At one point in Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen, who had just begun singing a song, broke off and looked at the audience, some of whom had begun clapping along.
“It’s OK. I’ve got this covered,” he said, bidding the offenders to shut the hell up in the politest way possible. It was—and there was tough competition—the wittiest line of the night, and all the better for being delivered with a dry smile and off the cuff.
The clapping ceased on his command (his “Shut The Fuck Up Tour” of 1995-1997 acquired its nickname for a reason). But the devotion the handsome and wiry Springsteen, dressed in black T-shirt and jeans, naturally elicits thrummed throughout the Walter Kerr Theatre. The venue has 960 seats, and is, says Springsteen, likely one of the smallest venues he has ever played.
Behind me, two women softly sang along with the 68-year-old star. They answered him back, and seemed surprised at some of his anecdotes, which was surprising itself as they were presumably familiar with his 2016 memoir, Born To Run, from which most of the autobiographical material was sourced.
This solo acoustic show is a riot of artful, sparse arrangements of Springsteen’s best-known songs. It is not a conventional Broadway show, and it is not a conventional rock concert, but being beached between the two feels more intimate, both on the part of Springsteen and his fans. His constant goal, Springsteen says, is to provide both an entertaining evening “and communicate something of value.”
Springsteen wouldn’t have to do much to earn the love flowing toward him as he stands on stage, but to his credit, he does a lot. This is far from a dialed-in showbiz cash-cow, and far from self-indulgent. He has performed solo acoustic shows before, but they are still rare occurrences.
This is, for Springsteen fan or not, a warmly involving, beautifully sung, and deftly structured evening of song and storytelling. The show is already, predictably, a critic-proof hit: It grossed $2 million its first week, and tickets are going for $500 each.
In front of me, two sets of heterosexual couples held each other, and when not entwined jabbed their arms ecstatically toward the stage or up in the air. Every round of applause came with cries of “Broooce,” and so the whole theater rang with the cries of what sounded like a thousand mooing cows. The lady in front of me swung her neck from side to side so rapturously I feared it might snap. The command to not take photographs or film the show was wantonly flouted.
Springsteen himself does not play up to this at all, remaining coolly focused on performing the nearly two-hour show (no intermission), with a set-list that begins with “Growin’ Up,” progresses through “Thunder Road,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Dancing In The Dark,” and “Born To Run,” with intriguing and lovely stops taken for “My Father’s House,” “The Wish,” “The Promised Land,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and “Long Walk Home,” as well as two duets with his wife Patti Scialfa Springsteen, “Tougher Than The Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.”
The show takes a linear approach to the Springsteen life line, and is beautiful to look at. He stands center-stage with a microphone, a guitar slung around his neck and occasionally blowing on a harmonica, and for other songs he plays a piano to his left. Heather Wolensky’s design is bare-bones, the back of the theater containing little but touring equipment and music cases. Natasha Katz’s lighting is artfully composed and perfectly complementary: shafts of blue, green, and purple light come from above, and startling white spotlights from the side. An upright stool is used as a stand for a glass of water.
Springsteen is the first to admit, with his gravelly, wry voice, that he is not the Springsteen-as-believed. Right out the gate, he tells us that he is not the working man so celebrated in his songs. “I have never held an honest job in my entire life,” he says. “I’ve never done an honest day’s work or hard labor and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about.”
This is the equivalent of the Wizard of Oz revealing himself as just a fussy inventor at the beginning of that movie, and it set the tone for Springsteen on Broadway, where every tale of childhood or life on the road wasn’t neatly romanticized.
His childhood in Freehold, New Jersey, Springsteen made clear, was neither very easy nor very hard, but full of the grit and joy of a normal childhood. There were the mountains of sugar he’d put on his breakfast cereal, and a father whose presence he would search out in the local bars, his mother sitting outside in the car as he went in; a little boy heading into a kingdom of brawny working men.
At his sight level he would see trousers and shoes, until someone indicated his dad—and so we go into “My Father’s House”: “I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart / Will never again, sir, tear us from each other’s hearts...”
After that, Springsteen quietly apologized for getting us “suicidal,” and sang the more upbeat “The Wish,” dedicated to his much-loved mother, who he would meet at her workplace. She was always upbeat, and a believer in dedication and application. “I’d lie awake and listen to you gettin’ ready for work / The sound of your makeup case on the sink / And the ladies at the office, all silk stockings and rustlin’ skirts / And how proud and happy you always looked walking home from work.”
The young Springsteen, he recalls, wanted to get out of Freehold, which wasn’t easy when there was a ban on "moving" at night.
Ultimately, Springsteen got out of town, and he tells of his excitement the night that he believes he and his band have been spotted by a major industry player, although that night said player beds his then-girlfriend and disappears, never to be seen again.
There is a script to the show, rolling down a screen hanging midway above the orchestra seats, but Springsteen doesn’t look to it much. He is a self-effacing narrator, and his humility feels genuine rather than faux. See how he leaves the stage at the evening's end, shaking a few hands, and then offering a little self-deprecating wave.
There is next to nothing about fame in the show, and there is no boasting or grandstanding. Springsteen’s heart is fit to bursting when he speaks and sings in memory of the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011. He talks in detail about meeting Ron Kovic, the former Marine Corps sergeant turned anti-war activist, who partly inspired “Born In The U.S.A.”
Springsteen deviates from the personal only once, to deliver a heartfelt wish that the United States does not follow down the dark path of white supremacy, or submit to the other destructive political forces currently assailing it. He has a lilting delivery that is also exacting. In both his music and speech, very few words are wasted and every word is meant.
The show drifts a little toward the end—not horribly, it just loses some tightness as Springsteen’s words tend to the general and instructive rather than the recalled and personal. But his mastery of the guitar, harmonica, and piano, his heartfelt, raspy voice, are a joy, especially in the both giddy and precise rush of the final songs. There is nothing to do but watch, rapt.
Springsteen agnostics are unlikely to go to Springsteen on Broadway. But they should, because it is—for arm-waving, “Broooce”-bellowing fanatics or not—a transfixing showcase of musical genius and magic.
Springsteen on Broadway is at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th St., NYC, until Feb. 3.