Springsteen on Broadway review – joy and glory as the Boss unveils his flaws

Walter Kerr theatre, New York
The rock superstar kicks off a four-month residency with two spellbinding hours of stories, reimagined hits and a dissection of his own legend

The audience is in a state of high anticipation; the air charged, the voices high among a flurry of sharp blazers, strong perfume and expensive hair. As yet, however, no one is entirely sure quite what they are anticipating. Until now, Springsteen on Broadway – the singer’s four-month residency at the 975-seat Walter Kerr theatre – has been a mysterious proposition.

Still, there are clues: the stage has been styled in a mode we might call “Starbucks industrial” – painted black brick, wreaths of cable, glowering factory lights, alongside flight cases, grand piano, microphone. The implication is clear: this will be no high-spangled production, but something stripped-back, unadorned, unflinching.

When Springsteen takes to the stage it is with similarly studied understatement: a soft stride across the boards, clad in faded black. Even his hair, so recently a liquoricey crown, has been allowed to soften. He takes a sip of water, casts his eyes across the crowd, and launches into an irreverent prologue designed to both acknowledge the theatricality of the event and undermine his own legend. “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with fraud,” he declares. “And so am I. In case you haven’t figured that out yet.”

What follows is two hours of music and storytelling interlaced with a kind of warm intimacy. There are anecdotes that might serve as footnotes to his arena shows, and passages some might recognise from last year’s autobiography, but given new life here as if they were always meant to be performed, not sit palely on the page.

Springsteen and his wife, Patti-Scialfa.
It’s as if he stands in her emotional shadow … Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa. Photograph: Rob DeMartin

The songs tonight are cherry-picked from across his 45-year career, big-hitters such as Dancing in the Dark and Thunder Road lying alongside quieter moments such as My Father’s House and The Promised Land. Many are reimagined for the occasion – Growin’ Up, from Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ (1973), is spun out across several minutes, at one point taking on a kind of incantatory reverie that recalls Van Morrison’s Coney Island. Born in the USA, meanwhile, is recast as sour, lost-souled blues. “It is,” he reminds the crowd, “a protest song.”

At such close range, Springsteen’s precision as performer is quite astounding, each moment deliberate yet effortless. He plays as if it’s heavy work, with a strain of the arms and a set of the face.

He can conjure a crowd, too, pitching his tone somewhere between beat poet and baptist preacher. Midway through the two-hour show he steps back from his performance of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out to deliver a tribute to the E Street Band’s late saxophonist Clarence Clemons: “Clarence was elemental,” he says gently. “Losing him was like losing the rain.” He slows the piano to a soft pitter-patter, allows just a wink of stillness, before a sudden downpour of keys. In an instant the audience is unleashed: clapping, singing, whooping, whistling. We’re not at the theatre any more.

‘People come to rock shows to be who they are at their most joyous, who they are at their deepest.’
‘People come to rock shows to be who they are at their most joyous, who they are at their deepest.’ Photograph: Rob DeMartin

Among the evening’s most arresting moments is the arrival on stage of Springsteen’s wife, the musician Patti Scialfa. She accompanies him on Tougher Than the Rest and Brilliant Disguise, two songs from Tunnel of Love – the album he wrote in the wake of his split from his first wife Julianne Phillips. At an arena show these moments can be engulfed by the scale of the production, but here there’s a fragility and a new light cast on the songs and his relationship with Scialfa, as if he stands in her emotional shadow.

There’s a similar tenderness as he speaks of his parents, and of Elvis Presley, and the Arizona desert, and of Freehold, New Jersey, the hometown he barely left, painting it as a character as essential to his career as any member of the E Street Band.

Springsteen returns often to the idea that he is a creation, pointing out his flaws, contradictions, his silliness. Even tonight, he seems to say, in this semblance of authenticity, he is still performing. “I have never held an honest job in my entire life,” he announces. “I have never done an honest day’s work. I’ve never worked nine-to-five. I’ve never done any hard labour. And yet it’s all that I’ve written about. I have become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something that I have no knowledge of.”

What then has made these songs so resilient? What is it that still thrills the (mostly white, mostly male, mostly middle-aged) faithful? To see him play an arena is not to define it but to experience a huge heft of feeling. Tonight, by contrast, he seems to elucidate its power. “There’s nothing like the feeling of being young and leaving town,” he says. And it is this, in so many ways, that Springsteen offers: a sense of invitation and possibility – to leave, to go with him, to find faith, to feel. But tonight it’s not just the escapist thrill he offers, it is also the steadying hand, the talk of depression, disappointment, age, fidelity, the sweet marriage of masculinity and vulnerability.

For all his self-deprecation, his desire to show himself as flawed, there is a glory here, too. Across these two hours he pays respect to the transformative, ludicrous joy of what he does – and to its importance, too. “People come to rock shows to be who they are at their most joyous,” he tells the audience. “Who they are at their deepest.”

Beneath the crisp tailoring and the heady fragrance of the theatre there seems a new and quickened pulse; a sense that something deep and joyful has occurred here tonight. And after the crowd roar, the ovation and the long, long, long applause, the house lights lift, and the woman behind me with the Jersey caw and the scarlet toenails delivers her verdict. “That,” she says, between audible sobs, “was the best thing I have ever seen.”


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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