On Broadway: Shows that highlight music beloved by baby boomers, from Springsteen to Jimmy Buffett and Donna Summer

September 14, 2018

There are two queues outside Springsteen on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre. One is a winding line of people waiting to go through TSA-like security. The other is an amorphous scrum by the stage door hoping to glimpse Bruce Springsteen when he arrives.

Its not easy getting a ticket to Springsteens limited Manhattan run or even getting into the theater with a ticket because of its strict rules, including no cellphone usage until the curtain call.

With fewer and fewer original musicals on the horizon, Broadway seems to have figured out a way to attract theatergoers: Turn to well-known music that baby boomers love. Sparked by the enduring success of the Frankie Valli the Four Seasons biography Jersey Boys and the Abba-propelled Mamma Mia, this past Broadway season saw musicals featuring the songs of Jimmy Buffett, Donna Summer and Springsteen.

The formula is working for Broadway the 2017-18 season pulled in $1.7 billion, up 17 percent from the previous season.

Its keeping visitors happy, too, whether they nab tickets to Springsteen on Broadway or follow along as three actresses portray Donna Summer (from child to disco queen to diva supreme) in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.

The Buffett vehicle, Escape to Margaritaville, closed July 1 but will hit the road next year.

Heres a closer look at those three musicals.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

Dance music is an international language. Its got a beat you can dance to in any country. Maybe that explains why so many languages can be heard spoken among the Summer theatergoers at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

The intermission-less show tries hard to create a vintage disco atmosphere with propulsive music, mirrored balls, spinning lights, feverish dancers and silver metallic confetti that Summer-goers will be picking out of their hair and pockets hours after theyve danced the last dance of the night.

Its the story of LaDonna Gaines, who went from a child church vocalist in Boston to the queen of disco and posthumous induction into the Rock Hall of Fame. Theres enough potential drama and female empowerment messages to make for a compelling musical.

However, the show is more satisfying as a jukebox musical than as a biography. The problem is not the conceit of having three different women playing Summer (she married an Austrian with the surname Sommer) at different periods of her life. Actress LaChanze, a 2006 Tony winner for The Color Purple, is diva-licious, perfect for the role, whereas Ariana DeBose as Disco Donna has a less spectacular voice and Storm Lever as Duckling Donna (thats her title in the program to denote childhood) is, well, unmemorable.

While the kinetic disco music, deeply felt ballads and propulsive rock tunes carry the show, the narrative feels facile and incomplete. For instance, Summers huge impact on the gay community is not addressed.

When all three Donnas share the stage for a few numbers, the results are exuberant fun, buoyed by a troupe of dancers who work hard for their money the kind of hot stuff that audiences cant resist. (For tickets and more information, go to thedonnasummermusical.com.)

Springsteen on Broadway

Springsteen on Broadway is an exception to nearly every Broadway rule, which is why it was awarded a special Tony in June.

Its not a jukebox musical, conventional biography or concert. It has its own rules: tight-as-TSA security; no concessions sold during the intermission-less show; no cellphone use during the show or youll be removed. The Boss does allow photos as he takes his bows after the performance.

Springsteen on Broadway is a hugely famous rock star telling his very personal story in conversation, supported by solo songs (rendered on acoustic guitar or piano) that illustrate his autobiography and anecdotes.

The show comes across like performance art. Springsteen, 68, is remarkably dramatic and more strikingly funny in a self-deprecating way than hes ever seemed in concert or interviews.

Hang out by the stage door after the show and you might get an autograph or a cellphone photo. Depending on his mood, Mr. Born to Run might spend 10 minutes or more before escaping into his chauffeur-driven SUV to Jersey.

The sold-out Springsteen on Broadway closes Dec. 15, with a filmed version of it starting on Netflix that night. Will the Boss take the show on the road? No word on that yet. (For tickets and more information, go to brucespringsteen.net/broadway.)

Escape to Margaritaville

People in Hawaiian shirts loitered in the lobby of the Marquis Theatre by one of the tiki bars or island ephemera like surfboards and faux palm trees, taking selfies as if they were at some actual Caribbean getaway.

Like any place associated with Mr. Margaritaville, the lobby offered Buffett-abilia. The bestseller on Broadway: a hibiscus-patterned ball cap for $35.

However, tickets to Escape to Margaritaville didnt exactly sell like cold beer at a beach, closing after only 124 performances. Still, the show could travel well (the tour starts in fall 2019) because the songs and lifestyle of Buffett are beloved by fans, otherwise known as Parrotheads. On the night I saw the show, a man was invited onstage during the encore to propose to his lady friend, using a series of one-liners of Buffett lyrics as beach balls were being batted by the audience.

Escape to Margaritaville, like Mamma Mia, has a fabricated story, about two career-minded young Ohio women who travel to a rundown hotel in the Caribbean for vacation and end up romancing two island slackers, one of whom is a beach-bum singer. The ludicrous story plays out like a should-be-canceled sitcom. Ultimately, the mildly entertaining Escape to Margaritaville is just an excuse to play two dozen Buffett ditties and make inside jokes. (More details at escapetomargaritavillemusical.com.)

Meanwhile, more musicals built around the songs of a superstar are coming. Girl From the North Country, a recent London hit featuring Bob Dylan tunes, opened off Broadway on Tuesday. And The Cher Show, a musical biography, bows on Broadway on Dec. 3 with, like Summer, three different women playing this singular entertainer.

Twitter: @JonBream 612-673-1719

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