As recording artists grapple with the low-yield streaming era, there’s been a surge of creativity off record — in pumped-up concert staging, film scoring, musical theater, memoir-writing. Flexing the storytelling skills he’s flaunted in songs and concert banter for decades, Bruce Springsteen rose to the moment with his 2016 autobiography Born to Run and the subsequent Springsteen on Broadway, his (mostly) one-man meta-jukebox-musical, which ends its year-plus New York City run this month. It’s now both a Netflix film and 2.5 hour soundtrack LP — a model of modern, multi-platform art-making, both for its success and for the quality of each iteration.
The LP was produced, like the film, before an audience at the Walter Kerr Theater, a precise replica of the stage show, in turn based closely on the book: the Foreword, rejigged, is the opening monologue; narrative segments mirror chapters. The result is by turns audiobook, podcast, and live album, and at its most potent when it becomes a hybrid of the three.
It does this straightaway with “Growing Up,” the abstracted coming-of-age tale from Springsteen’s 1973 debut, here a 12-minute sprawl of talking blues, cabaret spiel, pulpit pounding and stand-up. He sings a verse, then veers into an account of his rock and roll conversion and success as a 7-year-old Elvis Presley mime, with well-honed dramatic pauses, while fingerpicking the looped melody on his acoustic. Then he veers into the next verse. Rather than thwarting the song’s momentum, he transforms it, stories and song building off each other.
He does it again, to devastating effect, on “My Father’s House” — blowing harmonica, singing with trembling gravity, then recounting a dream of watching himself perform on stage in front of thousands of people while crouched alongside his dad. Springsteen touches his arm, and says “That guy on stage — that’s how I see you.” I’ve wept every time I’ve heard it.
Eventually things settle into an acoustic Bruce show, like those on the 1995-97 Devils and Dust tour, setlist optimized towards the autobiographical. Springsteen on Broadwayreprises that tour’s “Born In The U.S.A.” (see Dublin ‘96) — reframing with 12-string acoustic as a bottleneck blues, part Leadbelly, part Fred McDowell, and reclaiming its protest-song birthright. The show also revisits “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” with a speech decrying people in “in the highest offices in our land” who “want to destroy the idea of an America for all.”
The heart of Springsteen on Broadway isn’t politics, however. It’s about family and love, the struggle to escape your roots and own them. Springsteen recites the Lord’s Prayer — seared into his memory through reluctant years in Catholic school — and ends the show with his own prayer: “Born to Run.” He caps it with the sound of a heartbeat, tapping it out with his hand on the body of his acoustic guitar, until it falls silent. It’s a better metaphor for his life’s work than anything I could write here.