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Springsteen on Broadway: Eulogy, Elegy, and America

the Walter Kerr Theatre these days

Springsteen On Broadway is acoustic, or a cappella, but its beginning is electric: Bruce Springsteen, alone, on a spare stage with his spotlight. There are a couple of barstools, a center microphone, a grand piano, two glasses of water. Against the exposed back wall of the tiny theater are metal-banded black trunks, ubiquitous for a band and a man on the road.

In a loose chronology, with much left out as must be, given the space of two hours and change, Springsteen walks us together through life with him. He’s an easy, engaging raconteur, and most particularly in telling of his childhood and youth in Freehold, New Jersey, in a house currently up for sale. The neighborhood was full of relatives and close family friends; the Catholic church they attended — every Mass, every wedding, every funeral — was only blocks away. As Springsteen spoke, and occasionally sang, I began to feel as if I was watching a Jersey version of James Joyce's Dubliners:  beginning with the narrator as a child, with stories progressing through boyhood and young manhood, full of smells and sounds and things the senses recall decades later. They share the Catholicism, the intense sense of place. Freeholders. A little boy, waist high to an adult, is sent into the local bar with its one lit door to extract his father. Beer and cigarette smoke, the smells of the bar. His father’s work shoes, green work pants and shirt bisected by a black belt, his father’s face above — a little flushed, and misshapen, as Springsteen grins, though not happily, “by Mr. Schlitz.” The boy remembers the click of his mother’s makeup case on the bathroom sink in the mornings, and the complementary click and tap of her high-heeled shoes as she heads to and from work, a place where she is happy, every day. The boy climbs a tall, spreading tree on his street, and camps out in those limbs just as Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn once did, in other trees, in earlier Americas.

His youth is viscerally told, as it is in his recent autobiography that is at the heart of Springsteen On Broadway. His father’s depression and his mother’s optimism are both powerful influences. Springsteen recounts, movingly, a dream in which he fulfills the wish to let his father know how much of the senior Springsteen is in his son’s stage persona: the “man on fire,” performing before tens of thousands in a T-shirt and dark pants, singing songs of factory workers and men who worked stray jobs and odd jobs, as Doug Springsteen did. Springsteen shakes his head. “I’ve never had a 9 to 5 job.” He never worked in a factory, himself. He did not know how to drive a car (until an impossible cross-country trial in a manual-drive from Nashville to San Francisco when he was in his early 20s). His mother provides some of the only joy in an overall bleak show; the image of her in her matador pants and heels, dancing with her son in his Beatle boots, gives way to a superb version of “Dancing In The Dark.”

Version, yes, because Springsteen has rearranged every one of the songs he sings in the show. Do not go expecting a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band evening. He’s no one’s jukebox, and, as he will remind you often, essential members of that beloved band play now only in our rich memories. As he spoke of Clarence Clemons, during a long interval in the midst of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” it conjured the man back for us all.  Somehow it seemed wrong that the last time I ever heard Clemons play was with another band. Then, as I thought about it while Springsteen spoke, drawing us all into our own thoughts and versions of what he was saying, it was all too right. For me, Clemons was standing on the stage at the Beacon Theatre, blowing starlight and fire from his almighty horn, while Levon Helm beamed at him from behind his drums and Phoebe Snow danced beside him. That was the last time I ever heard him. As Springsteen called out “Big Man” and the crowd stood and applauded, his litany of the lost and the endurance of their spirits was something it felt like we’d all internalized.

Darkness At the Heart of Town

Springsteen is 68 now. His father died in 1998, but his radiant mother lives on, “smiling, down in Red Bank,” as he said at one point. Other family members are in the cemetery he visited on Sundays as a boy, where he and his sister Virginia (who drops out of Springsteen On Broadway early on) played hide-and-seek among the headstones as his mother saw that the graves were kept clean. Clemons and Danny Federici are chiefest among the bandmates and friends lost. They are never forgotten as the evening rolls on, and, as the chronology proceeds toward the present, numbers increase. Standing all the while in the wings has been a woman whose appearance realizes, in the flesh, much of what Springsteen has been saying and singing about past and present. Bruce introduces Patti Scialfa, since 1991 his wife, as he first met her: a performer. In a bar on the Jersey Shore (strangely, he does not name The Stone Pony; perhaps it is to avoid a welcoming, loving yell from the audience), Springsteen heard her pure clear voice singing The Exciters' "Tell Him." These were the first words he heard her sing: “I know something about love.” He sings them himself, stops, and says, “Woah.” The gap from 1984 until their becoming a couple in the late '80s, with Springsteen’s first marriage and Scialfa’s own long earlier career between (and before, and since), is not part of the show. She joins him onstage for two songs in a graceful cameo that lightens the night. Both numbers are lovely, although downbeat. “Tougher Than The Rest” explains the lovers, and love, of the song in its title. “Brilliant Disguise” is a song about marriage, and addresses, as do Springsteen’s spoken words after it, the concept of trust. Scialfa doesn’t speak a word during the show. She plays and sings, that voice every bit as beautiful now as when she sang "Tell Him" long ago, and then steps back offstage. The night has gone from Joyce to Beckett; it’s as if Estragon has left Vladimir on his own. (They were both entirely in black on the night I was at the show, intensifying this coupling.) Scialfa returns for a curtain call at the end. They began to bow, but Scialfa hesitated. The open neck of her blouse threatened to malfunction, and she stopped, smiled, and pressed it closed with her right hand before bowing. Bruce saw why she had paused and delayed the bow; they laughed quietly together, then, holding hands, in the only unfiltered moment of real intimacy of the night.

