For my birthday, my brother managed to scrounge tickets to Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show at the Kerr Theatre in New York City. The show is a statement on Springsteen’s life’s work, encapsulating the career of a man famous for marathon-length stadium concerts, but in just two hours, for a hushed theater. Springsteen is a larger-than-life figure, and the performance offers a surprisingly moving and up-close perspective on his complexities and creativity.
The production employed a skeleton crew of a guitar and piano in addition to Springsteen himself. Besides his wife, who appeared to sing harmony on two songs, it was a solo affair. Skipping a grand entrance, Springsteen strolled onto the stage with a guitar, and made his way to the microphone. He began by simply telling stories, relating his childhood in New Jersey where his family lived in a cold-water flat next door to a Catholic church. Recounting his earliest memories of tossing rice to newlyweds from his front steps, he spoke of struggling to bond with his father and watching Elvis Presley on television for the first time, then begging his mother to buy him a guitar. Throughout these episodic recollections, he plucked at his instrument, creating a meditative drone that morphed into full songs at the cornerstones of each tale.
This song-and-story format continued throughout the show, progressing into his early years as a musician on the New Jersey boardwalk circuit, his breakthrough and fame, and his struggles with depression. Springsteen incorporated slower, moodier numbers from his catalog, rather than career highlights, and by weaving the music through his narrative, breathed new meaning into his compositions to match the show’s solemn atmosphere. His family’s history of mental illness gave “My Father’s House” a deeper significance, and the normally exuberant “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” served as a quiet tribute to Clarence Clemons, Springsteen’s bandmate and close friend who died in 2011.
Springsteen also fiddled with arrangements and tempos, revealing new depths and intentions behind more familiar songs. His compositions have been beamed skywards by radio antennas and stadium crowds for decades, so it was eye-opening – and refreshing – to watch him carry them down to earth, and reclaim them as his own. At no point was this more apparent than when he began playing his biggest hit, “Dancing in the Dark.” The audience, buoyed by a more up-tempo number, began to clap along, before Springsteen stopped and leaned into the mic, “I think I’ve got it from here,” he assured us. A jukebox musical this was not.
Looking around, I guessed that many audience members had boxes of his bootlegs stuffed into their closets, while others seemed to have no more than a passing familiarity. But by the end of the performance, everyone knew the man on stage – and his life’s work – in a profoundly intimate way. Springsteen has released a half-dozen collection albums, performed thousands of concerts, and written a critically-acclaimed autobiography, but this is the most definitive, and human, representation of his life in music.
And it’s quite a life. To a general audience, Springsteen may conjure a one-dimensional image of blue jeans and stars-and-stripes bandanas. In reality, his contradictions define him. Early in the show, he characterized his working-class image as a shtick he uses to emulate his father, and confessed he has never set foot in a factory. Conservative politicians continue to blast “Born in the USA” at nationalist-themed rallies without realizing that the lyrics recount the bitter experiences of a Vietnam veteran. And the definitively pro-labor entertainer drew the ire of the New York Police Department’s labor union after writing “American Skin (41 Shots)” – a song that condemned the fatal, 1999 Bronx police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed, 23-year-old immigrant of color.
At 68, Springsteen is still very active creatively, releasing new material and touring consistently. He is at an interesting juncture, one where he has the ability to tell his life story exactly the way he wants it to be told. Walking out of the theater, I realized that story is more complicated than the one I internalized growing up in New Jersey, where “Bruce Springsteen” usually meant the loud soundtrack to my uncle’s morning commute. The performance underscored that Springsteen’s story is richer and deeper, invoking an old saying from Sophocles: “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.” For my brother and me, Springsteen on Broadway captured a musical icon in the early strains of his evening light, contradictions and all, and stitched his story, his songs, and his struggles into the fabric of a more complex American legend.