At 8:01pm, the cheering started. Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce.
"I just got off a train from Boston 20 minutes ago," a woman said to no one in particular. "Philly," someone in front of her replied. "It's getting surreal now," a man told his wife as they took their seats in the eighth row. The lights hadn't gone down yet, but to say that the audience was primed is an understatement.
They stood as soon as they saw the outline of his guitar in the darkness, roaring even louder. As he strolled to the microphone center stage, he commanded them to sit with a wordless gesture. And then, Bruce Springsteen, rock god, idol, actual legend, launched into a two-hour, 15-song set that left everyone breathless.
Meticulously scripted (with strategically placed prompting devices), yet still retaining the air of being off-the-cuff, Springsteen on Broadway offers a walk through the artist's life similar in style to Billy Crystal's solo show 700 Sundays. It's a mix of monologues and music that are aimed to illustrate the Boss's personal and professional development. There's an overarching question, and it's comparable to the one in his 2016 memoir '"Born to Run'' (on which the spoken sections of this show are largely based): How did a man who "never held an honest job in my entire life" become the musical poet of the working class? He doesn't know. But he does know what accounts for his success. "DNA," he says. "Natural ability. Study of craft. Development of and devotion to an aesthetic philosophy…A furious fire that just don't quit burning."
That fire ignited on September 9, 1956, when Bruce, age 7, witnessed Elvis Presley's television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show and convinced his mother to rent him a guitar. Fond recollections of his youth punctuate the 1973 tune "Growing Up" and the exceptionally beautiful 1984 song "My Hometown." A discussion of his father, with whom he had a difficult relationship, segues into "My Father's House" a song that he growls as though it's as an open wound. The haunted nature of this particular performance proves that you can be one of the most famous people on the planet and still be terrorized by the demons of your childhood. Things get more upbeat when he talks about his mother, a section that concludes with a sweet song, "The Wish."
The most exciting aspect of Springsteen on Broadway is how Bruce still manages to surprise us after all these decades. "Born in the U.S.A." is not the rousing anthem that gets played on the classic rock stations; he plays this Vietnam War protest song like he did in the 1990s, raw and contemptuous, and on a slide guitar. Lighting designer Natasha Katz bathes him in shadows that match the stinging nature of his presentation.
On the more cheerful side, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," about the formation of his E-Street Band, becomes a riotous tribute to his celebrated saxophonist, the late Clarence "Big Man" Clemons. Patti Scialfa, Springsteen's wife and E-Street Band mate, shares the stage with her husband for affectionate renditions of "Tougher Than the Rest" and "Brilliant Disguise."
Theater is a shared experience, but it's not a concert. When the audience started clapping and singing along to "Dancing in the Dark," like they would at an arena, Springsteen stopped, stared out, simply said "I got this one," and they respected his wishes. This emotional honesty, on display throughout the evening, could only register in a venue like the Walter Kerr Theatre, a 960-seat auditorium that's practically the Café Carlyle compared with the rocker's usual venue: an 82,500-seat arena like MetLife Stadium. Even the last row of the Kerr's balcony is closer in proximity to the stage than the nosebleeds in East Rutherford.
Before Springsteen launches into his final song, "Born to Run," he recites the Lord's Prayer and thanks us for going on the journey with him over all these years. Everyone in the audience, though, has their own thank-you for him, a gratitude to the Boss for leading this adventure. We'll never get this close to him, or be able to hear him talk and sing without the benefit of amplification (like he does several times throughout the show) again. Springsteen on Broadway is an unforgettable experience, and any fan who has the bucks will not regret Stone-Ponying up for it.
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