Bruce Springsteen's Broadway Show Is Gripping

It's not a concert or a play; it's a performance of a life story set to music.

Photo Credit: By Bill Ebbesen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine that Bruce Springsteen came to your home, sat in your living room, and told you the story of his life while serenading you with some of his most beautiful songs. That’s what it felt like at his show, Springsteen on Broadway, currently in the middle of a four-month run at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City. For two hours, on a stage stripped bare except for some roadie crates and boxes, a brick backdrop, a single microphone stand for the Boss and his guitar, and a piano, Springsteen delivers a one-man show consisting of autobiographical stories interspersed thematically with 15 songs. It’s not a concert, and yet Springsteen’s musicality and voice—amplified in warm and full tones by Tony Award-winning sound designer Brian Ronan’s sound system—is on full display. It’s not a play, and yet Springsteen’s lines are completely scripted, often read from a teleprompter. It’s a third thing, a performance of a life story set to music.

The show is gripping; the two hours go by in a flash. Unlike his concerts, there is no interaction with the crowd, no call and response, nothing spontaneous, but instead, a quieter and more intense and intimate journey through Springsteen’s emotional and artistic development. Viewers are invited to really listen to the songs, not celebrate them. 

At one point, during "Dancing in the Dark," as the audience started clapping in time, Springsteen quieted the crowd by smiling and saying, “Hey, it’s a one-man show.” But while earnest, he is never pretentious, frequently leavening his stories with self-effacing humor. He announces right off the bat that he’s a bit of a fraud, having never served in the military, seen the inside of a factory or worked a nine-to-five job, yet this ends up being all he writes about. Later in the show, he describes leaving New Jersey at age 20 and sharing driving duties cross-country with a buddy, having never gotten a license or driven a car up to that point. Then he mutters, “And I’m the guy who wrote 'Racing in the Streets!'” Finally, he points out that after being “Mr. Born To Run,” the “gotta-get-away-from-home guy,” he now lives 10 minutes from where he grew up. 

The plot of the show is straightforward. It chronicles Springsteen’s life through narrative and song, borrowing frequently from his highly acclaimed 2016 autobiography, Born To Run. In the first part of the show, he tells the story of growing up in Freehold, N.J., the son of a depressed alcoholic father and an optimistic and confident mother, living—and suffering—in the shadow of the Catholic Church. Springsteen sprinkles this section with a quartet of beautiful ballads that chronicle his childhood grief, longing and rebellious spirit.

One poignant moment involves Springsteen’s boyhood account of his mother driving him to the local tavern and sending him in to get his father while she waited in the car. The bar “smells of beer, perspiration, and aftershave,” a frightening but exciting world of men to which young Bruce is tentatively granted entrée. In the song that follows, "My Father’s House," Springsteen tells of a dream about his father and laments, “I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart….Will never again, sir, tear us from each other's hearts.” The redemptive power of his mother’s buoyancy is spelled out in his song "The Wish." Within the shadows of the church, Springsteen’s rebelliousness grows and finds expression in rock and roll.

The show shifts when Springsteen tells the story of leaving New Jersey to seek his fortune in California. He has nothing, no money or possessions, and lying on top of a couch in the back of a flatbed truck leaving Freehold, he feels a deep sense of freedom and contentment, believing his life can now be written on a fresh page and that anything is possible. Springsteen confesses that one of his few regrets at age 68, is that the page can no longer be blank, that his life has written on it in indelible ways, and that he’ll never again feel that sense of infinite possibility.

The songs that express the excitement of the 20-year-old Springsteen exploring the American heartland and preparing himself for musical stardom are the strongest in his repertoire, and therefore, in this show; namely, "Thunder Road" and "The Promised Land." The poetry soars in these songs. In the first, he tells his girlfriend, Mary to “roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair…Well, the night's busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere.” In the second, he sings, “The dogs on Main Street howl…'Cause they understand...If I could take one moment into my hands…Mister, I ain't a boy, no I'm a man…And I believe in a promised land.” 

The show then goes off in several musical directions, providing passionate musical nods to love, the E Street Band, and of course, politics. With 10th Avenue Freeze Out, Springsteen acknowledges his band (“one plus one equals three”) and especially, the Big Man—the late Clarence Clemons. He brings his singer/songwriter wife, Patti Scialfa, on stage to do two duets (Brilliant Disguise, Tougher Than the Rest) about the complicated nature of romantic love, and then he finally addresses today’s political scene.

He says, “Today we're dealing with young men in torchlight parades calling on the ugliest ghosts of our past....And suddenly your neighbors and countrymen look like complete strangers to you.” As always, Springsteen wants to offer his audience a hopeful note, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous words that “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” In an oblique reference to Trump and the scourge of his presidency, Springsteen hopes it is “just a bad chapter in the ongoing battle for the soul of the nation.” The themes of hope and redemption come through powerfully as he sings Long Walk Home, The Rising and Land of Hope and Dreams.

Springsteen has always deliberately avoided sounding even remotely polemical in his more socially conscious songwriting. Instead, his references to current events relate to the everyday struggles of ordinary people and he uses these references to invite listeners to explore their own personal experience, finding the links there with more universal themes. As he notes in a recent interview in Variety, his song The Rising wouldn’t be a great song if it only referred to 9/11. Instead, it has a deeper and more spiritual resonance.  Springsteen believes that if you look deep enough into your self, you find the world. He assumes that people come to music wanting to be entertained, but also wanting to hear and see something that touches them in their daily lives. Music, he says in the interview, is primarily an “affair of the heart.”

The audience’s hearts were full by the end of his show. The reward was a gorgeous, slow rendition of his song Born to Run. He says, in closing, “This is what I have presented to you as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick.” And he concludes, “I hope I’ve been a good traveling companion.” 

He certainly has been.

Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of "More Than Bread and Butter: A Psychologist Speaks to Progressives About What People Really Need in Order to Win and Change the World" (Blurb, 2015).




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