How Regina Spektor's Broadway Residence Redefines The Concert Experience

Is this the future of live performance?

By Caitlin Wolper

"It's fucking Broadway!" Regina Spektor shouted gleefully, disbelievingly, on the final night of her five-show run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater last week. Centerstage at the piano, Spektor didn’t look much different than if she was playing an average concert. But this particular show was anything but average.

Spektor's Broadway residency, which ran in late June, is one among many notable entries in the theater's In Residence on Broadway series: Past residents have included The Smiths's Morrissey, Mel Brooks, and Yanni. As soon as the series was announced in March, the question immediately arose — what does a musician do on Broadway?

The best comparison to a Broadway residency is probably the jukebox musical, which relies on an existing body of music — often pop or rock hits from a single artist — as the show's soundtrack. The expectations for a jukebox show — like Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which ran at the Lunt-Fontanne just before their residency series began — are simple: Fans come because they love the music. It's far more likely to see the audience singing along, bopping in their seat, or standing up and dancing at their seats by the final number. And while these musicals don't star the musicians they highlight, the Broadway conventions of story, actors, set design, and costumes remain.

But here, at Regina's strange hybrid show, no one really knew how to behave. The woman to my right recorded songs on her phone, which vexed the man to my left. The crowd called out their admissions of love between songs — common for a Spektor show — but in the sophisticated, chandeliered theater, it came off almost rude. After the first song, Spektor let us know that her keyboardist's wife had given birth that very morning, and led us in a large scream in the baby's honor, because as she said, babies enter the world screaming because they already realize how fucked up everything is. It was decidedly more casual than your typical Broadway show.

Still, this setting also gives artists the chance to expand on their repertoire. There's a good reason residencies are generally given to artists with extensive careers: They can bring a crowd, and they're ready to experiment with their older work. Springsteen on Broadway, which ran at the nearby Walter Kerr Theatre for 14 months between 2017 and 2018, showed the potential longevity of such a concept.

Here, threads in Spektor's became clearer to me than ever before: Primarily, the intense politicism of her lyrics ("They made it past the enemy lines / Just to become enslaved on the assembly lines" in "Blue Lips" or "What a strange, strange world we live in / Where the good are damned and the wicked forgiven" in "The Trapper and the Furrier.") Sitting in a theater changed not just how she performed, but how I listened: More intently, sure, but more analytically, too — I hadn't actually sat at a concert, or been so unbothered by those around me at a concert, in years.

"The first thing that I did was opened up all the songs — because I have been writing songs for, I don't know, 20 years?" Spektor told Rolling Stone ahead of the residency's run. "A lot of them I played in bars and cafes maybe a couple of times in my life, and I just didn't ever play them again. I want to create these little moments in the show that are sort of like my old New York, on the Lower East Side playing those songs. Thank God for the people who used to come and tape my shows, and put them up on the internet!"

That intimacy lent the residency itself a "special event" quality. The exclusivity of a limited engagement brought some of Spektor's friends out of the woodwork: Every night, she brought out a guest, among them Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Folds. (Her husband, Only Son's Jack Dishel, also made an appearance both to play guitar and harmonize on their track "Call Them Brothers.")

Perhaps more notable than the special guests were the dancers. While not uncommon to a concert, they're usually reserved for Top-40 pop stars, not a solo, seated vocalist-pianist. Spektor employed contemporary and tap for a handful of songs, and the difference in those songs was enormous. Once a dancer came onstage, her focus — which is usually on the microphone — expanded outward: Her often internal performance transformed into a communicative, communal experience. Most importantly, the story of a given song took shape through movement instead of through music and lyrics alone. Even the track "Silly Eye Color Generalizations," usually performed a cappella, took on a brand new life as she danced goofily alongside tap dancer Caleb Teicher, whose movement emulated the song's hokiness.

But to have a Broadway residency — or to simply perform a concert in this sort of classical theater space — presents certain qualifications. First, the barrier to entry: The cheapest ticket — "We see you from the cheap seats!" a fan shouted, referencing Spektor's What We Saw From the Cheap Seats album — with fees, came out to $78.45. (For a comparison, a GA ticket to see her at Brooklyn Steel in August cost $59.50.) While for an act like Spektor, this price isn't surprising (she has 20-plus years of experience behind her), it can be exclusionary if the residency concert model extended to comparatively newer artists.

Another qualification is the genre itself. Spektor's music, once deemed "anti-folk" but now falling in the genre-free realm of poppy, offbeat, singer-songwriter-pianist, fits neatly with tap and modern dance, as well as the small band of strings, keys, and drums behind her. Her music — notably songs like "All the Rowboats," "Us," and "Aprés Moi" — has an orchestral quality that felt in place both with the classical dancers and the venue itself.

In most ways, the residency was a glorified concert. The lighting was gorgeous, the sound pristine. Fake snow, a Broadway specialty, fell lightly as Spektor closed the show with love ballad "Samson." Overall, the experience was best when the boundaries of "concert" were pushed, offering a hint at what a Broadway concert might look like in the future — a performance that recontextualizes the work it performs.

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