“I’ll handle this myself,” said Bruce Springsteen with a wry smile on Wednesday night at the Walter Kerr Theatre, as his enraptured audience began to clap along in rhythm to “Dancing in the Dark,” one of his most familiar hits. The clapping died instantly, out of respect for what Springsteen, perhaps the most celebrated American rock performer of his generation, was aiming to do in his latest, surprising enterprise, “Springsteen on Broadway.” He’s making his Broadway debut in a series of five-a-week concerts in which he stands alone, center stage, virtually throughout the entire show, alternating between accompanying himself on piano, one of several guitars and harmonica.
The emphasis in this riveting display of musical and emotional showmanship is not on the rousing energy Springsteen’s concerts can spread to the back rows of football stadiums (he jokes that he’s played everywhere from supermarkets to Sing Sing), but on his own sensitive observation of human experience – American experience – which has been flowing from his musical imagination for more than four decades. The point is not so much the dancing, but the dark. (The fluid lighting, by Natasha Katz, is the opposite of stadium-style glare.)
Although Springsteen is 68, his voice – never a crooner’s smooth instrument – retains all its grit and vigor. Rough-edged, surly, sweaty and dark and raw, it can also hit notes of whispering tenderness that underscore the vulnerability hiding in plain sight in many of his best songs. It’s a voice that defines the sound of rock ‘n’ roll as it was and will always be defined, the holler of rebellion and ecstasy, of swagger and hope. Early in the show (which runs a tight – for a Springsteen concert – two hours), Springsteen acknowledges that Elvis’s hip swinging tore his world open, but we hear all the other influences in his music: the blues, gospel, Motown, the homespun folk of Woody Guthrie, the galvanizing reinterpretation of American music by the British bands who came just before him. (He pays particular tribute, before launching into “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” to his longtime saxophone player, the late Clarence Clemons.)
The prices for prime tickets to Springsteen’s Broadway show are astronomical, and it’s hard to even get your hands on one. (The run is completely sold out.) But those who do see it will understand just why Springsteen wants to handle it all himself. Here he presents himself not as the stadium-filling rock god, whipping his fans into a happy frenzy, but instead he engages in a more intimate and difficult process, collapsing the distance between artist and audience, between his art and the lived experience of those who take comfort and solace in it. As the evening proceeds, that distance all but evaporates as Springsteen clarifies the meanings and the substance of his songs with a becoming simplicity and humility occasionally trimmed with humor.
Many of the songs are autobiographical, beginning with “Growin’ Up,” from his 1973 album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” followed by the elegiac “My Hometown,” a forlorn tribute to the economic decay and racial strife that took a toll on his original hometown of Freehold, New Jersey. (“Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back,” runs a lyric that rings with sad currency today.)
And most of the songs in the show are either ballads, or performed in stripped-bare orchestrations that expose the rawness of the feelings they contain, unadorned by the high walls of music – horns and keyboards and more guitars – that can turn them into anthems in concert settings. Even raving favorites such as “Thunder Road” and “The Promised Land” and “Born to Run” are here presented with a starkness that exposes the emotional ambivalence at their core. “Born in the U.S.A.,” a big hit that was mindlessly co-opted as an up-with-America cheerleading tune, here is returned firmly to its roots as a protest song, about the neglect of the Vietnam war veterans.
The songs in the show are populated by characters – and Springsteen refers to them as such in his memoir – loosely or not so loosely based on his own experience: drifters and dreamers, people in flight from the hard truths and brutal experiences in their past, clinging to the promise of the open road, the shining future that America once seemed to – and once again might – promise. They are the broken, the often lost and sometimes found, the heroes in the mirror who feel diminished when they step into the world. They are, in short, the underclasses and middle classes living in the “Land of Hope and Dreams,” to borrow a Springsteen title beautifully performed here. They remain at the very heart of our contemporary political culture and are much talked about as a political force, but are still virtually unknown as individuals in the media we consume on a daily basis. (Only glancingly does Springsteen acknowledge the current state of the country by mordantly referring to “the mess we are all in.”)
Springsteen brings them alive and up front here, underscoring his instinctive, or rather innate, understanding of and compassion for the people who live their lives on the margins; people who never get the break that always seems to be just around the turn of the highway. Springsteen believes in the promise – and is happy to sing of it with a ferociousness matched by none – but the shadow of disillusion can never be shaken, the belief that before that final stretch of highway leads to a promised land, the car is more likely than not to run out of gas.
Ambivalence is a keynote even in the two love songs at the heart of the show, when Springsteen’s wife and musical collaborator, Patti Scialfa, joins him onstage. “Tougher Than the Rest” is perhaps the most tender, a barroom tale of two lovers circling each other warily. “Brilliant Disguise” is even more shot through with uncertainty, a song about the distance that can leave a trembling space between even the most intimate lovers, ending with the haunting line: “God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of.”
It’s that kind of honesty that makes Springsteen as much an artist as a rock star – and most welcome on Broadway. Despite his international renown and all but indelible achievement as a rock troubadour, songwriter and band leader, he still appears to retain that most necessary element of a true artist’s constitution: humility. In his introspective, thoughtful autobiography (from which much of the show’s narration is drawn) he writes of his cocky, youthful belief in his talent, his right to command the stage and shake up the hearts and souls of his audiences, but also of the unsettling inner thought that beneath the hard shell of bravado was, well, a “phony.” With this remarkable performance of some of his greatest music, perhaps Springsteen should put that particular doubt to rest for good. It’s impossible to imagine anything less phony and more authentic than a Bruce Springsteen concert.
“Springsteen on Broadway” opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017.
Creative: Written by Bruce Springsteen; Directed by Bruce Springsteen; Scenic Design by Heather Wolensky; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by Brian Ronan.
Producers: Jon Landau and George Travis.
Cast: Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa.