to use a metaphor, we used his catalogue as the lumber to make the table."
Continued Larson, "It's an interesting process to use these songs, to be true to them and make them be dramatic scenes. We always felt he was a unique talent for this treatment because the songs are so story-specific. We then had to turn them in on themselves, though, and let the characters speak to each other. In concert he's very presentational, a guy speaking to the audience. So we had to sort of get inside them and ask them to be scenes instead of songs."
Asked about the plot, Larson said that Drive tells of "Eddie, a guy that screwed up in his early 20s. He was out drifting for ten years and is determined to repair the damage he did. So he comes back to his hometown and hooks up with the woman he loves. Of course, `Meeting Across the River' is in it, which gave us our lead character's name. There's `Thunder Road,' which is where he and Mary make their first big connection; `My Loverman,' which is what Mary has to say before she can forgive him (and maybe the only Springsteen songs written from the point of view of a woman) and `My Beautiful Reward,' where he finally `gets' it." Larson added that other lesser-known tunes in the piece include "The Honeymooners" and "If I Was the Priest." For the work put into the opera so far, Larson concedes it's all for naught if Springsteen doesn't give a thumbs up. "This reading is many steps down the process of letting this be on a stage," said the producer-director. "He has to be pleased with it. He had been open to its development up till now; this will tell the tale whether we'll accept it." Larson added that he doesn't know if The Boss himself will attend the workshop, "but I know he's very interested in it, and I know his people are coming to the reading" — as will a number of well-known commercial producers. As reported by Variety, expected to attend are Anita Waxman, Elizabeth Williams, Tom Viertel, Marc Routh, Steven Baruch and Richard Frankel, the latter providing general management services for the project.
Asked how he made the Springsteen connection to begin with, Larson replied, "In 1996, I did a concert version of `The Wizard of Oz' at Avery Fisher Hall, which was a benefit for the Children's Defense Fund. Jewel played Dorothy, Nathan Lane was the Cowardly Lion, Jackson Browne was the Scarecrow. Turner Networks filmed, aired and underwrote it, and Chuck Plotkin engineered and produced the CD. He's Bruce's longtime producer and engineer, and he's a good friend of the project. So once the idea [for Drive All Night] was coherent, we asked him to take it to Bruce. That was the first `yes.' The next question is will he grant us in writing the right to do a full production? He's interested in seeing his work in another context, so there are better-than-even odds it'll move forward. That we've gotten this far is already a miracle."
Offers are out to some name performers (though not "pop" stars) for the upcoming readings, which are being cast by Bernard Telsey Casting. Patrick Vaccariello (Cabaret) is serving as musical director. "Drive All Night is different from a regular Broadway musical," Larson concluded, "which is why we insist on calling it an opera. It's not slick and sanitized like some of Broadway can be, and it'll be a challenge for some audiences to go with us. But there are people behind the scenes, and money is being spent, even without the guarantee that it'll move forward. Steph and I conceived it together, and we hope this will be on Broadway and on stages around the world."
For his day job, Larson is artistic director of the Culture Project, located at 45 Bleecker Street (in the "45 Bleecker" space) in Manhattan. Recent productions include a return engagement of And God Created Great Whales and the next show, Berkoff Is Back. In September, Culture Project will stage a piece, researched and written by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, about people exonerated from Death Row. Bob Balaban directs the work, which may have a three-week launch at John Jay College before moving down to 45 Bleecker for an extended run. Also in September, Culture Project will stage Adam Rapp's play Faster in their new, flexibly-designed downstairs space, "45 Below."
— By David Lefkowitz