Let me get this out of the way immediately: Bruce Springsteen is one of my heroes. He’d also be on my short list of ultimate dinner party guests (along with Paul McCartney, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Barack Obama). So it was special to see him in a 1000 seat venue as opposed to a 20,000 seat arena or a 70,000 seat stadium. No screens, no special effects, no mighty E Street Band, just Bruce, an acoustic guitar, a piano, and sometimes not even a microphone.
Bruce is listed as performer, writer and director in the Playbill (this is his Broadway debut-love it!). The performance is certainly not a conventional concert, nor is it a musical play. The concept was based on Bruce’s autobiography but it is not a linear retelling of his life story from beginning to end.
He tells us about different parts of his life, punctuated and illuminated by songs that pertain to the stories, sometimes directly, sometimes more obliquely.At times Springsteen was ruefully introspective. He confessed that the man who made his career writing about the working man had never done an honest day’s work in his life. And that when he drove cross country for the first time, the man who would go on to write ‘Racing in the Streets” had never driven a car.
The musical performances, as you could expect, were wonderful. It was fascinating to hear songs that normally get the full band treatment performed as solo pieces, sometimes at different tempos than we’re used to. The performances, and their placement during the stories Bruce tells, make the audience concentrate on the lyrical content. A particularly effective moment was at the end of “The Promised Land”. Bruce stepped away from the microphone. With nothing between his unamplified voice and our ears but the air in the theater, this was the intimacy of theater at its best.
If I have an criticism, it’s that the performance doesn’t particularly hang together as a play. The first section deals with Bruce’s childhood in Freehold and his interaction with his parents, described very movingly. He then jumps ahead to a meeting with Ron Kovic in the early 80’s that inspired “Born in the USA” (hauntingly performed with a slide on a 12-string guitar-very far from the anthem-like original). He then doubles back to his early days as a performer, trying to be discovered and get a record contract. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” recaps the formation of the band. As the audience began to clap along, Bruce said “This is a one-man show. I got it”. A more straight forward time line might have made things a little more coherent.
A little later he brought out his wife Patti Scialfa to duet on “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise”, one of his best lyrics and most perceptive songs about relationships. Who can’t relate to this: “God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of”.
His only reference to today’s despicable political situation was the inclusion of “Long Walk Home” from the criminally underrated “Magic’ album. The last verse discussing how the flag over the courthouse standing for “what we’ll do and what we won’t” is particularly telling. It’s even more relevant in the Trump era than in the Bush era.
Bruce finished strong with great versions of “The Rising”,”Dancing in the Dark” “Land of Hopes and Dreams” and “Born to Run”. I will never get to hear Springsteen perform in my living room, but this was the next best thing. Despite minor flaws, Springsteen on Broadway gets an A.
My Hometown (piano)
My Father’s House
The Wish (piano)
The Promised Land
Born in the U.S.A.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Tougher Than the Rest (with Patti Scialfa)
Brilliant Disguise (with Patti Scialfa)
Long Walk Home Dancing in the Dark
Land of Hope and Dreams
Born to Run
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