UPDATE, 8 PM: The echo referred to in the opening paragraph below is not of Stephen Sondheim (composer/lyricist of Sunday in the Park With George), but of James Lapine, author of that show’s book.
EARLIER: You might think Bruce Springsteen doesn’t belong on Broadway, but you would be wrong. “I miss the beauty of the blank page,” he says at one point, echoing Stephen Sondheim, “and the endless possibilities.” He speaks that sentence, addressing the rapt and sometimes raucous audience of 939 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, in a bourbon growl, a confidence whispered in 1,878 ears all at once. It says: “Here I am, me and you, and yes, I miss the kid stuff, the starting out, the beckoning road, the scared-crapless seduction of the next gig. You’ve paid serious money to get up close and personal with me, and I will make good on the deal, but you know and I know we’re on a road trip through memory – fond memory! – and our possibilities will never, ever again be endless.”
But enough about Sondheim.
Springsteen on Broadway is a perfect concert. There’s not much of a set to speak of, just a microphone and, off to the side a bit, a piano; the theater’s rainbow-jimmies marquis is more exciting. For a couple of intermissionless hours, beginning when the bass-boom roar of Bruuce! has finally quieted down (it will return with annoying regularity), he slings a series of Takamine guitars (one a 12-string, tuned modally and played with a bottle slide) around his shoulders and a harmonica around his skull, occasionally sitting down at the Yamaha grand.
He begins not with a song but a monologue that, like his autobiography Born to Run is a self-deprecating confession of some of the things he is not: Not a driver tearing down the streets. Neither a working-class, nor a war hero. Not a drug-addled loser. Not a wanderer but someone who, having spent his life writing and singing about the thrill of leaving home, lives 10 miles from the street he grew up on.
“I’m a fraud,” Springsteen says, but that’s not true. He’s merely a liar, like all artists. I attended his concert the same week I was astonished to learn that Joni Mitchell in fact never came across a child of God who was walking along the road but was, instead, in a Manhattan hotel room when Woodstock was unfolding in White Lake 75 miles away when she wrote that anthem for a generation. A couple of times during Springsteen on Broadway, I thought of Mitchell singing, in “For the Roses”: the lights go down and it’s just you up there, getting them to feel like that.
But enough about Joni Mitchell.
Seeing Springsteen on Broadway must be similar to what it was like to be in the audience for Clapton Unplugged: an electrifying (well, an acoustifying) session of mostly big big songs rendered without embellishment. And so when Patti Scialfa joined her husband to sing “Tougher Than The Rest,” I didn’t miss the boom of the organ ricocheting off the walls of Madison Square Garden, because we were hearing a love song, a serenade that’s come right after the man has professed his devotion before the entire congregation. Patti sticks around for a rousing “Brilliant Disguise,” too, before taking her leave.
Here’s the set list:
My Father’s House
The Promised Land
Born in the U.S.A.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Tougher Than the Rest
Long Walk Home
Dancing in the Dark
Land of Hope and Dreams
Born to Run
Woven through are ruminations on his mom, his old man, the big tree, now gone, that offered sanctuary in the front yard, its exposed roots providing battlefields for his toy soldiers or whatever else his imagination conjured. He recalled meeting Born on the Fourth of July author Ron Kovic and other Vietnam vets, and how that had affected him as one who’d successfully obviated the draft. He paid loving and deeply felt tribute to saxophonist Clarence Clemons, the Big Man who was such a key to the updated ’50s rock sound of the original E Street Band, and who died in 2011.
Springsteen not infrequently looked up at the front of the mezzanine, where his script was scrolling on a screen, much of it adapted from Born to Run. I took that as a good thing: Springsteen on Broadway is written as much as sung and, rock’n’roll or no, it’s a serious gig. Bruuuuce flattered everyone there with his attention, and the attention to detail.
Underscoring that seriousness, it’s important to acknowledge the brilliant work of sound designer Brian Ronan, who manages the neat trick of high volume without losing the essential closeness of the experience. (With all due respect to Broadway’s sound designers, rockers nearly always get it right.) And Natasha Katz’s lighting is hauntingly effective, through shadow into play, or just letting the man sing enveloped in a deep, quiet aura.
Well I was sharing a sleeping bag with a hogshead of mud the weekend in White Lake that I turned 17 and heard Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” – and not up in some damn hotel room. Woodstock was big. Springsteen on Broadway is right up there.
But enough about me.