Music News & Reviews

Bruce Springsteen’s songs become world-premiere opera in Kentucky

Jessica Agro, Morgan Spaulding, Olivia Barb and Treysia Jackson sang back up vocals while rehearsing “The Promised Land.”
Jessica Agro, Morgan Spaulding, Olivia Barb and Treysia Jackson sang back up vocals while rehearsing “The Promised Land.” spompeii@herald-leader.com

Fans of Bruce Springsteen’s more anthemic songs likely view them as operatic in their sense of human drama.

Staples like “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Badlands” and “The Promised Land,” all tunes made as the New Jersey rocker’s career skyrocketed during the latter half of the ‘70s, were tales of youth and restlessness. Blue collard strife, domestic and romantic angst and a yearning quest for personal identity overwhelmed in these songs, not to mention a blast of rock ‘n’ roll might every bit as robust as the narratives.

But what happens when you place those songs within an actual operatic setting — meaning the creation of a storyline that unites Springsteen’s songs and characters in a way that they become a musical.

That’s what the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre is doing this summer by way of an eight week course that doubles as a rehearsal period for a world premiere workshop production of “The Promised Land,” a new musical based on Springsteen’s songs.

What is, in effect, the course’s final exam will double as a full staging of the project. It culminates on the last day of UK’s summer session, with a free performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts. (The performance is free, but tickets, all of which have been distributed, are required.)

“We were looking for summer programming at UK Opera Theatre that would allow students to get credit in the summer and graduate on time, but also do something that would be practical and meaningful for their futures,” said Courtney A. Reed, director of education and community development for UK Opera Theatre as well as the stage director for “The Promised Land.”

“They need a classroom setting, but they also need to get some practical experience.”

The production utilizes Springsteen songs with a book by Adam Mac (who also arranged the music) and Alex Wyatt. It emphasizes characters out of those songs to create a unifying storyline.

Unlike rock opera/musicals like “Rent” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” where the music was composed with a stage production in mind, “The Promised Land” attempts to forge a stage work from music that existed as songs composed for a record album, much in the manner of “The Who’s’ Tommy” and Green Day’s “American Idiot” were realized out of existing material.

“I think that’s what makes this so special. The creators were definitely inspired by those pieces, particularly, ‘The Who’s Tommy’ and ‘American Idiot.’ But they did something truly unique in that they found characters through Springsteen’s songs they were able to connect and provide a beautiful journey.

“I think the most relatable rock musical would probably be ‘American Idiot,’ in the sense the producers and the creators told a story around the music,” Reed said. “One thing I would say that is special about this piece is that it truly dives deep into character development, relationships and conflicts as well as the resolution these characters have through the story they created.”

While veteran audiences may readily relate to Springsteen’s compositions, many of the students engaged in “The Promised Land” are more than a generation removed from when the songs were first recorded in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“This has been a charming aspect of the production,” Reed said. “A lot of them have parents or family who were playing Bruce’s records in their home or the car. So they do know who he is in that aspect.

“But the majority of them didn’t know the magnitude of his influence in rock music or his direct relationship to the music they’re listening to now. Today, the majority of the artists that they like were influenced by Springsteen in some way.”

During the first week of the class, the show’s creators came to Lexington to talk the students about the project. Adam Max spent time on the meaning of the project and Alex Wyatt spent time on who Springsteen is.

“I think that was a huge eye opener for them, to understand the magnitude of his work. Since then, they have been researching his music and his concerts, because his concerts are truly productions in the best sense possible,” Reed said.

While Thursday’s presentation of “The Promised Land,” is a world premiere, it is also very much a workshop production. Costuming and sets will be minimal, although the cast will get musical support from the Johnson Brothers Band, a longtime Lexington ensemble specializing in recreating established rock works for a live setting. Max and Wyatt will also be attending tonight’s performance and will participate in a post-show question and answer session with the audience.

“This is a premiere piece in a workshop sense,” Reed said “It’s the first actual performance. We’re calling it a presentation because it’s very stripped down. We don’t have the production budget we would have for regular shows. This is the first time where actors are actually taking it out of the binder and on to the stage to really form these characters and tell their stories.”

Follow up: Walter Tunis' commentary on "The Promised Land" performance.

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com

If you go

‘The Promised Land’

When: 7:30 p.m. August 11

Where: Singletary Center for the Arts Recital Hall

Admission: Sold out

Call: 859-257-9331

Online: www.ukoperatheatre.org

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