A little over four minutes into Bruce’s Springsteen‘s Broadway show, he stops playing the opening song, “Growin’ Up,” and speaks to the crowd, his voice entirely unamplified. “I have never held an honest job in my entire life,” he says in a near-shout. “I’ve never worked nine to five. I’ve never done any hard labor, and yet is all that I’ve written about.”
With last year’s myth-shattering, deeply evocative memoir Born to Run, Springsteen introduced readers to the real, vulnerable, complex human being behind his larger-than-life persona. Springsteen on Broadway, at the 975-seat Walter Kerr theater, is in many ways a live version of the book, even if reports that he’d be “reading” from it aren’t quite right: Most of the extensive spoken-word segments are brand new or heavily altered from the book versions. It’s clear from the beginning that this is nothing like a typical latter-day Springsteen concert, where set lists can vary wildly from night to night and Bruce often has little to say between songs. There’s no room for his usual athleticism here – Springsteen just shuffles a few feet between a piano on stage left and a microphone at center stage. The intensity is, instead, emotional, as Springsteen digs hard into the bedrock of his life story, and ours: childhood, religion, work, death. The performance is hard to categorize. It’s not a concert; not a typical one-man-show; certainly not a Broadway musical. But it is one of the most compelling and profound shows by a rock musician in recent memory.
The skills it takes to stage this show didn’t spring out of nowhere. In the Seventies and early Eighties, Springsteen would often tell mesmerizing, carefully crafted stories onstage, pausing songs for as long as 10 minutes to do so. In 1990, he played his first full-length solo acoustic shows at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, debuting radically stripped-down renditions of his songs, plus personal revelations (he told the crowd he’d been in therapy) – those two shows were among his most sought-after bootlegs for years afterwards. Springsteen went on to pursue this side of his art with two solo acoustic tours, in support of 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad and 2005’s Devils and Dust.
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His past acoustic shows largely eschewed his biggest hits, however, while the Broadway show uses them to tell his story. “Thunder Road” takes on a new life when he introduces it with an account of the night he and some friends left his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, for Asbury Park, loading up the few things he owned into a flatbed truck and taking off down the highway. “The ocean breezes of the shore were calling to me,” he says, in a passage similar to one in his book. “I lay back and watched the tree branches rush above me and above them the stars scrolling in the night sky and I remember I felt absolutely wonderful.”
The same is true for the “The Promised Land,” paired with a story of driving across America with his first manager in a crazed three-day stretch to make a New Year’s Eve gig near San Francisco in 1969. He walks away from the mic for the entire last verse, giving the audience an unforgettable gift: Bruce Springsteen, singing directly to them, nothing in between.
Overall, the show’s inherent lack of spontaneity will be a little jarring for those that have followed Bruce for decades, especially when it becomes clear he’s reading much of his dialogue from a large teleprompter suspended above the audience. But there’s an incredible power to sitting so close from him while he strums a guitar or noodles around on the piano and tells his life story in rich detail, down to the green felt of his first guitar case when he was a kid. Each segment is designed for maximum emotional impact, and time and time again he reflects on his own mortality.
There’s no intermission, but the show is divided roughly into two parts. The first traces his life from early childhood through his days leading bar bands in Asbury Park, New Jersey. “My Hometown” brings forth an ode to his hometown of Freehold, while “My Father’s House” and the rarity “The Wish” (a sweet song about his mother, debuted at those 1990 acoustic shows) offer him a chance to speak about both of his parents in loving but clear-eyed detail. About halfway through, Springsteen abandons a strictly chronological structure, and turns to a more thematic approach. A mournful version of “Born in the U.S.A.” gives him a chance to state, once more, that the much-misunderstood smash is a “protest song, a G.I. blues.” He moves over to the piano for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” to speak about his E Street bandmates, giving special attention to his bond with the late Clarence Clemons. “I still carry the story the Big Man whispered in my ear and the Big Man in my heart every night when I walk onstage,” he says. “Clarence was elemental, a force of nature in my life.”
Patti Scialfa comes out of the wings to lock voices with her husband on “Brilliant Disguise” and “Tougher Than the Rest,” preceded by the story of the 1984 night they met at the Stone Pony. He even plays a little bit of the song he saw her perform that evening. “She got onstage and sang the Exciters’ ‘Tell Him,'” says Bruce. “The first line she sang was ‘I know something about love.’ She does.”
Springsteen has said that he’s uninterested in addressing Trump in song, but he couldn’t have left the stage without bringing up the current state of America. “Today we’re dealing with young men in torch-light parades calling on the ugliest ghosts of our past,” he says. “And suddenly your neighbors and countrymen look like complete strangers to you. Martin Luther King said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I think that’s true. I believe that it is true. I believe that what we’re seeing now is just a bad chapter in the ongoing battle for the soul of the nation.”
He follows it with “The Rising” and “Long Walk Home,” two songs written in the George W. Bush era, though the latter tune’s themes of an America drifting far from its ideals resonates in disturbing ways today. The mood lightens with “Dancing in the Dark” (“In hard times,” Springsteen says, “put on your dancing shoes”), “Land of Hope and Dreams” and the finale of “Born to Run,” in a return to the solo arrangement he used on the Tunnel of Love Express Tour back in 1988.
Some of Springsteen’s more impatient hardcore fans may grumble that he hasn’t released an album of new material in five years (2014’s “High Hopes” consisted mostly of songs written in the previous decade). Springsteen on Broadway is a fresh, powerful artistic achievement in its own right – a man who’s a couple of years away from his 70th birthday confronting his past and putting it all into a new and unique context. But it’s still hard not to hope that a great new album is next, and that there are still plenty of chapters left to write in this singular life story.