To paraphrase a famous rock lyric: Broadway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive. There’s never been a shortage of aging celebrities eager to revisit their achievements for adoring fans. The solo self-tribute is a hallowed tradition with its high points (Elaine Stritch: At Liberty) and low ones (The Blonde in the Thunderbird). In pop culture, the stage solo is an instant punchline (see The Big Sick or La La Land). But no one is laughing at rock god Bruce Springsteen as he dispenses gravely pearls of wisdom and the occasional joke at his own expense.
“I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud,” this refugee from Freehold, New Jersey announces early in Springsteen on Broadway. The multi-platinum 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 sighs with 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 40 years: the sentimental storytelling, the ballsy musicianship, the talent for melding mystical grandiosity and everyday struggles, fast cars, faster girls, leaving home and punching the clock. 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.
The piece is linear – in the sense that it moves forward, but also because it 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 young Springsteen. Girlfriends, industry buddies, fellow artists – none gets much stage time. Springsteen’s wife and backup singer Patti Scialfa shows up to duet on “Brilliant Disguise.” Otherwise, this is a hermetic universe our rock Adonis occupies with his ghosts and the tunes they inspired.
There are about 15 musical numbers, most of them compellingly stripped down. “The Rising,” Springsteen’s post-September 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, 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” in the finale.
Springsteen is credited as writer and director, and the night is undeniably slick and entertaining. But let’s be clear-eyed about what’s going on. Audiences are paying thousands of dollars to watch an insanely wealthy and adulated 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 stating a sociological phenomenon. “The primary math of the real world is one and one equals two,” Springsteen narrates 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 equal three, Springsteen explains, when faith’s in the room.
Embracing his dual identity as shaman and mountebank, Springsteen sends us into the night with this breathless 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.” Juicy rhetoric, but for drama you may have to look elsewhere.
Or construct your own spectacle: 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.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.