Springsteen on Broadway: An emotional tour de force!
Bruce Springsteen is currently performing a unique series of concerts – on Broadway, no less. Devotees that we are, LB Tech Reviews were in the audience just before the New Year 2017/2018.
With his show “Springsteen on Broadway” Bruce Springsteen, 68, is playing on one of the smallest stages he has performed on in the last 40 years. The rock megastar, best known for his legendarily long marathon concerts in front of audiences of 30-80,000, has now decided to go in the opposite direction. The Walter Kerr Theatre in New York has only 960 seats, and The Boss will be playing a total of 236 (!) shows between 3 October 2017 and 15 December 2018; the show will premiere globally on Netflix on the final date.
An vintage troubadour, and “America’s soul”, prepares for his first “real” job (Photo: Patti Scialfa, Twitter)
Five nights a week, he sits down in front of a lone piano, with his harmonica and a series of guitars while playing a solo acoustic set consisting of selected highlights from his extensive back catalogue. Between the songs, we hear anecdotes from Springsteen’s eventful life, which he wrote about in his autobiography “Born to Run” (2016).
Concert, by the way, is not a completely accurate description of the evening, as it’s not a concert in the classical Springsteen manner. On Broadway, The Boss serves up a show. A show with fixed directing, a fixed script and a predetermined set list; something that is completely unique for Springsteen, who often changes a third of his songs from one night to another. In just over two hours, the concert consists approximately half of songs and half of dialogue – and this is where Springsteen the storyteller comes into his own right.
The closest we have had to something similar was his two acoustic Christic Shows in 1990.
LIFE & TIMES
Bruce Springsteen takes us on a journey through his life, both on a personal and professional level. The evening is equally a journey into recent American history, community life and, not least, personal relationships.
The icing on the cake is one of the smallest theatres in Broadway legend: The Walter Kerr Theatre. The theatre is a stone’s throw away from Times Square. A classic theatre from 1929, which provides an exceptionally intimate and unique atmosphere.
The Walter Kerr Theatre, 12.30.2017 (Photo: Tor Aavatsmark)
As Springsteen himself stated in the press release: «In fact, with one or two exceptions, the 960 seats of the Walter Kerr Theatre is probably the smallest venue I’ve played in the last 40 years. My show is just me, the guitar, the piano and the words and music. Some of the show is spoken, some of it is sung. It loosely follows the arc of my life and my work. All of it together is in pursuit of my constant goal to provide an entertaining evening and to communicate something of value».
Springsteen the storyteller (Photo: Rob DeMartin)
THE IDEA TAKES SHAPE
The inspiration for the freestanding shows came after a private farewell concert for Barack Obama in the White House on 12 January 2017. For the 44th US President and his closest staff, Springsteen played 15 songs from his back catalogue, with the theme being the disparity between the American dream and American reality.
Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, 2012 (Photo: huffingtonpost.com)
After the huge success of The River Tour 2016, and the publication of his autobiography, Springsteen was looking for new challenges. So, why Broadway (apart from the obvious: that his ranch in Colts Neck, New Jersey is only around 50 minutes away)? Springsteen elaborates in the press release: «I wanted to do some shows that were as personal and as intimate as possible. I chose Broadway for this project because it has the beautiful old theaters which seemed like the right setting for what I have in mind».
For an artist who usually shakes up and changes about a third of his set list every concert, this is a major change. The show is a simple one, without director or scriptwriter – it’s a genuine “one-man show”; as Springsteen told theNew York Times: «That’s me! I’m going to direct myself onstage and I wrote up the script on my own. It’s a pretty basic show. It’s going to feel like a garage workshop basically, and I’m going to play my songs and tell my stories. So it wasn’t something that called for a whole lot more than that.»
The Boss shows us where to go (Photo: Tor Aavatsmark)
SCRAMBLE FOR TICKETS
The first 39 shows were immediately increased with an additional 40 – without satisfying the huge demand. Bear in mind that Springsteen sold an incredible 305,000 tickets just for the concerts in New York/New Jersey (Continental Airlines Arena) in July/August 1999. Springsteen have now extended the show until the 15 December. Even the last shows were sold out in a matter of minutes.
This had an effect on the secondary ticketing market – tickets on sites such as StubHub have been selling for tens of thousands.
