Five months into its run, Bruce Springsteen’s career retrospective Springsteen on Broadway has morphed into the most satisfying, challenging and honest piece of art he’s delivered since 2002’s The Rising.
Not that Springsteen has been a slough since that post-9/11 masterwork. Devils & Dust was haunting; We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions exploded with life-affirming exuberance; and 2012’s Wrecking Ball reminded us he remains America’s most empathetic troubadour of working class tales. And in 2016, with the memoir Born to Run, he established himself as the rare rock star who can write a book that deserves to be treated as literature.
It is that book which forms the basis of Springsteen on Broadway, which finds the 68-year-old Jersey warrior reading passages from his memoir and singing 15 songs that tangentially relate to the text.
Full disclosure: I had not seen Springsteen on Broadway prior to the Wednesday (March 14) night performance at the Walter Kerr Theatre for an audience of SiriusXM subscribers (including devotes of the E Street Radio channel) and more than a few celebrities, including Howard Stern, Stephen Colbert, Ricky Gervais, Jenny McCarthy, Donnie Wahlberg, Liev Schreiber and Emmylou Harris.
But by the accounts of returning fans in attendance Wednesday night, the show as it stands now is a notable improvement on what was already an acclaimed show when it debuted Oct. 2017. Naturally, this is part of the evolution of any Broadway show: As producers watch audiences react, you tighten the parts that jar (my colleague Frank DiGiacomo, who reviewed it five months ago and attended the March 14 SiriusXM event, felt the previously “clunky” Vietnam section has been satisfactorily smoothed out) and have a little fun once you’re comfortable with the basics (by most accounts, his ad-libs are more frequent, and he’s notably looser while reading portions of his book from a TelePrompTer).
So now, with a bit of post-debut polish, Springsteen on Broadway –– slated to run through June 2018 — is easily among Bruce’s best 21st century pieces by virtue of its simultaneously daring and rewarding nature.
Like the book it draws from, the mostly one-man show (wife Patti Scialfa joins him toward the end for two songs) finds Bruce the Regular Guy taking a hard look at Bruce the Artist, and it opens with a startling admission of his own fraudulence: “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.” That theme is the topic of a brief forward in his book, but it’s treated to a lengthier, franker and funnier monologue on stage. He cops to the absurdity of a career singing about factory gigs and 9-to-5s when, in reality, the first Monday-Friday job he’s held in his life is this Broadway show (“And I don’t like it,” he deadpanned to the crowd). He points out that he penned “Racing In the Streets” but couldn’t even drive until well into his adulthood. He admits that despite writing odes to leaving New Jersey like a phoenix rising from the ashes, he still lives just 10 minutes away from where he grew up. Watching a legend, in the flesh, admit to pulling the wool over America’s eyes for nearly 50 years grabs you by the throat — and it requires a level of candor, honesty and yes, even a little fraudulence (you can’t say the same thing five nights a week for months and mean it every single time) that lets you know this show will be much more than a rose-tinted stroll through Asbury Park’s past.
But Springsteen on Broadway isn’t a confession, either – it’s an investigation into where his great “magic trick” comes from, and what that means to him and us. And while the answer is complicated, it’s also painfully universal. Springsteen’s father, who died in 1998, was an emotionally distant man who struggled with depression while bouncing between various jobs: Factory worker, security guard, taxi driver – if there’s a blue-collar gig that appears in a Bruce Springsteen song, Doug Springsteen probably worked it. As the Boss runs down his dad’s history on stage, from working at a Ford Motor plant to planting himself at the local pub in their Irish Catholic neighborhood for hours, you realize Bruce’s life’s work has been composing a distinctly American rock n’ roll version of La Comedie Humaine, with its various characters allowing him to celebrate, understand and mourn his father. As he says in his show to explain the persona he’s taken on and his lyrical fixations, “Those whose love we wanted but couldn’t get, we emulate”; that’s a tough piece of wisdom, an insight far beyond what most rock stars dare to offer.
But of course, the show wouldn’t work if it were purely a hard-eyed look at how his insecurities made him one of the most popular rock legends in history. The show is also about the healing, spiritual element of music – but true to Springsteen’s keen mind, it’s far more than pandering readings-from-the-Gospel-of-Rock fare. The spiritually satisfying portions of the show are as much about what it means to seek release through rock n’ roll as they are about what it means to be a young person yearning for freedom while remaining tethered to a hometown and history. Some of the most transcendent parts of the show recount his joy as 19-year-old kid, lying in the back of a truck bed as he speeds away from Freehold, NJ. It’s about the thrill of an unwritten future for an unsatisfied American teen, and the irrepressible sense of freedom engendered when you leave behind something small for something bigger. But unlike most rock stars who fled small towns or suburbs and adopted a worldlier public persona, Springsteen has made exploring that world his life’s work. And that’s what’s so satisfying about the show – it encapsulates the unresolved spiritual tug-of-war in his music, one that finds him oscillating between blowing out of a town full of losers in one song (“Thunder Road”) and celebrating the small-time circle of life with Sherwood Anderson-esque attention to detail in another (“My Hometown”).
Caught between pursuing his dreams and honoring his roots, Springsteen has always managed a delicate magic trick throughout his career, and he’s rarely faltered. But some of the Boss’ artistic achievements soar higher than others, and five months after debuting, Springsteen on Broadway stands as one of the most fascinating, invigorating and emotionally nuanced entries in his creative catalog.