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Bruce Springsteen Brings 15 Songs, A Lifetime Of Stories To Broadway

Springsteen On Broadway is absolutely, 100%, a Broadway show. The stage is set to look like a bare-bones rehearsal space with a brick wall and a floor littered with touring cases; there are cords wrapped up and hung on the wall for no other purpose but to look like someone might use them; there is sophisticated lighting design and you are not allowed to take any photos; there is a playbill; there is no intermission. When Springsteen walks out at exactly 8PM, he moves to the front of the stage and instead of casually greeting his audience he motions for everyone to settle down and he starts to monologue.

Beginning with his Catholic, Irish/Italian childhood in Freehold, NJ, Springsteen recalls the first time he saw Elvis perform on national TV. Freehold is only 50 or so miles away from the Walter Kerr Theater in Midtown Manhattan, but spiritually, Springsteen is galaxies away from that childhood, recounting his life story to an audience who paid top dollar to be there. It was a compelling but somewhat awkward entry point — some people were expecting a rock concert. For example: I waited in a security line with a man in a suit and sneakers who belted “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” just to pass the time. (I later saw him in the hallway serenading the women’s bathroom line with “Thunder Road.”) Springsteen On Broadway is a Springsteen show, it’s just not necessarily the kind of show Springsteen fans, who are prone to shouting “BRUUUUUUUUCE!” as loud as they can at any available opportunity and tend to want to sing along to these songs, are used to. It’s also not the kind of show that BRUUUUUUUUCE himself is used to.

Bruce Springsteen is great at stage banter, and anyone who’s seen him perform with the E Street Band will say that. It’s a different experience watching him deliver these monologues, especially if you’ve had the pleasure of reading his memoir and remember certain turns of phrase and the way he describes particular moments. Born To Run, the book, is written in Springsteen’s voice — you can hear him on the page. Once you settle into Springsteen On Broadway, the show becomes an extension of the book — a live-action reading paired with music, and occasionally, some dry comedy. Springsteen recites passages that reflect particular themes found in his music, and between those short declamations he performs stripped-down versions of the songs that best exemplify the passages. Once you settle into the rhythm of the piece, you get accustomed to the surreality of watching Bruce Springsteen play a scripted version of himself. It is disorienting to witness a musician perform in such an intimate space and still feel somewhat disconnected from them, but even so, you’re getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sit bafflingly close to a hero and listen to him tell a couple of stories and play songs as you’ve never heard them before.

Springsteen is a storyteller by trade; his songs, by and large, are about characters he either invented or based on bits and pieces of people he’s come to know over the course of a long career. Instead of going deep into those narratives, Springsteen mostly focused on his relationship to his parents, his band, his wife, and his country. The piano rendition of “My Hometown” came after Springsteen spoke about how hard he fought to escape Freehold only to end up buying farm property 10 minutes away from it. That got a laugh from the audience made up of folks who were mostly Springsteen’s age. That song, which is about living in an economically depressed nowhere town as much as it is about fathers and sons, segued into a monologue about Springsteen’s own dad, who he had a fraught relationship with and whose legacy is reflected in every section of Born To Run. He followed it with Nebraska’s “My Father’s House” on acoustic guitar. He then honored his mother — who encouraged a young Bruce Springsteen’s passion for music by helping him purchase his first guitar — with “The Wish,” performed on piano.

The intense attention Springsteen paid to the early part of his life was, in part, a way to acknowledge his humble upbringings at a career-defining Broadway show, and give thanks. It was also a means through which to acknowledge how much his music reminds a lot of people of their own families. If you’re of a younger generation, like I am, a love of Springsteen is likely something you inherited. “Born To Run” was one of the first songs I knew all of the lyrics to, and one of my more mortifying formative experiences was asking mom what “wrap your legs ‘round these velvet rims and strap your hands cross my engines” meant. A kid who couldn’t be any older than 10 sat in front of me and I remembered that feeling you get when you’re really young and discovering that you’re really, really into music. It’s another subject Springsteen touched on when he described moving out of Freehold with some musician buddies to Asbury Park, NJ, laying in the back of a pickup truck piled high with furniture. He admitted, rather sadly, that one of the worst parts of growing old is losing that feeling of “being young and leaving, leaving, leaving.” He then broke out “Thunder Road,” a song that is, like so many great Springsteen songs, about leaving, leaving, leaving.

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CREDIT: Rob DeMartin

Once a song becomes big it takes on a life of its own; its meaning shifts and changes with the times. When Springsteen introduced “Born In The USA,” he made sure to state that it is a protest song, based on the real lives of real Vietnam veterans. He didn’t mention the whole Reagan-played-the-song-at-a-rally-thinking-it-was-a-hooray-America-song, but it was implied. As if to give his audience a better sense of why he wouldn’t call it anything but a protest song, Springsteen played a 12-string slide guitar and made the thing bark and spit before he forcefully intoned all of the lyrics with essentially no melodic backing. Bathed in red light, it was a bluesy rendition of that classic Springsteen song you heard in the grocery store the other day, but any joyful pride someone might gather from belting the words “I WAS BORN IN THE USA!” was obliterated in the process. For a moment, those words became something to fear.

