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REVIEW: SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY

Bruce Springsteen condenses his musical history and 508-page memoir into a compact and breezy two hours in his Broadway debut, opening with anecdotes about family in Freehold and wrapping with thoughts about freedom, America and fulfillment of his ultimate desire in his relationship with fans: “a good traveling companion.” Along the way he gets in 16 songs, most of them you know, and a couple of unexpected treats: He plays the piano … and he recites The Lord’s Prayer.

The stories and the observations in Springsteen on Broadway, which opened Thursday at the Walter Kerr Theater, are familiar to anyone who has read his autobiography Born to Run or heard one of his rare interviews; the cadence familiar to anyone who has seen Springsteen command an arena or stadium stage over the last 40 years.

Springsteen has avoided anything that would even remotely resemble a jukebox musical. The all-acoustic evening is a storyteller’s show, the explication of a life spent searching for truth. As such, it does not have the type of arc one usually sees on Broadway—there’s resolution without redemption, an exploration of the activities of his youth, the revelations of adulthood manifested in song.

Broadway and its intimacy are new to Springsteen—the small theater Devils and Dust tour 12 years ago is the most comparable outing and it was a thoroughly different experience than this. Too, the idea of performing the same set every night for the next four months is out of Springsteen’s usual norm, and one would guess that if any element will evolve over time, it will be the spoken portions.

Musically, with just guitar, piano and an assist from his wife on two songs, he sounds great in a program that’s divided about 55% music and 45% spoken word.

The first 12 songs get their own stories. Initially, he connects songs and stories with the people whose actions and influence affect him to this day; it’s the portion when he’s at his most glib, celebrating the irony of his real life vs. the one he concocts in song. All those songs about running away and starting anew? He lives 10 minutes from his hometown. The cars, the racing, the wrecks on the highway? He didn’t drive until he was in his 20s. The list goes on.

The back end of the show is more conceptual, a tying together of thoughts and concepts that range from what it means to be an American to the power of a rock & roll band. He ties it up with an anecdote from a year ago, soon after he had finished writing his book. It’s a trip to his old block in Freehold, N.J., and he sees that a favorite tree has been chopped down. The ghosts—and there are many in Springsteen’s life—come out; his response is “our father, who art in heaven…” It’s definitely the show’s most weighted moment.

Half the set is songs any Springsteen fan worth his salt could identify from the opening licks—“Dancing in the Dark,” “Thunder Road,” “The Promised Land,” and “Born to Run” among them—and thankfully he avoids shoehorning in other hits for the sake of maintaining a level of user-friendliness. He digs deep into his songbook, pulling tunes from Nebraska, Magic, Wrecking Ball and the outtakes compilation Tracks that reinforce and complement the stories.

“The Wish,” an obscure song written 30 years ago about his childhood, powerfully partners with an recitation of a portion of chapter three from Born to Run. It’s the story of his mother, the values she instilled in him, the manner in which she approached burdens and pain. Much as longtime fans know Springsteen’s father and his buddies inspire the blue collars, this insight leads us to believe mom is the core of every song about responsibility, love and hope.

Wife Patti Scialfa joins him for two songs, “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Beautiful Disguise.” They sing the latter as Johnny Cash and June Carter might have—the two of them on guitar leaning this way and that into the single center-stage mic, and pushing the emotional component to one of the night’s peaks. Equally touching were his tempered rendition of “The Promised Land” and his explication of love and admiration for Clarence Clemons and his bandmates on “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” one of the four songs he performed at the piano.

Springsteen’s voice has held up remarkably well—remember it was only in February that he wrapped a lengthy tour of three and four-hour shows with The E Street Band—and his deep tenor is focused throughout and largely restrained on songs he would use to tear the roof off an arena, chiefly “The Promised Land” and “Born to Run.” Here he excels at the rueful—“My Father’s House” and “Long Walk Home”—and the melodies where the exuberance builds gradually, “This Train” and “The Rising.”

The show is already a hit like few others on Broadway. It earned $2.33m in its first week of five shows and that number will likely go up to about $2.5m a week, and will likely only be topped by Hamilton, which is grossing about $2.9m a week on the usual seven- or eight-show week. The run is sold out, though 26 tickets for each performance are being sold for $75 each via a lottery.

Wednesday’s performance was the final preview and only the seventh time Springsteen had done the show and while the sincerity he exudes in arenas is magnified in the 939-seat Walter Kerr, he has some actorly moments that could use some refinement. The words always sound straight from the heart; the next step is to get them to sound off the cuff. He had a Teleprompter scrolling lines, though I never got the sense he was reading directly from it. He knows the story well, perhaps at some point he’ll turn off.

Photo credit: Rob DeMartin

 

 

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