Springsteen’s Broadway debut is bringing audiences to tears
When legendary record producer and talent scout John Hammond signed Bruce Springsteen in 1972, the scraggly Jersey kid was envisioned as a lyrically intricate singer-songwriter, who might be New Jersey’s answer to Bob Dylan.
Now, after 45 years of tearing up stages all over the world with the E Street Band, the Boss has returned to the stripped-down sound that first got him noticed. On Thursday, Springsteen began his residency at Broadway’s 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre and, in a sense, went full circle on his career.
Dressed in his usual dark shirt, jeans and boots, and backed with just piano, his guitars and a glass of water, the 68-year-old takes his fans on a biographical journey, as told through his back catalog and a set of scripted monologues. For two hours, you’re not just listening to Springsteen’s songs and anecdotes, you’re a silent witness to entire scenes of his life.
Sections of the bare-bones show are lifted from Springsteen’s 2016 autobiography “Born To Run,” and, just as in the book, Springsteen’s childhood in Freehold, NJ, is described in arresting detail. Whether it’s his memory of seeing Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” or of having ice water tipped on his sleepy head by his mother, Adele, the tales are unnervingly immersive.
In one sequence, he remembers his mom sending him into local bars to bring his dad home and articulates the experience so well, you can almost taste the light beer, cheap cigarettes and working-class resentment that Douglas Springsteen had for much of his life.
Frequently, Bruce drifts away from the microphone, but his monologues are still audible, and in this environment, they hit home harder than any Clarence Clemons sax solo, any Steve Van Zandt guitar riff or any Max Weinberg drum fill would.
True Bruce-heads will have heard these stories hundreds of times, and the songs thousands of times. But having them whispered in your ear from touching distance means they pack a bigger emotional punch.
During “Thunder Road,” I could hear at least three people gently sobbing (full disclosure: one of them was me), and there was no mistaking the seething fury of a forgotten Vietnam veteran in the chilling slide-guitar blues version of “Born in the USA.” This isn’t your usual night out at the Meadowlands, so if you yell “Brooooce!” too much, you run the risk of getting sternly shushed.
No one could ever say the E Street Band is unnecessary, but after so many years of blistering rock ’n’ roll shows (not least the four-hour marathons that lit up last year’s “The River” tour), the best way Springsteen can revitalize his music is to pull his soldiers back.
For now, only one E Street member remains in play, and that’s his wife, Patti Scialfa. She makes a brief appearance, duetting with Bruce on “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise,” during which the couple stare each other down in a way that’s so charged, you feel like you should probably look away.
It’s not all sad Jersey dirges, though. The Boss injects some laughs into the proceedings, too. “I’ve never done an honest day’s work, I’ve never worked a 9-to-5, never done any hard labor, and yet it’s all I’ve written about,” he says at one point. But the rehearsed nature of these lines leaves them feeling a little stilted.
Thankfully, there are candid, off-script moments that stand out. During Tuesday night’s preview, the best gag came when Bruce, upon hearing the crowd clapping along to “Dancing in the Dark,” stopped playing and said dryly, “I’ll handle this one myself.” It’s billed as a one-man show, and clearly, he intends to keep it that way.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say Bruce has never presented himself in this fashion. Tours in support of 1995’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and 2005’s “Devils & Dust” both showcased Springsteen in a more acoustic setting. But those albums largely illuminated the Boss in character. This is the first time since 1972 that Springsteen has put his entire life — unclouded and unaccompanied — onstage.
Hammond passed away in 1987, but as Springsteen himself stated recently, the Broadway setup is something his Columbia Records mentor would have loved.
“John thought Bruce was perfect as he was,” Springsteen’s first manager, Mike Appel, tells The Post. “Even I thought a band would be distracting because he was such an extraordinary lyricist. Without the band playing, you’re less likely to miss those lyrics and realize, ‘Wow, that’s powerful stuff.’”
Springsteen played just seven previews — with tickets on the black market fetching four-figure sums — before opening Thursday, but he’s already drawing repeat customers.
“He brings everything, and leaves nothing,” says Rick Zins, a 56-year-old financial adviser who first saw Springsteen at the Palladium in 1976, and has already been to the Walter Kerr Theatre twice. “You have to be here to understand it, but this show is expanding his legacy.”
Bruce’s Broadway set list:
“My Father’s House”
“The Promised Land”
“Born in the USA”
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
“Tougher Than the Rest” (with Patti Scialfa)
“Brilliant Disguise” (with Patti Scialfa)
“Long Walk Home”
“Dancing in the Dark”
“Land of Hope and Dreams”
“Born to Run”