On Broadway, Springsteen Channels His Inner Springsteen

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On Broadway, Springsteen Channels His Inner Springsteen


Though he appears as sturdy as ever, Bruce Springsteen turned
sixty-eight in September. It doesn’t feel egregious to suggest that he’s
been feeling reflective lately. In 2016, he published a memoir, “Born to Run,” and has spent much of the last two years on an eighty-nine-date tour, in
support of a reissue of his 1980 album, “The River,” which celebrated
its thirty-fifth anniversary in 2015. He’s been mulling his
arc—expiating, making sense of things. Also, and I don’t know how to say
this delicately—his friends and peers are dying. That part hasn’t slowed
down: Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici; Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Tom Petty.

Yet, until recently, Springsteen refused to look backward, or at least
not in the same way that rock stars who are regularly booked to play
football stadiums look backward—with a covetous, hungry eye. He has
remained a vital and relevant presence on the music scene, playing
longer, deeper, and heavier shows each year, reinvigorating old pieces
and making new work.

His latest project, “Springsteen on Broadway,” a residency at the Walter
Kerr Theatre, in midtown Manhattan, opened today. For five nights a week
between now and February 3rd, Springsteen will perform a two-hour
acoustic show for around nine hundred and sixty people. In 2016, when
Springsteen played the Barclays Center, an indoor arena in Brooklyn with
a capacity of nineteen thousand, it felt like an intimate experience.
(Prior to that, my last Springsteen show was at MetLife Stadium, in East
Rutherford, New Jersey, which accommodates more than eighty-two thousand
bodies, and thus allows for a booming and lusty chorus of
“Bruuuuuuuuuce!” like no other room on Earth).

Twenty-six tickets for each “Springsteen on Broadway” performance are
sold to digital-lottery winners for seventy-five dollars each (victors
are notified twenty-four hours before the performance). The rest go—or,
more accurately, went—for significantly more. On StubHub, a gray-market
ticket-resale Web site, a seat at a Saturday-evening show presently
costs between fifteen hundred and four thousand dollars. These prices
are not wholly egregious for Broadway—even now, over two years into its
New York run, “Hamilton” tickets still change hands for between three hundred and fifty and three thousand dollars—but it is, by any
accounting, a significant expense for fans.

Springsteen has said that the show was inspired by an acoustic concert
he performed in the East Room of the White House in late 2016, for
around two hundred and fifty people, an earnest parting gift to the
Obama family. The night was heavy on storytelling, which loosely
mirrored the chronology of his memoir, itself a kind of ur-American
story—a rise from nothing to very, very much. In the nineteen-seventies,
at the birth of his career, Springsteen often performed with the E
Street Band at small night clubs (such as the Bottom Line, then on West Fourth
Street, or the Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, New Jersey), bolstering those
concerts with gripping and colorful yarns that drew on memories of his
childhood along the Jersey Shore—his parents, his home town, old loves.

“Springsteen on Broadway” formalizes that experience. Unlike the other
solo and acoustic tours that he has undertaken (most recently, a theatre
tour, in 2005, for his album “Devils & Dust”), the show is scripted and
largely unchanging. It consists of fifteen songs punctuated by
monologues, many of which are modified from passages in “Born to Run.”
The result is an earnest meditation on his life and work, a “long and
noisy prayer” delivered by a diligent and practiced showman.

At a preview show on Tuesday night, Springsteen walked onstage in jeans
and a T-shirt, carrying an acoustic Takamine guitar. “I come from a
boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So
am I,” he admitted. (A teleprompter hung at the back of the theatre, but
he did not appear overly reliant on it.) The evening was peppered with
allusions to his various contradictions and so-called magic
tricks—little hypocrisies that surely felt cathartic to voice. “I’ve
never held an honest job in my entire life . . . and yet it’s all that
I’ve written about,” he admitted. His songs are overrun with
implorations to escape, though Springsteen himself never did, or not
really: “I gotta run, run, run—I live ten minutes from my home town,” he
quipped. In one of the show’s most vulnerable moments, he frames his
working-class affectations as his way of forcing closeness with his
father, a factory worker who withheld his love. It was as if the entire
theatre inhaled in unison. What a wild and devastating thing to
contemplate—the way we insist upon ourselves in the face of deep
rejection. I didn’t realize until several minutes later that I was
crying.

Springsteen has describedSpringsteen on Broadway” as “a solidified piece of work,” a show in the
old-fashioned sense. It is performed on piano, guitar, and harmonica,
and Springsteen—arguably one of the most energetic and effective
bandleaders in all of rock and roll—is alone, save for a glass of ice
water and a brief appearance by his wife and musical partner, Patti
Scialfa, who strides onstage for “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant
Disguise,” both singles from his 1987 album, “Tunnel of Love.” For
years, I’d understood the title of the former as cautionary. “Honey,
well, if you’re looking for love / I’m tougher than the rest,” he sings
at the end of the first verse. His voice is so steady and solemn that I
figured the line as a warning: don’t trust me; I’m not easy. Over the
years, when Springsteen has performed it live, Scialfa has joined him at
the front of the stage, occasionally at the same microphone; each gazes
steadily into the other’s eyes as they duet.

Springsteen was married to a different woman when he wrote it—Julianne
Phillips; they divorced, in 1988—but he and Scialfa inhabit the song with
stunning intensity. Watching their performance on Tuesday, I understood
for the first time how “Tougher Than the Rest” is actually a promise,
and very nearly a wedding vow: “The road is dark / And it’s a thin, thin
line / But I want you to know / I’ll walk it for you any time.” He is
asking his partner to disburden herself—to forget that she’s been
wounded, to forget all the people who have let her down. She is offering
him the same. “I’m tougher than the rest.” I can take it.

His rearrangement of “Born in the U.S.A.”—from a rousing, bombastic
anthem that could easily be misconstrued as celebratory into a sparse
and sinister blues, performed on a twelve-string acoustic guitar, with a
slide—felt deliberate (he sang the first verse unamplified and
unaccompanied). There were other nods to the anxieties of the day. He
quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (“The arc of the moral universe is
long, but it bends toward justice,” a line also beloved and repeated by
President Obama), before performing “Long Walk Home,” from his 2007
album, “Magic.” It’s a song about what happens with a familiar
environment is made alien, threatening. The metaphor felt obvious, but
welcome.

Though Springsteen has many topical songs, in a recent interview with Variety he expressed reluctance about writing anything too
explicitly political for the new show—rock music, he suggested, should
not be overly concerned with polemics, but with narrating interior
landscapes. “I still believe fundamentally it’s an affair of the heart,”
he said. In some ways, this is a generous mandate. Our reactions to
political commentaries are often cerebral—we argue, we grasp for
evidence, we espouse, we agree, we get angry. He’s trying, instead, to
reach the parts of us that are not so close. Springsteen’s mission has
always been to be a useful conduit—to reflect or articulate something
back at us. But he is a model, too, and “Springsteen on Broadway”
contains suggestions on how to age: admit your flaws and
inconsistencies, your put-ons, your masks, your fears and humiliations.
Make room for them. Find freedom in the revelation. Let it lead to more
art.



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