Bruce Springsteen talks about what it was like hearing himself on the radio for the first time and shares other personal stories in his new book ‘Born to Run.’
“I’ve never done an honest day’s work, I’ve never worked 9 to 5, I’ve never done any hard labor, and yet, it is all I’ve written about,” Bruce Springsteen yells from the stage about 10 minutes into Springsteen on Broadway, to riotous applause from the crowd.
Springsteen must’ve known the joke would land, a winking allusion to a life devoted to a different type of labor. The 68-year-old artist’s ascent from dingy New Jersey dives to the largest stages in the world is an essential part of American rock ‘n’ roll mythology.
Yet, Broadway is one of the great equalizers in modern showbiz, its physical demands capable of humbling even the most seasoned entertainers. With Springsteen on Broadway, which opened Thursday, fans aren’t just paying to see their hero at the intimate Walter Kerr Theatre, its 975 seats roughly the same capacity as Asbury Park’s beloved Stone Pony. They’re paying to see their hero tussle with a different kind of beast.
And it’s quite a show, as Springsteen delivers two hours and 15 songs worth of memories, and revelations, and — for some — plenty of tears.
Springsteen conceptualized the show after playing a January 2017 set in the Oval Office for then-President Obama and his staff, performing a career-spanning setlist interspersed with personal anecdotes. Featuring a near-identical selection of songs to his White House show, Springsteen also borrows generously from his 2016 memoir, Born To Run, for the lengthy monologues between performances. A teleprompter on the theater’s back wall scrolls through his lines and lyrics, and there’s an iPad mounted on his piano.
That means die-hards in the audience will recognize passages from his book, and acoustic interpretations that have been part of his live set for years, and perhaps even see Springsteen’s eyes flicker up to the prompter’s scroll.
Does that ruin the Broadway magic? Maybe for some. But not for the audience that cheered during one preview show, as Springsteen presented his bill of sale in the show’s opening moments — cribbed from the foreword of Born to Run, but no less evocative.
“I am here to provide proof of life to that ever-elusive, never completely believable ‘us,’ ” he recites. “That is my magic trick. And like all good magic tricks, it begins with a setup. So…”
With that, he takes off into Growin’ Up, standing alone in front ofdingy brick walls, wearing a stagehand’s uniform of black shirt and pants, accessorized with glinting earrings and a single arm of bracelets. As if to remind us of the evening’s special nature, he stepped away frrom the microphone to crack a joke and sing another verse, letting his voice ring out to the back row.
The show’s narrative doesn’t contain any revelations for fans, as Springsteen guides his audience through vividly imagined scenes of his small-town upbringing in Freehold, N.J., before he fled to Asbury Park, then shipped further out West. His political awakening comes during a visit to a Vietnam War-era veteran’s center in Venice Beach, where he hears the stories that would become Born in the USA.
“The chorus is a declaration of the one true thing that cannot be denied, your birthplace — and your right to all of the blood, the confusion, the blessings and the grace and curses that come with your birthplace,” he says about Born in the USA. Springsteen has long since abandoned the song’s original version — oft-misconstrued by clueless politicians looking for a rally soundtrack — transforming it into a bone-rattling acoustic elegy.
As for matters of the heart, Springsteen on Broadway lets one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enduring love stories speak for itself, bringing out Patti Scialfa to duet on Tougher Than the Rest and Brilliant Disguise. Springsteen saves the sentimentality for another one of his great loves, Clarence Clemons, introducing his dearly departed bandmate during a raucous rendition of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.
Springsteen on Broadway dispenses with the exposition in its final stretch, and that’s when things get cosmic. The singer steps into the role of rock ‘n’ roll preacher, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and the Lord’s Prayer as he sermonizes on his country and his craft, the twin pillars of his spirituality.
If the tears haven’t flowed earlier in the evening, have Kleenex ready for the show’s ending, with a breathtaking pair of medleys — Long Walk Home/The Rising and Dancing in the Dark/Land of Hope and Dreams — that ends with Springsteen blessing the crowd, thanking them for serving as his traveling companions, and closing with a meditative take on Born to Run.
“This is what I have pursued as my service,” he says as part of his farewell. “This I have presented to you as my long and noisy prayer, as my magic trick.”
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