From Stage to Stream, "The Boss" Remains a Master Storyteller

Friday, January 11, 2019

by Jeffrey Martin '04, '05 (M.A.)

With 19 top-10 hits, 20 Grammy Awards and millions upon millions of concert tickets sold, there’s no question that Bruce Springsteen is a well-liked musician. But the new Netflix special “Springsteen on Broadway,” which treats fans to a performance from his year-plus residency at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, shows a different side of Springsteen: the skilled rhetorician.

“The special shows Springsteen at his most comfortable and confident,” says William Wolff, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication studies. “The one-man show approach allows him to show off as a storyteller.”

Wolff, who saw the show live on Broadway twice, is the editor of a collection of scholarly essays looking at the ways that Springsteen presents himself and his music to the world. He says that early performances were carefully scripted and done verbatim from a teleprompter, but as time passed, Springsteen became more free-flowing and used his platform and his stories to effect change, an approach he has been known for throughout his career.

“In June, when the news came out about families being separated at the border, Springsteen added ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ to the setlist and never took it out for the rest of the run,” Wolff says, noting that the song is about migrant workers and was inspired by John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath. “And it’s not the quiet, folksy version you’re used to. It’s angry.”

There’s a difference, Wolff notices, between the shows he saw and the version that can be streamed in your living room, and it’s not just because it’s not as intimate, or that the sound from your television can’t compete with that of a Broadway theater.

“Maybe it’s because he’s aware of the global potential audience provided by the camera, but he’s more demonstrative in his presentation,” Wolff says. “The words are the same, but the focus is changed. He frames these stories about himself in the context of a community and what it means to be a citizen.”

Wolff’s research on Springsteen was the subject of a story in a recent issue of “Intellect,” the College of Arts and Sciences research magazine.

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