As Bruce Springsteen began the last verse of “The Promised Land” on Tuesday night, he wandered away from the microphone but kept singing, and his voice carried, purely under its own power, to the 960-or-so pairs of ears within range at the Walter Kerr Theatre. It was a startlingly intimate moment, very different from hearing an icon speak or seeing them up close. It was like hearing The Boss singing in his house.
Obviously, in a sense he was. “Springsteen on Broadway” — which opened tonight (Oct. 12) after a week of previews and runs through Feb. 3 — is a kind of live autobiography based on his 2016 memoir, “Born to Run”: a series of stories, each capped by a song that suits the theme or events he’s just described. Springsteen defined the show to Variety in an aw-shucks manner — “I tell some stories and play some music” — but it’s actually one of the biggest projects of his career. Having reached virtually every mountaintop a rock star can, at 68 the workaholic singer-songwriter is embarking on another challenge, and the scripted nature and relatively rigid format of this four-month-long run are new disciplines for a man who famously switches up his setlists and speechifying on a nightly basis. The opening “Growin’ Up” is followed by “My Hometown,” which is followed by “My Father’s House” (see where he’s going with this?), framing memories of the Holy Trinity of family, church and Jersey that will be familiar, if comparatively rose-colored, to anyone who’s read his book. The Boss specializes in Steinbeck-size statements, and this show is no exception.
At such close range, his stadium-scale charisma is necessarily dialed down, and in many ways the show is the obverse of a usual Springsteen concert: Particularly during the first half of the two-hour performance, the songs take a back seat to the stories, acting almost as illustrations or interludes or interjections. He reads from teleprompters for most of the spoken segments — which is slightly distracting in such close quarters, as if your date were constantly focusing on something over your head — and, possibly due to Tony Award rules, sticks to his script. Except for two songs where he’s joined by his wife and E Street Band-mate Patti Scialfa, he’s all by himself on the stark stage, playing piano, harmonica and a series of acoustic guitars.
While conversational and homey, “Springsteen on Broadway” is a more formal concept than some may have entered the theater expecting. This is theatre after all, somewhat reminiscent of biographical shows ranging from the Carole King biomusical “Beautiful” to even Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain. This is Bruce the raconteur, the auto-mythologizer, at times almost a minister, although the latter more in his phrasing than his statements. Each monologue has a topic sentence, a few well-timed jokes and a conclusion; as usual, when his words get a little weighty or self-important, he’ll deflate them with a self-deprecating crack or a funny phrase. And while he’s faithful to the original feel of most songs, he drastically reinterprets some of the biggest ones. “Born in the U.S.A.” — “a protest song!,” he says emphatically — is sung almost as a field holler, and he races through parts of “The Promised Land” and “Born to Run” in a Woody Guthrie-ish run-on.
Yet despite the relative lack of spontaneity (except when the crowd began clapping along on “Dancing in the Dark” and he said with a smile, “I’ll handle it myself, thanks!”), the show is not a glorified audiobook. Springsteen’s everyman persona can obscure his deep intelligence and formidable talent as a wordsmith: He has a novelist’s eye for detail (“My mom’s high heels would echo down the linoleum hallway”; “My dad’s favorite bar smelled of beer, perspiration and after-shave”) and a master politician’s gift for flow, impact, rhythm and the ability to speak intimately to many. The show is loaded with great lines and we’ll spoil just a few of them: “I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with a bit of fraud — including me”; “Those whose love we wanted but couldn’t get, we emulate”; “I have never held an honest job in my entire life.”
He winds down with a long musing on mortality, remembering departed family members, friends and bandmates. Then, after a characteristically self-mocking introduction, he says the Lord’s Prayer (lingering on the lines “Give us this day — just give us this day”), quotes the Clash’s Joe Strummer, and eventually wraps with a benediction for his audience, his career and the evening. “This is what I have presented to you as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick,” he concludes. “I hope I’ve been a good travelling companion.”
If the show’s closing sounds more calculated than it might have felt in the theater, maybe that’s part of the story, too. “Springsteen on Broadway” is as much a self-made monument to its master’s vision and hurricane-force ambition as it is to his life and career, and it bears the mark of a self-made man who’ll write his own history, thank you very much. As such, it’s not hard to imagine, decades from now, skilled impersonators taking the script and the songs and performing the show, Hal-Holbrook-as-Mark-Twain style, sustaining The Boss’ music and legend — not to mention the family business — for generations to come.