'Springsteen on Broadway': Theater Review
In this thrilling live companion piece to his best-selling autobiography 'Born to Run,' Bruce Springsteen looks back via his writings and music on the forces that shaped him.
It seems strange to call a show generous when its average ticket price is close to $500, but a strong sense of giving back suffuses every minute of Springsteen on Broadway, the blockbuster musical memoir in which an artist accustomed to commanding arenas of 30,000 seats or more scales down his act for less than 1,000 people a night. Bruce Springsteen digs deep into his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run, as well as 15 songs from across his back catalog, weaving together a beautifully crafted reflection on his life, his career and his country, and reinventing even some last-chance-power-drive anthems as hymns of quiet introspection.
A rigorously disciplined performer still in fine, expressive voice and great physical shape at 68, Springsteen could very conceivably continue touring and producing new music for another decade or more. And yet this intimate, quasi-acoustic bio-concert — with the Boss alone on stage for the duration, playing guitar or piano and occasional harmonica, joined on just two numbers by his wife, Patti Scialfa — has the distinct feel of a thoughtfully conceived legacy show.
That in itself seems ironic for a performer whose fame was built in large part on high-energy, three-hour barnburners in front of ecstatic stadium crowds. While Springsteen concludes his stirring opener here, "Growin' Up," with an almost jokey touch of windmill guitar, there are definitely no knee slides, jumps or stage dives in this subdued two-hour set. There is, however, a robust narrative shape, a deceptively rambling but cohesive vision of personal and professional experience that makes the "written and directed by Bruce Springsteen" credit more than legitimate. Removing most of the physicality from his performance also shifts the focus more squarely back to the rich literary qualities of his songwriting, fortifying a kinship with other iconic American singers like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.
Springsteen's entire career has been a balancing act between being a rock 'n' roll star and an authentic, blue-collar family man from Freehold, New Jersey, a dichotomy explored with candor and eloquence in his book. He continues to show us what's behind the act in Springsteen on Broadway from the moment he ambles on from the wings, wearing regulation black jeans and T-shirt. The stage is bare aside from assorted touring equipment cases and the cocooning cloak of Natasha Katz's lighting. "I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a little fraud," he says early in the show, making a winking acknowledgement that while he's never worked an "honest job" in his life, he's written about almost nothing else.
Shutting down the audience's worshipful chorus of "Bruce! Bruce! Bruce!" simply by launching into his opening monologue, Springsteen proceeds to dissect the requirements of his profession, ending with the mystery ingredient of a "magic trick," revealed at the close of the show. That intro, threaded in and out of "Growin' Up," establishes that he will be sticking to a script, and won't be distracted by the shouts of adoring fans. Only late in the first press-night performance, as he eased into "Dancing in the Dark" — a song you've heard a million times but probably never with the unexpected depth it acquires here — did he interact directly to hush the sing-along, clap-along faction, saying, "I'll handle this myself."
If that sounds like curt star behavior, it wasn't. Rather, it was a gentle admonition to remind the audience that Springsteen was up there to tell a story in which every nuance of every song has been carefully considered. Nor does it mean the show lacks warmth and spontaneity. Even if much of the spoken content is lifted intact or condensed from his autobiography, Springsteen's ownership of the material makes every word a private exchange with every last person in the theater, no less than when he steps away from the microphone stand for brief stretches and sings unamplified.
The show follows a more or less chronological biographical arc, starting with his binding physical roots ("My Hometown"), the influence of his emotionally distant, depressed father ("My Father's House") and his cheerfully gregarious mother ("The Wish"). The anecdotes and song choices work together hand in glove, shifting with ease from humor to sadness to unabashed sentimentality, from sculpted prose to blunt plainspeak.
Springsteen gets nostalgic about the singular thrill of being young and leaving someplace, admitting, "I miss the beauty of the blank page and its endless possibilities." And the unmistakable opening harmonica bars of "Thunder Road" lead into a more melancholy, stripped-down take on that hit, evoking the impossibility of going back to recapture those feelings. He revisits his early travels across America and the beginnings of his love affair with the desert in "The Promised Land." Then in a haunting reimagining of "Born in the U.S.A." he recalls the profound impact of visiting a Southern California veterans' center, reflecting on his own luck in avoiding Vietnam, while confessing the burden of knowing somebody else went in his place.
The formation of what would become the definitive E Street Band lineup yields the show's emotional high point, as Springsteen exults like a beat poet in "the essential equation of love and art and rock 'n' roll … when one plus one equals three." Emulating the sneaky sax riffs of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" at the piano, Springsteen pays loving tribute to his late bandmate Clarence Clemons ("We were two of the baddest asses on the planet"), generating a deafening roar from the audience when he gets to the lyric, "And the Big Man joined the band."
The effusive appreciation of that friendship builds a perfect bridge to Scialfa's entrance. She provides gorgeous harmonies on "Tougher Than the Rest," with Springsteen on piano, before they move to center stage for a heart-melting guitar duet on "Brilliant Disguise."
Springsteen touches on politics only briefly in the show, with a solemn mention of the recent resurgence of torch-bearing racial hatred: "I believe that what we're seeing now is just a bad chapter in the ongoing battle for the soul of the nation." That leads into perhaps the most resonant songs in the show, an impassioned "Long Walk Home," followed by "The Rising," which Springsteen imbues with the transcendent spirit of a revivalist preacher, the "dream of life" refrain becoming a universal prayer. There's a similar gospel power surging through "Land of Hope and Dreams," with its mantra-like exhortation to board "this train" underscoring the role of every great rock show to be a collective experience.
That song carries us back full-circle with Springsteen to his boyhood home, and while there's no more hackneyed word than "journey" in discussing popular entertainment, here it's a tailored fit. While many theater-makers would have felt the urge to splash projections across the rear wall, providing visual cues along the way, Springsteen draws us into his world using only his words, lyrics, melodies and expert modulation of mood. The show is a model of finely chiseled simplicity, by turns contemplative, moving and joyous. It closes, naturally, with "Born to Run." In keeping with an evening in which so many well-known tracks are given fresh life, that timeless declaration about escaping the ordinary to taste life and love and danger becomes also a soulful reaffirmation of home, ending with a heartbeat tapped out on the body of a guitar.
The four-month run is pretty much sold out, but anyone lucky enough to catch Springsteen on Broadway will be witnessing rock history. Everyone else can hope for a live recording.
Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York
With: Bruce Springsteen, Patty Scialfa
Director-writer: Bruce Springsteen
Set designer: Heather Wolensky
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Presented by Jon Landau, George Travis