If you have a generous credit limit on your MasterCard, there are still tickets available on the black market. For a “mere” $ 42,000, you can get a FIRST ROW ticket…
In the seat next to us at the Walter Kerr Theatre, we meet a die-hard fan who has spent “a few months’ salary” on black market tickets for himself and his wife. An extremely enthusiastic American who behaves as if he’s in Madison Square Garden by shouting out “Brooooooooooooooooooce” between each song. A genuinely nice guy.
The whole show is based on his autobiography, where we follow Springsteen chronologically, from his upbringing in the small industrial town of Freehold in New Jersey, to gigs at every conceivable place in the Garden State, his record contract with Columbia, becoming a superstar, children, relationships and the spark making him write music and perform for the public. A common thread is his troubled relationship with his father and ups and downs through his life.
It’s not the huge hits or the most famous songs that characterise the evening. Springsteen has carefully selected a set of songs that define the important moments of his life, and which tell us something important. On this level, the Broadway show works so well, the lyrics and stories merge naturally together and add to the conversation.
THE STORYTELLER During his many marathon concerts, Springsteen has often told (long) stories to complement the songs. Among his most famous is the tale of how he avoided military service in Vietnam, as told on the intro to The River on the live album 1975-1985.
During the Broadway evening, one of Springsteen’s greatest abilities comes into its own: as the storyteller with the ability to make his own stories universal. This is Springsteen’s genius: he can give his local, highly personal version of life in small-town America universal appeal, leading to recognition and resonance for us all. Springsteen, New Jersey’s favourite son since Ol’ Blue Eyes, has provided many a fan with the soundtrack to their lives.
Funny but also painful moments from a long and eventful life; such as when, as a stammering seven-year-old, he had to go into his father’s favourite bar to tell him that Mom wanted him to come home.
Bruce and Douglas Springsteen (Photo: brucespringsteen.net)
Springsteen’s stories range from the openly humorous, via intense personal experiences, to the greatest of seriousness. After declaring his affection for America, its people and culture, he is almost religious in his performance of the classic The Promised Land. For this, Springsteen comes all the way to the edge of the stage, singing directly to us without a microphone. It’s almost like having The Boss singing to me in my own living room. The goosebumps slowly come, as if “America’s soul” is inserting his hand into your body and tenderly squeezing your heart.
ADAM RAISED A CAIN
Despite the continuing conflict with his alcoholic and manic depressive father, he was the person Springsteen attempted to “copy” and impress. He went out on stage in his father’s work clothes, he sang songs about the hard lives of the guys on the factory floor, as well as the frequently conflict-ridden relationship between father and son. If nothing else, his father gave him plenty of material for his studio classics.
Springsteen then gives us a touching intro to My Father’s House, which he calls the dark and depressive part of his childhood, before turning to the bright and life-affirming side, with his mother. She is paid tribute to in one of his most personal sets of lyrics, The Wish.
“Springsteen on Broadway” (Photo: Rob DeMartin)
REARRANGED SONGS Few of Springsteen’s largest hits have made the show, and those that are included are virtually unrecognisable.
After a long intro to his most misunderstood song, in which The Boss talks about his meeting with Ron Kovic (“Born on the 4th of July”), his long-standing relationship with Vietnam veterans and the guilt he still struggles with “someone else went in my place”, he gives us Born in the USA. The Boss’s most famous song is performed with a frenetic raw intensity, with Springsteen hammering his guitar in a soulful blues version, while singing virtually all the song a cappella. It’s raw and intense, and he roars and spits out the words – to emphasise, once and for all, the protest nature of the song.
EMOTIONS TAKE OVER Around halfway into the show, the time has come to introduce The Band (in capital letters). He talks about the E Street Band as inspiring him to play. When magic occurs, and 1+1 becomes 3. Not necessarily the best musicians, but the right ones; from the same town and with the same background.
When he starts Tenth Avenue Freeze–Out, about the formation of the band, and talks about Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, his emotions take over. As Springsteen says: “It was like losing the rain.”
Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen, 1975 (Photo: Eric Meola, brucespringsteen.net)
Springsteen has to take a little break, which doesn’t seem rehearsed in the slightest. This is an evening where he offers himself to the maximum – unvarnished, authentic and exposed.
