“I’ve never had an honest job in my life,” Bruce Springsteen declares from the stage of Broadway’s 939-seat Walter Kerr Theater, a far cry from the stadiums he’s known to fill. “And yet that is all I write about.” Reading off a teleprompter he’ll use throughout the evening with varying degrees of obviousness, he thanks the crowd for letting him become wildly successful on the back of that contradiction.
That contradiction ends this year, however, as the Boss begins what is perhaps the closest thing he’s had to a regular gig. With Springsteen on Broadway, currently scheduled to run through Feb. 3, he’s committed himself to arriving at the same theater at the same time multiple nights a week to perform the same setlist with the same script. The show, too, will be wildly successful: The first week of previews pulled in pulled in $2.33 million, and the average price of a ticket is, at $497, nearly double what it takes to see Hamilton. But nothing about Springsteen on Broadway feels like an easy cash-grab, or even simply a rock star looking for a kinder schedule that doesn’t involve trekking from city to city day after day. Instead, with its mix of live music and stories and readings adapted from his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run, Springsteen on Broadway lets one of popular music’s most beloved icons flex all kinds of creative muscle in a rare, intimate setting that showcases the true breadth of talents.
Many of the tales Springsteen presents over the course of the show — inspired by a stripped-down, storytelling-heavy performance he gave to the Obamas and their staff at the White House in January — will be familiar to fans who have followed his decades-long career. He surrounds “Growin’ Up” with memories of his first guitar lessons. (They lasted two weeks. He was horrible.) “My Father’s House” is packaged with tales of Springsteen’s father, a distant and often depressed patriarch. And before launching into “The Promised Land,” he talks of his first cross-country drive, which saw him operating a vehicle for the very first time at the age of 23. “That’s right,” he says, “the man who wrote ‘Racing In The Streets’ had never driven a car!” But knowing the stories doesn’t ruin the magic; instead, there’s an added richness and warmth that comes with experiencing them live in a multi-disciplinary, 360-degree performance.
Across the show’s two hours — dotted with 15 songs and presented without intermission — Springsteen’s comedic timing is impeccable. Early in the set, stories about picking his father up from the bar at the behest of his mother spark raucous laughter. Later, as he recalls getting pulled over at 19 for moving furniture at night, the walls are shaking. And while the audience comprised mostly superfans — you practically have to be one to see the show, given the cost of a ticket — the mix of generations in attendance speaks to Springsteen’s wide appeal. There were Garden State lifers in muscle shirts, theater regulars dressed to the nines, young girls covered in tattoos, fist-pumping dads donning old tour t-shirts, and moms gathering for a ladies-night with commemorative cups full of booze. Their reactions to the show were they same: They laughed, they cried, they took selfies.
Springsteen’s an ace dry comedian, but he’s even better when he’s breaking your heart. Listen to him celebrate his mother, who “gave the world much more credit than it deserves,” and your chest is guaranteed to tighten. And as he eulogizes E Street Band saxophonist Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, who passed away in 2011, telling the crowd that “losing him was like losing the rain,” a powerful quiet washes over the crowd. A performance of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” dedicated to Clemons draws some of the loudest applause of the evening. (It was surpassed only by a rendition of fan favorite “The Land of Hopes and Dreams,” written in 1999 but only released in 2012).
The show’s format and theatrical setting paint a fuller picture of Springsteen, the human, beyond just Springsteen, the rock star. When his wife of 26 years, Patti Scialfa, joins him for “Tougher Than The Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise,” the audience witnesses the couple’s famous, enduring chemistry up close. After that, Springsteen gets deeper into his politics: He sure-footedly remarks that the current administration is just a bad, passing chapter in our country’s history. It’s perhaps less fire and brimstone than you might expect from him, but his air of hope makes the message as feel-good as singing along to any of his anthems. (Not that you can do that here: As the crowd begins to join him in the lyrics to “Dancing in the Dark,” he quickly tells them he’ll handle the song alone.)
Perhaps because of the staggering number of rock legends we’ve lost in recent years — Springsteen opened one of the first preview performances with a tribute to Tom Petty — Springsteen’s monologue near the show’s finale about his mission to find the whole American story and tell it well lands particularly heavy. “I hope that I’ve done that,” he says, “and that I’ve been a good traveling companion.” If he’s got a shred of doubt left, the rattling ovation that follows will certainly convince him.
“My Father’s House”
“The Promised Land”
“Born in the U.S.A.”
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
“Tougher Than the Rest”
“Long Walk Home”
“Dancing in the Dark”
“Land of Hope and Dreams”
“Born to Run”