A constant question hanging over “Springsteen on Broadway’s” ongoing seven-or-so-month-long run has been: How long can he do it? How long can veteran road warrior Bruce Springsteen, whose concerts are constantly evolving organisms, play the same songs in the same order, accompanied by the same general script, in the same theater, night after night after night? Halfway through his last tour, a 13-month trek ostensibly celebrating the anniversary of his 1980 album “The River,” he grew bored with playing that album in its entirety and instead played his first two albums almost in their entirely, interspersed with a handful of “River” songs and a shifting cast of multiple other hits and deep cuts.
The man himself provided one perspective just minutes into his 95th-or-so show at the Walter Kerr Theater on Wednesday night, a special event for contest ticket winners from SiriusXM’s “E Street Radio” channel. The show combines stories from Springsteen’s 2016 autobiography “Born to Run” with performances of 15 of the best-loved songs from throughout his career, and part of his opening spiel is to dispel born-to-run-working-man assumptions one would make based on his songs and image. One of those is the fact that he’s never worked a five-day-a-week job — “until now!”
On this night, he added loudly but seemingly jokingly, “I don’t like it!”
In truth, judging by his performance he’s enjoying it quite a bit. But after taking most of February off, Springsteen is two weeks into the second three-month run of the show, and comparing a first-week-preview show (read our review of that show here, and our two-part interview with Springsteen here) with one on Wednesday, some five months later, the Boss is showing seasoning and increased comfort as well as some understandable, unsurprising impatience with his latest creation.
Compared with the sharpness of the storytelling in the show’s first week, at points on this night his delivery felt a little worn — as does everyone’s when they’ve told the same story too many times — and in a couple of spots his voice took on an almost “yadda-yadda” tone. His foot tapped nervously at a couple of points while he was speaking; occasionally he fidgeted with his harmonica holder.
But those moments were far outnumbered by ones that took on shadings and emotions that have evolved as he’s settled into the show. During the long segments on his parents, his love and understanding for them — and his comic asides that his dad “had the ass of a rhinoceros” and his mom “could make conversation with a broom handle” — was palpable and moving, particularly given the age of the audience: When he mentioned at one point that his mother is now 92 and seven years into Alzheimer’s disease, there was a knowing “Mmmm…” from multiple people in the crowd.
He’s changed up the script without deviating from its main points, and rarely used the teleprompters that he relied upon heavily during the early shows. But most of all, his performance has become more, well, theatrical. After decades of arena-sized body language, he’s scaled himself down without losing any of his enormous presence — his body has learned a new language. He’s figured out how to be larger-than-life in a small place: He’s learned the power of stillness, how to use pauses for dramatic and comic effect, and how to use his body almost as a set piece and secondary — and at times a primary — form of communication.
After delivering the punchline of a story about a music-biz mover-and-shaker coming to see his early band and then sleeping with the young Boss’s girlfriend, he just stands there, with one hand in his pocket, the other arm hanging limply at his side, his guitar slightly askew and a sardonic smirk on his face, as if he’s embodied a silly cartoon of himself.
Following are several more observations about how the show has progressed:
1) The first change was evident even before we’d entered the Walter Kerr. At the beginning of the run, Springsteen seemed overwhelmed by fans waiting outside the theater, hoping for selfies and a handshake. But on Wednesday, he emerged from his ride with a sharpie at the ready, gamely posing for photos and signing albums for fans.
2) He’s responding to the audience more. While in October he stopped fans from clapping along with “Dancing in the Dark” — “I’ll handle it myself, thanks,” he said with a smile — on Wednesday he responded to (and gently undercut) those in the front row intent on completing his sentences by smiling and saying, “Good answer.” When he discussed the math of how a good band makes “one and one make three,” he playfully told the audience “You’re getting smart!” And when some crowdmembers clapped at his mention of his early manager Carl “Tinker” West, he employed that body language and just stared, incredulously and mockingly, to hilarious effect.
3) While Springsteen has always dropped his share of f-bombs on stage, the cursing seems more colorful now — and even (perhaps unintentionally) profane. At one point he said, “You know what they say about Catholics — there’s no getting out.” (laughter) “F—in’ bastards!”
4) He’s talking Trump, without naming names. “I’ve seen things over the past year on American streets that I thought were resigned to other, uglier times,” he says late in the show. “Folks trying to normalize hate, calling upon the most divisive, ugliest ghosts of our past. I hope we’re just going through a terrible chapter in the battle for the soul of our nation.”
5) His story about his elder sister Virginia marrying young and having a baby has changed slightly. In earlier shows he said she’d gone off “to the wilds of South Jersey” and had a baby — “never to be seen again.” But on Wednesday he included details of how she married a rodeo bull-rider and settled in South Jersey — “because that is where the cowboys are” — adding that 50 years later, the couple are still married “and still go to the rodeo.”
6) He even shouts out his gym — Jersey Strong (which was still called Work Out World last fall). He worked the name into a part of the dialogue about how, back in the days before his home state became cool, no record executives were venturing to Asbury Park to discover him. “There was no Jersey this, Jersey that, Jersey Jersey Jersey, Jersey strong — hey, I invented that!”
The SiriusXM connection also apparently brought out an unusual assortment of luminaries. The channel’s Howard Stern — seeing the show for a second time, after attending with Billy Joel during the fall — Jenny McCarthy and husband Donnie Wahlberg were in the house, along with country legend Emmylou Harris, “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert, comic Ricky Gervais, actor Liev Schreiber, NBA star Dirk Nowitzki, Def Jam Records CEO/Eminem manager Paul Rosenberg, and (no joke) Gary Cohn, former Director of the National Economic Council and chief economic advisor to President Trump.
“I can’t stop crying,” McCarthy told Variety of the show, which she was seeing for the first time. “It was one of the most heartfelt, beautiful, real, authentic, storytelling, poetic shows that I will never forget for the rest of my life.”
For Wahlberg, several moments hit home, particularly how “relatable” Springsteen is to the audience. Springsteen’s childhood memory of retrieving his father from a Freehold bar, which he paints as “citadels of mystery,” rang true to the Boston singer.
“I walked into bars to get my dad,” Wahlberg said. “I felt [Springsteen’s] authenticity was really special. I was a kid with a dream and imagined it happening — and I know it was not just me. I could feel it in the air.”