His wife, Patti Scialfa, is at home with the flu, so her two duet numbers have been, for the evening, replaced with a focus on the father/son and children relationship: Long Time Comin’ and The Ghost of Tom Joad take over. Well my daddy he was just a stranger
Lived in a hotel downtown
Well when I was a kid he was just somebody
Somebody I’d see around
“Springsteen on Broadway” (Photo: Kevin Mazur, Getty Images)
Naturally, we can’t avoid the current situation in America and President Trump. The president is not mentioned by name, but there is no question of who he is talking about when he, in bitter terms, talks about the previous year’s attack on the fabric of democracy, with the undermining of the judiciary and the systematic dismantling of its institutions.
The Boss quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, before starting a version of Long Walk Home, which comes across as a prayer. We notice that our enthusiastic friend in the next seat is suddenly no longer clapping… You know that flag
flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we’ll do
and what we won’t
Times Square, New York (Photo: Tor Aavatsmark)
Outside, there is virtually a state of emergency, with 15,000 police officers called up to ensure safety during the New Year weekend. Sitting right in the centre of the city where the Twin Towers fell definitely lends an extra dimension to The Rising.
“Springsteen on Broadway” (Photo: AP/Evan Agostini)
SELF-KNOWLEDGE AND REVELATION
As Springsteen has so frequently stated during his many concerts: “You don’t know me. You think you do, but you don’t.” Tonight, however, he is extraordinarily revealing, open and genuine. During “Springsteen on Broadway”, it feels as if the mask concealing Bruce Springsteen as a private person is slipping. He says he doesn’t miss his youth, but he misses “The blank, unwritten page” that is your life when you’re young.
The self-deprecating and contradictions in his own life and work is highly present. The man who has never had a regular job (until now) or been inside a factory, has spent his entire life writing about nothing else. Early in his career, his lyrics were full of cars as a metaphor, but ironically Springsteen did not get his driving licence until his mid-20s – long after he wrote the classic Racing in the Street.
Another of his main musical themes has been getting away from his home town, including in Born to Run , which naturally enough ends the evening: Baby this town rips the bones from your back
Its a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
’Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run
To this day, Springsteen lives with his family, 10 minutes (!) outside his birthplace in New Jersey.
"Springsteen on Broadway" (Photo: Sarah Krulwich/The New York Times)
The show is seamlessly put together, with lyrics that match the songs and with a superb dramatic structure. There is laughter, but moments where we literally have to dry our tears are not far away. He is himself responsible for both the script and direction. The only props are a few tour crates, and The Boss himself in washed-out jeans and a T-shirt.
There a teleprompter on the wall, but Springsteen rarely looks at it. The dialogue flows easily and naturally, with no sign of having been rehearsed. It’s not difficult to understand why Martin Scorsese wanted Springsteen as an actor.
“Springsteen on Broadway” (Photo: Tor Aavatsmark)
Vocally he has scarcely been better, and his guitar, piano and harmonica playing are extremely sure. Also, the acoustics at the Walter Kerr are superb. The show does not have a weak spot, and it gives us a unique insight into the artist’s life, morals and multifaceted emotional life. Often the stories come in the middle of a song, or while he is playing the piano or guitar.
However, amidst all the euphoria, we can’t ignore the thought that “Springsteen on Broadway” almost appears to be Bruce Springsteen’s eulogy. An emotional helter-skelter, and a summary of a life lived. Let’s hope that the gruff voice from New Jersey still has many years left on the highway. One thing is for sure – America needs him as a corrective more than ever.
We have seen Bruce Springsteen live over 30 times, several of them in an acoustic setting, ranging from 3,500-120,000 in the audience. We have never seen him stronger, more intense, more emotional, and more genuine than on Broadway. With these shows, The Boss is writing rock history – truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 6 stars (out of 6).
The LB Tech Review’s correspondent in front of The Walter Kerr Theatre, on the coldest New Year’s weekend in New York for a hundred years! (Photo: Tor Aavatsmark)
“Springsteen on Broadway” (Photo: brucespringsteen.net)
My Father’s House
The Promised Land
Born in the U.S.A.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Long Time Comin’
Long Walk Home
Dancing in the Dark
Land of Hope and Dreams
Born to Run
In New York, the day before the show (Photo: Tor Aavatsmark)
Date: 30 December 2017
With: Bruce Springsteen
Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York, NY, USA
Length: 2 hours 15 minutes
Current activities: Bruce Springsteen is performing the show “Springsteen on Broadway” for 14 months.