Monday, December 11, 2017

‘Springsteen on Broadway’: Born to Run Through His Life’s Stories, Musically and Quite Movingly — Theater / Concert Review

Theater / Concert Review

Springsteen on Broadway
Bruce Springsteen solo (mostly)
Walter Kerr Theater, New York
Thru June 30, 2018

Now 68, rock icon Bruce Springsteen published his bestselling autobiography in 2016. Titled Born to Run, the book shares its name with the Boss’ classic song and album from the mid-1970s.

This might suggest a newfound desire to look back on his life and career, as such recollections also form the gist of Springsteen on Broadway, a compelling one-man show raking in millions within the confines of New York’s theater mecca. (Bruce's wife, Patti Scialfa Springsteen, sings with him on two songs.)

But those long familiar with Springsteen as a concert performer—perhaps just from live recordings, with dozens now officially available—know that even as a much younger man, Bruce regularly regaled fans before and during songs.

Tales of teenage battles with his father, having his long hair shorn at his dad's behest after being injured in a motorcycle accident, failing his physical for the Vietnam draft, losing friends & band members in the war, talking to a priest about his parents' vocational wishes (lawyer, author), coincidentally meeting injured war hero Rob Kovic soon after reading his Born on the Fourth of July book, and many other anecdotes have long been shared from the stage (though Bruce's soliloquies have lessened and shortened in recent years). 

The same, or largely similar, stories would be repeated at multiple tour stops, many more planned and even rehearsed than it may have seemed at the time.

So given his propensity for both storytelling and self-reflection—manifest not only in the autobiography but on Springsteen’s most recent tour with his stalwart E Street Band, which celebrated (and for awhile, played live in full) his 1980 album, The River—his now devoting five nights per week to public introspection is far from an illogical undertaking.

Not only does the New Jersey legend maintain mammoth popularity in the Tri-State region—and among loyal fans willing to travel—he has repeatedly shown fondness for occasionally playing his music without any (or almost any) accompaniment, as on his The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust solo tours.

In a live music milieu, nothing—and I mean, nothing—compares to Springsteen’s 3-to-4 hour, malleable setlist extravaganzas with the E Street Band.

Of my 50 times seeing the Boss onstage, the vast majority have been with the ESB—and absolutely phenomenal.

But Springsteen on Broadway is completely thrilling in its own right, despite relying on songs and stories I know well, shared without any of Bruce's trademark ad-libbing,

Photo from November 2016
Certainly, having typically seen Springsteen from quite a distance in indoor arenas and outdoor stadiums, there was a palpable chill in being just 15 rows from my hero in the 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre. (My ticket wasn't inexpensive, but less than the median face value price, and now selling on StubHub for about 5x what I paid via Ticketmaster.)

And despite working five days a week "for the first time in my life," as the Boss joked near the outset, his singing voice  sounded strong on Saturday night as he accompanied himself on a variety of acoustic guitars and a Yamaha grand piano.

Hearing my favorite musician performing spartan takes on cherished songs in an intimate, rarefied setting was undeniably electrifying.

Yet this wasn't simply Springsteen Unplugged, it was Springsteen on Broadway, and in beginning his monologue without offering even a cursory "Good evening," the show felt stylistically akin to Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking or other scripted memoirs recited onstage in theatrical venues.

I would assume—especially given a run selling every seat at unprecedented prices and then some, with an extension through next June—Bruce is at liberty to do whatever he wants within the Walter Kerr, one of 41 official "Broadway" theaters near New York's Times Square.

Photo from an earlier Springsteen on Broadway performance.
If he wished to change the setlist nightly—as he does on tour—or bring in various E Street Band members or other guests to accompany him, I'm not sure there are any regulations to preclude him.

But for most shows on the Great White Way, "Broadway" implies something scripted, or at least rigorously rehearsed.

In respecting that tradition, Springsteen on Broadway is a much tighter, regimented show than the three Devils and Dust gigs I attended in 2005, though those also featured just Bruce, acoustic guitars, piano and much storytelling.

And masterfully intertwining with carefully culled songs—not a greatest hits set, though with many well-known tunes—the stories are entirely compelling, with both considerable humor and great poignancy.

You can easily find the static nightly song list on, but in my own way of respecting theatrical tradition, I'll avoid revealing everything played or spoken.

Having read (most of ) Born to Run, and being a Springsteen fanatic since the early '80s, I was familiar with many of the tales he told, including his upbringing in Freehold, NJ, where he was beguiled by seeing Elvis on Ed Sullivan and had vastly differing relationships with his mom and dad.

This led, fittingly, into "Growing Up," a song from Bruce's 1973 debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.

Photo from a previous performance of Springsteen on Broadway.
The stories and, in large part, the songs, progressed in chronological order and one wouldn't be crazy to perceive that this famed Jersey boy had crafted something of his own solo take on Jersey Boys (the musical biography about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons).

Coming in, I knew 15 songs would be played in about 2 hours, with no intermission. So when more than a half-hour had gone by before the second song was finished, I began to wonder when and how the music's pace would pick up.

Eventually it did, with highlights including "Thunder Road" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the latter complemented by Springsteen's highly moving remarks about his late sax player and sideman, Clarence Clemons.

As he does every night, Bruce brought Patti out to duet with him on two songs, both delightful.

The first, "Tougher Than the Rest," had Springsteen playing piano, as he did for about a third of the selections.

Bruce isn't nearly a pianist to match the E Street Band's great Roy Bittan, but the heavy use of piano on early Springsteen gems is one of my favorite aspects of his music, so it was a real joy to hear the Boss make his way across the keyboard.

The last five songs of the show were sans Scialfa, and while some were rather obvious—"The Rising," written in the wake of 9/11 was particularly moving just a couple miles north of Ground Zero, which I would visit the next morning—three came from post-1999, when Springsteen reunited the E Street Band after a decade apart.

Though Bruce never directly mentioned Donald Trump, who he had openly denounced during the 2016 Presidential campaign, he noted that this is "a terrible chapter in the ongoing battle for the soul our nation" before playing the dour, "Long Walk Home."

The hopeful corollary would have more predictably been Springsteen's great inspirational rocker, "Badlands," but in a bit of a theatrical twist—for those who hadn't studied the setlist—he played something newer and less famous, but to similar message and effect.

Us Springsteen diehards can be an oddly ornery lot—check out the message board sometime—with word of the Broadway extension undoubtedly prompting exhortations of "So no E Street Band tour in 2018?" and "When's his [supposedly finished] new album coming out?"

But Bruce has long been someone who decides what he wants to do—band tours, solo tours, the Seeger Sessions Band, autobiography, Broadway show, etc.—and to his credit, has done them all pretty well.

As Jon Stewart noted in speaking of Bruce at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors, Springsteen "empties the tank" every time out. (The clip is part of the fine new documentary, Bruce Springsteen: In His Own Words, on BBC America.)

Though unique for the lesser amount of volume coming from the stage or perspiration running down the Boss' face, Springsteen on Broadway really is no different.

It's as good as I could have hoped.

Spiritual even, as without the audience standing up or singing along, there was a hushed reverence throughout that added to the parallels I find in dubbing rock "my religion."

And though I would describe the material far more as "moving" than "maudlin," there's an undeniable strain of mortality running through the show, in stories of Bruce's late father, elderly mother, early pals lost in Vietnam and longtime bandmates—Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici—who have passed in the last decade.

Add to this numerous Springsteen contemporaries who have recently gone to rock 'n roll heaven and one can't help but actively hope that Bruce—still physically chiseled and supposedly long abstaining from typical rock star excesses—truly is "Born to Run" forever.

On Broadway or anywhere else. 

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