“I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I. In case you haven’t figured that out by now.”
The self-deprecating joke Bruce Springsteen tells to open Springsteen on Broadway sets the tone for much of what follows over the next two hours. The greatest storyteller of his generation in rock ‘n’ roll, Springsteen draws on his autobiography, Born to Run, and a personally curated set of songs from his catalog to tell the story not only of his own life and times, but the life and times of all of us who have taken the long journey with him.
Most of the show’s humor—and there is plenty of side-splitting, joyous laughter in the show—is at his own expense. The chronicler, defender, and voice of working class Americans—who by his own admission has never worked an honest job in his life. The guy who wrote Racing in the Street and too many other songs celebrating cars and driving to count—who, by age 21, still didn’t have a car and still didn’t know how to drive. The songwriter who couldn’t wait to get out of the dead-end town he grew up in, Freehold, N.J., who wrote such scathing lines describing it as “it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, we’ve gotta get out while we’re young”—who today lives 10 minutes from his childhood home.
But he also delves deeply into his difficult relationship with his late father, Douglas, who worked a series of odd jobs over the years, from factory work at the rug mill and the Nescafe plant to driving trucks, buses, and cabs, and who remained a mysterious, dark, and often absent presence in his son’s life.
And in a segment that moved me to tears, he talked about the pride, the joy, and the hope that his mother, Adele, has always brought to his family, and how she always had his back—even when the depression his father battled throughout his life threatened the fragile bonds of his family.
“Truthfulness, consistency, professionalism, kindness, compassion, manners, thoughtfulness, pride in yourself, honor, love, faith in and fidelity to your family, commitment, joy in your work, and a never-say-die thirst for life. These are some of the things my mother taught me and I struggle to live up to,” he said.
And I choked up, as so much of what he said described my own mother, who died six years ago. And my own struggles to live up to the things she taught me.
That’s always been part of the deal between Springsteen and his fans. In 1975, John Rockwell, the New York Times chief rock critic at the time, wrote of Springsteen’s music: “Hearing these songs is like hearing your own life in music, even if you never lived in New Jersey or made love under the boardwalk in Asbury Park.” (For the record, I have done one of those things.)
That connection has only strengthened through the years, as Springsteen has moved on from the bedrock of rock ‘n’ roll as set down by Chuck Berry (RIP) in the 1950s of cars and girls to more mature themes of love and trust and betrayal and the loss of loved ones (another cathartic segment of the show centered on the outsized role that the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, played in Bruce’s life, and how he seeks to keep alive the spirits of those who have passed on) and how to live with integrity and how to keep the demons at bay and instead hold fast to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”
In this age of spoilers, I will resist the temptation to share details of specific songs and stories, since the official opening isn’t until Thursday night, Oct. 12. And letting the show unfold before you as Bruce conceived it is part of the power of the performance.
The show features Springsteen, dressed in his trademark, dark-colored, working man’s garb, alone on stage (his wife, Patti Scialfa, comes out to join him for two songs) against a dark, urban-industrial backdrop. It is adorned with a microphone at center stage and a baby grand piano to the left, which Springsteen alternates playing with an array of acoustic guitars brought to him by a stagehand.
The Walter Kerr Theatre, which has fewer than 1,000 seats, creates an intimacy that hasn’t been possible since his early days playing small clubs. It is as close as you will ever come to having Bruce in your living room. Whether the mood is somber or ebullient, the lighting by Tony Award-winner Natasha Katz creates exactly the right atmosphere.
The sound is simply superb, and the show features reimagined versions of songs Springsteen’s fans know by heart in ways that spark fresh insights and understanding. In an illuminating interview Bruce did with New York Times critic Jon Pareles recently, Springsteen explained it this way:
I’m playing familiar music, but I believe it will lead you to hear it with very fresh ears by the context that I set it in. I always make a comment that when things are working in art, one plus one equals three.
And that’s what happens throughout Springsteen on Broadway. One plus one equals three. The songs and the passages from the book create a third, new theatrical experience that is the most profoundly moving I have ever had on Broadway—or in any theater.
There is magic in the night.
And even in these dark and trying times, there is light. There is also a train pulling out of the station, bound for the land of hope and dreams, if you have the faith to climb on board.