BY: ELYSA GARDNER
Some Bruce Springsteen fans surely scratched their heads when it was announced he’d make his Broadway debut, but I wasn’t among them.
As a child, I’d gotten hooked on musical-theater cast recordings before discovering rock & roll. Then, when I first heard Springsteen’s music—in particular, his first blockbuster album, Born To Run, with its soaring melodies and arrangements and vivid stories of American dreamers—it felt as familiar to me as a Rodgers and Hammerstein score. I’d later realize that Springsteen was, in fact, rock’s answer to that greatest of golden-age creative duos: an unapologetic romantic who sees clearly the darkness in life, but chooses to transcend it, musically and spiritually. I figured Springsteen On Broadway might prove my theory.
In case you’re wondering (which I’m sure many of you are), Springsteen On Broadway isn’t a standard musical; there are no characters, just the man himself (joined briefly by wife Patti Scialfa), whose renowned gifts as a storyteller are invested here in one narrative, his own. You might call the show an autobiographical concert, but that second term isn’t quite right either. Certainly, it’s not the kind of concert Springsteen has been delivering for decades in stadiums and arenas, ecstatic rites of communion where the star, his band and their audience are all key players.
When Springsteen arrived onstage at the preview I caught, just before opening night, he actually had to settle the crowd, pressing his hands down like a patient high-school principal till those who had stood to shout out standard greetings—“Bruuuuce!”—were seated and quiet. As he waited, it became clear this would be a night of theater—scripted, unlike his solo shows, and with none of the interactive elements that have crept into concerts in recent years. What followed over the next two hours was unlike anything his followers had seen before, or anything Walter Kerr Theatre regulars likely expected.
Before Springsteen On Broadway went into previews, there had been clues that this would be a unique, and uniquely personal, showcase. The most obvious was Born to Run—not the album, but the memoir that Springsteen published last year, which found the famously private singer/songwriter revealing his own story in prose, though hardly in a prosaic fashion. The book set the tone for this show: reflective, even somber at times, but buoyed by self-effacing humor and by the sheer life force that Springsteen has sustained over more than 40 years in the public eye.
These contrasting qualities became apparent early on, when Springsteen, after joking about his lack of qualifications as a working-class hero—“I’ve never held an honest job in my life,” he quipped—began talking about his parents. Shifting from guitar to piano, as he would throughout the performance, he lyrically remembered a dad as lost and disheartened as any of the characters in his songs, then played “My Father’s House.” An equally touching “The Wish” was next, in tribute to the mother who showed Springsteen how to embrace life; as he put it, “She gave the world a lot more credit than it deserves.”
At other points, Springsteen adapted his talents as a showman and shaman to the intimacy of the work and venue, channeling that old rock & roll hoodoo that makes fans describe his concerts as religious experiences. He used poetic, rhythmic speech to evoke the pleasures of pop music (and other pursuits) and capture the promise of escape it held for him as a young man. Then, after blazing acoustic renditions of “Thunder Road” and “The Promised Land,” he introduced the pain of disillusionment, recalling how he met with Vietnam vets after befriending Born on the Fourth of July author Ron Kovic. Next, he segued into a scathing “Born In the U.S.A.,” with fiery guitar chords and bruised vocals.
Springsteen’s social conscience was very much evident and relayed with a characteristic lack of finger-pointing or self-righteousness—he preached only the gospel of rock & roll—and Springsteen On Broadway tied the political to the personal, and emphasized the latter. While the show isn’t as inclusive in structure as others he’s given, it suggests that his and all our stories are connected in some way. An exhilarating take on the title track of his post-Sept. 11 album The Rising honored not just the firefighter in the song, but the resilience and beauty in American, and human, struggles and triumphs. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” performed in tribute to the late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, became a joyous wake in which Springsteen, for a moment, invited the audience to mourn and celebrate with him.
The takeaway, for me, was that even the most intimate portrait can, in the hands of the right artist, become a communal experience. Theater has shown us this again and again, of course never quite in this way. I’d still like to think that The Boss has a book musical in him, but he’d be hard pressed to deliver something that feels more original, or essential, than this.