Springsteen on Broadway begins not with a song but with a story about his origins and his responsibilities as a storyteller and performer. This segues into an extended, stripped down version of “Growin’ Up” that distills the song down to its lovely essence. That pretty much sets the format for Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show, which recently wrapped on Broadway following an acclaimed, sold-out run, reminding us what a gifted performer and songwriter he truly is.
Perceptions of Bruce Springsteen emphasize his “working-class hero” status. However, as Springsteen himself elucidates, his image is fallacy-based. He has never worked a 9-5 job and the man who wrote “Born to Run” in fact lives within about ten minutes of his hometown. That’s not a problem. In fact, it demonstrates Springsteen’s ability to take the narratives of those around him and spin into authentic, compelling compositions.
While speaking with a friend about the virtue of Bruce Springsteen’s music, this individual indicated that Springsteen’s brass instrument additions meant he always admired his songs more than he actually liked them. As far as this person is concerned, rock music doesn’t need saxophones. We can debate the merit of such a narrow rock music definition at another time, but that makes Springsteen on Broadway ideally suited both for those who are die-hard Springsteen fans and those who admire Springsteen’s craft while sometimes questioning his instrumentation.
Take, for instance, the song “Born in the USA.” With its triumphant guitar and “rah-rah” chorus, many (like the Reagan administration, for example), saw the song as an exercise in jingoism, celebrating the joy of American identity. Of course, even a cursory examination of the song lyrics revealed an account of traumatized and disenfranchised veterans. Here, the song is slower, accompanied only by Springsteen’s guitar playing. It revels in its thematic darkness and in its inherent solemnity.
Beyond the strength of his songs (which are stellar, let’s not forget), this two and a half hour show reminds the viewer of Springsteen’s natural charisma and ability to hold an audience’s attention for an extended time. Possessed of an innate affability and self-effacing humor, Springsteen emerges as a thoughtful, articulate, decent man who wrote some of the 20thand 21st centuries’ greatest songs.
His concerts are famously lengthy. Here, though, just as it was in his autobiography Born to Run, his mythology falls away. Left behind is a man now 69, whose father has passed and whose mother suffers from dementia, facing his own mortality and finally, at last, discussing his own reality. When he sings “Brilliant Disguise,” joined by his wife and band member Vivienne Patricia Scialfa, it feels more poignant than ever, a song about trying to see beneath a constructed façade to another’s core.
The real question about Springsteen on Broadway pertains to its ability to recreate the intimacy of a live Broadway performance on a streaming platform. I’ve not seen a live version, so I can’t compare the two. However, I can attest that the show feels free of the staginess that sometimes accompanies filmed versions of stage shows. Its spirit emerges intact and Springsteen’s ability to hold an audience enraptured feels just as impressive coming from my Roku as it must have at the Walter Kerr Theatre. When his final song, a gorgeous rendition of “Born to Run” concludes, I was just as inclined to stand up and cheer as those in the audience.
Springsteen refers to his ability to craft songs of broken, beaten down individuals as his “magic trick.” That feels a bit dismissive at first glance, but there’s truth to the comparison. Both involve skill and a certain sleight of hand to direct an audience to feel and understand what your intentions. Springsteen on Broadway manages its own kind of brilliant, sustained magic in the songs and story of a man who has become a rock icon and voice of the blue-collar worker (whether or not they could have afforded a ticket to see this show is another story). It’s a brilliant examination of just a few of Springsteen’s greatest songs, stripped to just a voice and a guitar or piano, and of the iconic man himself, and I’m thrilled that the experience has been preserved and made available for a mass audience.