Those who attend rock concerts and church services with equal fervor can kill two birds with one stone at Springsteen on Broadway — provided they can scrape together a thousand bucks. Leaving behind his disciples in the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen fills all the holy offices at the Walter Kerr: minister, choir, altar boy, even magic wafer. For two unbroken hours, the Boss straps on ax after ax (a new one for each song), spreads his buff arms crucifix-wide, and growls: This is my body, man; and this is my blood.
No apologies for the Vatican kitsch. As Springsteen notes in his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run — from which this script was adapted — the rock star was raised “in the bosom of the Catholic Church” in Freehold, New Jersey. As a kid, he kept the faith but discovered the joys of heresy when Elvis and the Beatles invaded the American home. Hooked on rock ’n’ roll’s transgressive pose, Springsteen determined to construct his own mythology. “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud,” he announces early. The multiplatinum songwriter goes on to note that he’s become wildly successful chronicling the lives of people in nine-to-five dead-end jobs, war veterans, factory workers. “I’ve never seen the inside of a factory,” he says with a sigh and a mischievous squint. It gets a laugh, one of many. At this church, it’s the priest who confesses.
That’s the beauty of this disarming and revelatory concert-cum-monologue: Springsteen punctures his legend even as he demonstrates why it was so damned seductive for more than forty years. His endearments are many: the sentimental storytelling, the ballsy musicianship, the talent for melding mystical grandiosity and everyday struggles (fast cars, dating girls, punching out at the end of the day). He drew graffiti-smeared Norman Rockwell sketches, set them to a high-octane Jersey Shore sound of roots rock and stadium anthems, and belted punchy lyrics in that easily parodied but distinctive, twangy rasp. While his range isn’t as broad as it used to be, he sounds and looks great, thanks to superb lighting and sound design. I’ve no idea what digital wizardry Brian Ronan has at his command, but when Springsteen strums his guitar, it fills the house with the reverberations of a metal orchestra. Natasha Katz’s lights often bathe the singer in bluey shadows, the man bent over his instrument in serious communion with his Garden State muse.
The piece is linear, in the sense that it moves forward, but it also eschews shading. In outline, we meet some folks who shaped Springsteen: a father who worked hard but was depressed and drunk too often; a heroically optimistic and nurturing mother; saxophonist Clarence Clemons, the “Big Man,” dearly missed; even a backyard tree that fascinated the young Bruce. Girlfriends, industry buddies, fellow artists — none gets much stage time. Springsteen’s current wife and backup singer, Patti Scialfa, shows up to duet on “Brilliant Disguise,” but otherwise, this is a hermetic universe our rock Adonis occupies with his ghosts and the tunes they inspired.
There are about fifteen musical numbers, most of them compellingly stripped-down. “The Rising,” Springsteen’s post–9-11 elegy, has become even more plaintive and heart-catching over time. Other tracks, like “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Long Walk Home,” are less pungent, more generic bar ballads. Still, even non-fans will get a chill from his deconstructed, bluesy “Born in the U.S.A” or the inevitable, glorious “Born to Run” for a finale.
Springsteen is listed as writer and director, and, to his credit, the night is undeniably slick and entertaining. But let’s be clear-eyed about what’s going on: Audiences are paying thousands and thousands of dollars to watch a wildly wealthy and beloved rock star read excerpts from his memoir on teleprompter between songs, with minimal ad libs or interaction with the crowd. The evening has shape, and it’s gracefully executed by a lifelong showman with tremendous charisma and intelligence, but at bottom, it’s a ritual. He’s Bruce, we love him, and therefore the evening is exalted, extraordinary. That’s not so much a criticism as a recognition of a sociological phenomenon. “The primary math of the real world is one and one equals two,” Springsteen says during the section about Clemons and the E Street Band (accompanied by “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”). “But artists, musicians, con men, poets, mystics, and such are paid to turn that math on its head, to rub two sticks together and bring forth fire.” One plus one equals three, Springsteen explains, when faith’s in the room.
What’s slightly disappointing is the magician’s unwillingness to dig deeper into the mechanics of his tricks. To judge from his sometimes florid but engaging memoir, the Boss probably has a very interesting library, and you wouldn’t mind him walking you through the lyrics of one or two hits. Instead, literarily gilded recollections from childhood and adulthood segue into songs that digest and amplify the emotions. Embracing his duality as shaman and mountebank, Springsteen sends us into the night with a benediction: “This, I pursued as my service. This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story.” It’s juicy rhetoric, but for deeper drama you may have to look elsewhere. Or construct your own show: Play the audiobook of Born to Run, drink a few beers, set his greatest hits to shuffle mode. It’s certainly a cheaper ticket. But then you wouldn’t see him in the flesh, so close, so real, making three out of one and one.
Broadway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive. There’s never been a shortage of aging celebrities eager to bask in their achievements for adoring fans. The solo show is a hallowed tradition with its high points (Elaine Stritch: At Liberty) and low ones (Suzanne Somers’s The Blonde in the Thunderbird). In pop culture, the stage memoir is an instant punchline (see The Big Sick or La La Land), but no one is laughing at the Boss as he dispenses gravelly pearls of wisdom and the occasional joke at his own expense. There may be confused applause amid the self-consciously poetic rhapsodies between tunes, but the congregation is there to worship. You know by the sound of its unique amen: “Bruuuuuuce.”