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WSW: Playwrights Capture The "Exuberance" And "Theatrical" Work Of Bruce Springsteen

Cover of the book When the Promise Was Broken: Short Plays Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen from Smith and Kraus Publishers
Smith and Kraus Publishers

Two Kalamazoo area playwrights say the idea for a book of plays inspired by the songs of Bruce Springsteen was first hatched “six or seven years ago.” It finally took off when the chair of Western Michigan University’s Theater Department said “then do it.”

The book When the Promise Was Broken: Short Plays Inspired by the songs of Bruce Springsteen is a collection of 13 plays. It was edited by WMU Theater Department Chair Joan Herrington. She, along with two playwrights, Steve Feffer and Tucker Rafferty, spoke with WMUK's Gordon Evans. A discussion of the book and live readings of three of the plays will be presented Thursday November 8th at Bookbug in Kalamazoo.

Herrington says they started soliciting plays from playwrights, not knowing if they were Bruce Springsteen fans. She says the two typical responses were “you must be insane” or “this is the thing I’ve been waiting for my entire life.” 

We "either got a resounding 'you must be insane', or an even more resounding, 'this is the thing I've been waiting for my entire life.'"

Rafferty calls Springsteen’s work very theatrical. Rafferty, who teaches theater writing and improv for KRESA’s Education for the Arts, says “you get to know these characters in the three minute song and you want to know more about them.” Feffer says Springsteen’s storytelling skills go beyond his song lyrics. the Western English Professor, who teaches playwriting and drama, says great stories are also told from the stage during his live performances.

Herrington says there is a range among the plays. Some of them are very close to the story in the song that inspired them. She says others venture farther away from the story and the characters. Glad for the Company written by Rafferty is inspired by the song Nebraska, which itself is an adaptation of the movie Badlands.

The song Nebraska and the movie Badlands are based on the story of Charles Starkweather, who murdered 11 people over an eight day period in 1958. Rafferty says two things he wanted to focus is that the character “Charlie” is headed to the electric chair, and that he’s not sorry for his actions. The song Nebraska is played on acoustic guitar and harmonica. All of the songs on the album of the same name have sparse arrangements. Rafferty says he was going for a similar “stripped down” feeling to his play with only one character talking the entire time.

"There's such an exuberance to the shows that he plays, to some of the songs, and I really wanted my play to capture that"

Steve Feffer’s play Growin’ Up or I was a Teenage Bruce Springsteen is inspired by a live version of the song Growin’ Up played in Cleveland in 1978. It includes a long section in the middle where Springsteen tells a long story of his teenage years and difficulty at Catholic school. Feffer says he wanted to capture the impossibility that a kid from Freehold, New Jersey can grow up to be one of the world’s biggest stars. Feffer says "there's such an exuberance to the shows that he plays, to some of the songs, and I really wanted my play to capture that"

The Title of the book When the Promise was Broken is a lyric from the song the Promise. Rafferty says he was disappointed that for years the song was not released, but only played live in concert. Feffer says it represents a time in Springsteen’s career when he was tied up in legal disputes and wondering if he might never record again. Feffer says that led Springsteen to channel his energy into live performance. 

"I think real big Bruce fans like the deeper cuts more than the ones that get played on the radio."

While some of the plays are based on fairly well known songs, big hits like Born to Run, Dancing in the Dark and Thunder Road are not represented in the book. Rafferty says “I think real big Bruce fans like the deeper cuts more than the ones that get played on the radio.”

Herrington says Springsteen’s permission was not needed to publish the book, but she did talk to his management team. Herrington says you can publish a book inspired by other work, but she says you can’t quote the lyrics beyond a certain point. Feffer says he originally quoted stories that Bruce Springsteen told during his live performance at the Agora in Cleveland in 1978. At that point it was only a bootleg recording, but then the live show was released. Feffer had to change his play so it was not quoting as directly.

Asked if there has been any feedback from Springsteen or his management, Herrington says not yet. But a book launch is scheduled for November 15th in New York where Springsteen is currently performing on Broadway.

Gordon Evans became WMUK's Content Director in 2019 after more than 20 years as an anchor, host and reporter. A 1990 graduate of Michigan State, he began work at WMUK in 1996.
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