Don’t sing along — he’s telling a story on Broadway
NEW YORK — Bruce Springsteen opens his new Broadway show with some terrifically unnecessary advice — namely, an accounting of some of the attributes you might find helpful “if you ever come face to face with 80,000 screaming rock ’n’ roll fans.”
The singer drew from real-life experience, of course, in compiling his list, which includes natural ability, study of craft and “a naked desire for fame.” As one of rock’s biggest superstars — and a widely acknowledged spokesman for everyday folks — Springsteen has spent decades playing arenas and stadiums, inducing massive crowds to sing along to every word of indelible hits like “Born to Run” and “Born in the U.S.A.”
But 80,000 screaming fans isn’t just a sight you and I are unlikely ever to encounter. It’s also a sight the singer himself avoids in “Springsteen on Broadway,” which was to open Thursday evening at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
In this limited sold-out engagement, set to run through early February, he’s playing for fewer than 1,000 people
a night in one of Broadway’s cozier houses. And they’re not allowed to scream.
“I’ll handle it myself,” Springsteen said tersely as audience members began lifting their voices for his song “Dancing in the Dark” during a preview performance I attended Wednesday.
The command was surprising, startling even — a radical disruption of the squishy communal vibe that has defined Springsteen’s concerts for as long as anyone can remember.
So meet the new Boss, somewhat less gregarious than the old Boss.
The performer said he was inspired by a gig he played at the White House in January, shortly before President Obama split, and “Springsteen on Broadway” strips almost everything from the action-packed presentation this 68-year-old New Jersey native has perfected with the help of his long-running E Street Band.
The two-hour show puts Springsteen, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, in the middle of a stage that’s empty except for a piano, a stool, a water glass and several beat-up road cases; behind him, a brick wall looms, suggesting the side of an old factory or maybe a Catholic church. Every once in a while, a stagehand walks out and gives him an acoustic guitar, and Springsteen uses either the guitar or the piano to accompany himself as he sings songs and tells stories adapted from his impressive 2016 memoir, “Born to Run.”
On Wednesday, the singer’s wife, Patti Scialfa (also a member of the E Street Band), joined him for two songs. But that’s about it as far as production goes in a concert that feels infinitely smaller than, say, the epic blowouts Springsteen devised last year to close out the now-demolished Los Angeles Sports Arena.
Actually, there is one way in which “Springsteen on Broadway” is bigger than a normal Boss gig, and that’s the price of tickets, which topped out at $850 each before they sold out almost instantly — and then cropped up on StubHub at even crazier prices. (As I write this, a ticket for Friday night, in a center-orchestra seat several rows behind where I sat, is going for $2,800.)
Even the face-value numbers are “ridiculous,” said Micki Mersky of Short Hills, N.J., who told me that she’d paid $850 as we entered the theater — one contribution toward the $2.3 million that “Springsteen on Broadway” rang up in its first week of previews, according to the Broadway League.
Another show-goer, who gave his name only as Bruce, was more blunt when I talked with him and his twentysomething son after the concert. “It’s stupid, and he’s greedy,” he said of Springsteen. “He doesn’t need this much money.”
Then again, this Bruce had forked over the bucks to see that Bruce. And he said he and his kid were coming back in two weeks.
You can understand the allure. As the lights went down inside the Walter Kerr and Springsteen emerged from the wings to take his position, the moment carried an undeniable electricity — the feeling that we were in for something new.
Plenty of rockers have done the acoustic-on-a-stool thing, including Springsteen, who taped a memorable episode of “VH1 Storytellers” in 2005. And Broadway has hardly suffered from a lack of attention from the electric-guitar brigade; Sting, U2, Paul Simon and Green Day all have written musicals, to varying degrees of success.
But “Springsteen on Broadway” isn’t a concert or a musical. With its scripted dialogue and its precisely calibrated musical arrangements — at times, you could hear the clicking of Springsteen’s fingers on his guitar strings — the production is looking for some unexplored middle ground between the two: It wants to use theatrical convention to bring the audience into Springsteen’s mind, not to celebrate but to illuminate.