Earlier in the night, after finishing talking about his father, Springsteen announced he was taking the audience “off suicide watch.” However, the two Mrs. Springsteens, one way or another, provide most of the only bright moments thereafter. Bruce’s jokes are ironic, or self-deprecating, and laughter catches in your throat. The scene in which Springsteen leaves Freehold at 19 in the back of a flatbed, stretched out on the stars atop assorted furniture, paused only briefly by the police and then waved (relievedly) on and out of town, is gorgeous. It’s a condensed, sweeter-feeling On The Road moment — a road that has, as Springsteen acknowledges with humor, ended up a matter of minutes from where he was born and raised. Well, yes and no. The Springsteens live in Monmouth County, New Jersey, on a horse farm of close to 400 acres, when they are not in Florida or Los Angeles, or on the road, touring. But for him the current road is Broadway, a different sort of place for a musician in an essentially one-man show to be. (This is not to say rock stars don’t inhabit the Great White Way with ease and belonging:  see, e.g., Bob Dylan, who has just concluded his most recent residency of many at the Beacon.) Most of Springsteen On Broadway is Springsteen speaking, not singing. And when he does sing, he performs stripped-down, slowed-down versions of his hard-rocking classics that make of them laments and protests more than celebrations, blues instead of rags and hollers. The ghosts of Tom Joad and Nebraska (1982) haunt the Walter Kerr’s stage.

Redemption Song

Bruce himself reminds us at the very start that among the reasons he wanted to make it as a rock and roller — once the unnamed Elvis Presley, “from the Southern sticks,” showed him the way — were fame and a buck. Springsteen On Broadway is designed to make one feel as if it is naked, open, painfully honest, and entirely autobiographical. Yet it is also a dramatic construction, a show, a performance — and an astounding one, which is exactly what makes you feel this way. Always remember this, when you are in any theater. Remember it when you hear Springsteen and the E Street Band on tour, too; recall David Remnick's profile of Springsteen for The New Yorker, in which he recounts Springsteen rehearsing everything, even his "spontaneous" nightly patter with an audience not yet present. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, of the profile, but when Bruce seated himself at the piano and began new, slow, dramatic versions of his songs, I thought of Tony Bennett singing and performing — or, more accurately, Dylan in his current crooner’s mask, performing American songbook standards you thought you had by heart. Springsteen speaks more than once in the show of the masks we wear and set aside. Listen to him. He wears more than he sets aside. 

At the end, Springsteen leads us back into his youth once more, to the site of the tree he used to climb, cut down long ago but still, in his mind’s eye and in the air as he stands on the spot, stretching its branches into the stars. Back up the street past houses now occupied, he shakes his head, by “video-game-playing strangers,” and to the church, still the same. The last litany Springsteen leaves us with is not his own “Born To Run,” sung with the slow deliberate force of a nine-pound hammer and full of protest over today’s awful chapter in the country he loves and still believes to be moving forward, but one from that church: the Lord’s Prayer. He ends what he calls his own "long noisy prayer" with one of the best-known prayers on the planet: something a part of life to many millions. 

You do not leave this show having gotten to know the “real” Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen. You are not close to him, even if you want to believe that the very large amount of money you have paid to be there makes you so. You are not his friend in the end. You’re a fan, you are the audience, you are a face in the crowd. You can love him, and many of us do, but don't fool yourself that you know this man himself. He smiles, he bows graciously, brandishes that guitar with which, he grins, he learned to pose at seven years of age — and he is gone.

Who is this Spring Steen? I'm not big on Broadway but maybe I should check him out!

Actually, I would have thought they would have went with the alliteration of Bruce on Broadway!