Bruce Springsteen’s four-month residency (later extended) on Broadway is an amazing combination of humility and arrogance. The tension between the humility that he brings to his life story and the arrogance required to believe that people want to hear that story proves to be a tremendous creative catalyst. After decades of performing in cavernous sports arenas and stadiums, Bruce (I feel we’re on a first-name basis now) seems to have a need to get closer to his audience — and for his audience to know him more intimately. Not quite a concert, not quite a Broadway show, the experience is an evening of soul-bearing and mutual appreciation.
It’s a two-hour show. Bruce has written a script inspired by his memoir, Born to Run, that was published in 2016. He animates the anecdotal account of his life with 15 songs selected from the arc of his five-decade career. It’s just him on an acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica. He’s doing the same show every night, five nights a week. The 950-seat Walter Kerr Theater is the venue — small even by Broadway-theater standards. (For perspective, when I saw U2 at Detroit’s Ford Field recently I did some seat counting and found that just one section of the lower bowl in that stadium holds about 900 people.)
He opens by quoting from the foreword of his memoir. “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.” He goes on to confess that, even though he’s become wildly successful writing about the working class, he’s never done a day’s hard labor or even seen the inside of a factory. He quips that this show is the first real job he’s ever had.
Unlike a VH1 Storytellers-style show that is all about how the songs came to be, Bruce chose these songs to illustrate how he came to be. He tells the story of his early life in Freehold, NJ and then sings “Growin’ Up.” He talks about his father and describes what it was like to go into a local bar and retrieve him, then sings “My Father’s House.” He talks about relationships and the challenges of marriage, then out walks his wife, singer Patti Scialfa, to duet on “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.” He vamps on guitar or piano during much of the monologue — impressive.
The most poignant moments for me came during his story about the Viet Nam draft. He and bandmate Danny Federici and some other local boys all got drafted on the same day. He describes all the crazy shit they did to try and get out of it. He and Danny managed to avoid serving, but a couple of his other friends had to go — and didn’t come back. He plays “Born in the USA” with a slide on a 12-string guitar, producing an eerie, metallic rustling sound evocative of cinematic depictions of Viet Nam. And he sings the song essentially a capella in a gut-bucket blues style that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is truly a protest song.
He also re-imagines a handful of his arena-rock classics, like “Promised Land” and “Born to Run,” and sheds new light on those well-worn tunes. He makes only brief mention of the current state of our politics, referencing an old quote often attributed to Martin Luther King. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Bruce offers his hope that in the infinite history of this universe, the current period is “just a dark chapter,” and punctuates that by playing “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
My final note concerns the crowd. Can we please give the “Bruuuuuce” thing a rest? It just seems so out of place in this setting. But it did remind me that, while I admire Springsteen’s willingness to be vulnerable and I respect his desire to be known and understood, he still likes to show off and get paid. It was worth all 60,000 pennies…