He begins at the beginning, strumming “Growin’ Up” as he talks about his discovery of music as an escape from the “lifeless black hole” of school and church and green beans for dinner. He describes a giant tree in the front yard of his childhood home in Freehold, N.J.; he recalls being sent by his mother to fetch his dad at one of the smoky bars he refers to as “citadels of mystery.”
This part of the show, set to “My Hometown” and “My Father’s House” and “The Wish,” is remarkable — a mesmerizing half-hour or so in which you almost forget you’re in a theater surrounded by other people, so evocative are his images and so natural his shifts between singing and talking.
Soon he’s moving on to recount his early days as a singer and his efforts to assemble the E Street Band, which never had the “best players,” he says, but it didn’t matter — the group had the right players.
In “Tenth Avenue FreezeOut,” he takes a lengthy digression to pay tribute to the late E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011; he uses “The Promised Land” and “Born in the U.S.A.” to fill out a moving tale about a longago road trip to California, where he met author Ron Kovic at the Sunset Marquis — “an upscale lowlife kind of place,” per Springsteen’s vivid description.
He’s good too with Scialfa as they do “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise,” both with a sense of lived intimacy that puts across some of what they must see in each other.
Throughout all this, I scarcely thought about the fact that Springsteen was using a prompter for his dialogue — either because he wasn’t looking at it that often or because his performance kept my attention from the very large monitor hanging from the front of the mezzanine.
But that changed in the second half of the show, which moves away from the specifics of Springsteen’s life and into a more philosophical mode as he sings tunes like “The Rising” and “Long Walk Home.”
During the latter, he describes “men in torchlight parades” and refers to the current moment — the Trump era, one presumes, though he didn’t utter the name — as a “bad chapter in the ongoing battle for the soul of our nation.”
Politics has always been tricky for Springsteen, who was arguably propelled to stardom by a blue-collar fan base we might now classify with the color red.
After the show, I stood on the street and talked with Fred Jenny, a fan from Verona, N.J., who pointed out that “Bruce took a little bit of a beating in his career when he did ‘American Skin,’ ” a song from the early 2000s about the New York police shooting death of Amadou Diallo. “And I think from that point on, he kind of softened” the political content in his music, Jenny said.
Perhaps that was why Springsteen seemed to be following the prompter more closely — sticking to a carefully strategized script — as the concert touched on issues that stood to divide his audience.
At least that’s how it struck me. Jarrod Roy, a young guy from Lafayette, La., who said he’d cried through half the show, told me he thought the Trump stuff felt lightly handled.
“Bruce thinks what’s going on now will fade,” Roy said.
And Springsteen would probably say Roy is right. Near the end of “Springsteen on Broadway,” the singer quotes Joe Strummer of the Clash, insisting the future hasn’t been written yet. He recalls taking a recent trip to his old home in Freehold and discovering that the giant tree had been cut down.
“But somehow we remain,” he says, a bit ponderously.
Here he seemed to be working up to the kind of optimism Springsteen dispenses in his big arena shows, moving us out of his head and back into a wider space.
But then the thing kind of fell apart. Nobody on Wednesday had tried with any seriousness to sing along until “Dancing in the Dark”; it hadn’t felt appropriate, or even possible, in a way.
When that changed, though, it turned out that Springsteen wasn’t ready for it, which felt almost like a betrayal. Earlier, his inward focus had seemed like a gift, but now it had a punishing quality that only deepened when he closed the concert with a dour, blah-sounding rendition of “Born to Run.”
He’d taken away the joy and the release that the E Street Band doles out but was no longer replacing it with any fresh introspection; you suddenly longed to be in a much larger room with many more people.
As he sang all by himself about a “runaway American dream,” I couldn’t help but think about something I’d talked about earlier with Mersky and her friend Sheryl Cohen.
They said they regarded Springsteen as the ultimate rocker, so I asked them if they could imagine anyone else doing this kind of unique engagement. Mersky said no way, but Cohen thought of another Jersey icon, Jon Bon Jovi, which made Mersky scoff.
“Bon Jovi doesn’t relate like Springsteen relates to the working people,” she said, and maybe that’s true.
But I’m confident that Bon Jovi — whose lightweight reputation means he’s as unlikely as I am to play Broadway — would’ve understood easily when his people needed to feel as though they belonged.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN is taking songs and stories to Broadway. Thinking of singing along? Don’t even.