The state of the union must’ve weighed heavy on Springsteen’s mind when he put this show together. He introduces his lifelong love affair with the elusive American Dream with “The Promised Land,” which he stepped away from the microphone to sing and a collective chill swept through the audience. “Blow away the dreams that tear you apart/ Blow away the dreams that break your heart,” he sang, accompanied by his own guitar in a room that was still with silence. How many times in your life will you hear Bruce Springsteen sing without a microphone? This one time. That’s it. “The Promised Land” came out in 1978, it’s nearly 40 years old. How strange it must have felt to play a song about the American promise after a long day of watching it crumble tweet by tweet.

When Springsteen began to talk a bit about the nation, Springsteen On Broadway stopped seeming as buttoned-up and bourgeois as it could’ve been. For one, it’s the first time he stopped drawing from his memoir and started to address the current moment we’re living in. “No one likes to be told things at rock shows… I guess that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in!” he said, and some audience members laughed. But then he did something that I didn’t see coming — he started talking about men carrying torches, suffocating this feeling of possibility that he’s always gotten from living in and writing about the United States. Springsteen alluded to the reemergence of the most “divisive” and “ugliest” ghosts of our past, and then picked up his guitar. For a moment, I thought he was going to start singing “Land Of Hope And Dreams,” which is a lovely feel-good song about how this country is filled with all types of people who harbor similar hopes in spite of their differences. It’s a favorite of campaigners and it played immediately after former President Obama’s (who Springsteen campaigned for) farewell speech. Springsteen did do that one later, but in this particular moment he sang “Long Walk Home,” a song he wrote for Magic during the Bush years that I’ve always liked but haven’t thought about in a long time. It is the story of a town falling on hard times, a patient reminder that sometimes you need to walk a long way to get to where you’re going. In these circumstances, there’s this verse that really got me toward the end, when a father looks at his son and tells him: “Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse/ Means certain things are set in stone/ Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.”

For some, Broadway shows are a place to distract yourself from the outside world, a safe space to lose yourself in. Certain Hamilton fans were appalled when the cast spoke directly to Mike Pence during a show earlier in the year. Others, perhaps more grounded in the notion that you don’t get to just pay attention to politics when it conveniences you, praised the performers. The NFL is suffering from a similar conundrum: Is this a liminal space where race goes unnoticed, where you can cheer on the same team next to a guy who voted for the president you abhor? Broadway, like football, is a truly American pastime, and it pleased me that Springsteen took a moment of his two-hour show to acknowledge how fucked up he feels about the nation right now. He didn’t have to do that, and I’m sure there was a lot of discussion about how to appropriately phrase a vignette like that. The show — which addressed so many of the elements that make Springsteen Springsteen — would’ve felt stale and disingenuous without it.

Springsteen got more comfortable with his one-man show after that. With the exception of inviting his bandmate and wife Patti Scialfa out to do two songs from Tunnel Of Love (“Tougher Than The Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise”), he was entirely alone up there. On “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Springsteen reflected on his great friendship with Clarence Clemons and stopped playing for all of the counts of the Big Man’s sax solo, as if the ghost of Clemons himself was standing up there playing some spectral horn none of us could hear. The audience hollered and applauded, and that level of participation was totally encouraged to a certain extent. When people started clapping along to “Dancing In The Dark,” however, Springsteen stopped playing. “I got this, thanks,” he said, not unkind but commanding. (Most of them were clapping on the ones and threes anyway.)

Of course, Springsteen ended his show with the song that everyone knows, the one that encompasses so many of the ideas he’s worked with over the years, the one that he credits as the song that made him. “Born To Run” is about being really young and really restless, and it’s nothing short of really fucking crazy to watch a 68-year-old Springsteen sing it to an audience of people who probably heard it for the first time when they were in their 20s and ready to throw themselves, full-throttle, into their futures. Normally this song is blown-out, rock ‘n’ roll “on a last chance power drive,” but last night it was stripped to its most minimal form; just Springsteen, his guitar, and that voice that never seems to change. The line in “Born To Run” that I liked singing the most as a kid comes at the end, when the narrator mutters a few sweet nothings to his girl, Wendy. “Someday girl, I don’t know when/ We’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go/ And we’ll walk in the sun.” It’s a tender moment, and Springsteen half-sang, half-whispered the line to make it still sound like a promise between lovers over 40 years after it was first conceived. That line always feels heavy and a little sad — we don’t necessarily expect these characters to break away from their circumstances and create the lives they wanted. A lot of people don’t ever get that far, but Bruce Springsteen… Bruce Springsteen really did that.

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Setlist:

01 “Growin’ Up”
02 “My Hometown”
03 “My Father’s House”
04 “The Wish”
05 “Thunder Road”
06 “The Promised Land”
07 “Born In The USA”
08 “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
09 “Tougher Than The Rest” (Feat. Patti Scialfa)
10 “Brilliant Disguise”
11 “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”
12 “Long Walk Home”
13 “Dancing In The Dark”
14 “Land Of Hope And Dreams”
15 “Born To Run”