Many people were surprised that, after an initial 14-ish-month-long run and 236 performances, Bruce Springsteen is bringing his “Springsteen on Broadway” autobiographical show back for a summer-long second run that heralds the larger return of Broadway after 15 months of pandemic. Other Broadway theaters will have a limited re-opening in August and a full one in September, but for now, it’s just the Boss: “Springsteen on Broadway” re-opened to a packed (and fully vaccinated) house at the St. James Theatre on Saturday night — read Variety’s thorough report on the show here — and continues until Sept. 4.
It’s largely the same show as the previous run, but needless to say a lot has happened since “Springsteen on Broadway” initially closed on December 15, 2018. The show feels different, and obviously not only because he’s decided to drop the former closer “Born to Run” and replace it with “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” from Springsteen’s most recent album, “Letter to You.” It dramatically changes the closing tone of the finale from exuberance to something more circumspect.
Jon Landau is a former music critic who began working as Springsteen’s manager and co-producer in 1974 — and they’ve been together ever since, creating one of the longest-lasting and most formidable artist-manager teams in contemporary music history. The return of “Springsteen on Broadway” was announced less than three weeks before it launched on Saturday night — and, as Landau tells Variety, it really did come together that quickly. He spoke with Variety for about 35 minutes on Tuesday (June 29) before he headed over to the theater for the evening’s show.
How are you all feeling about opening night and the first shows back?
It’s a good moment. We’re all still high from Saturday night and I’m actually heading over to the theater after we finish.
It had been two and a half years since he’d last performed the show in public. Did he rehearse much?
He had been working on revisions and ideas, and we did two warm-up shows in the theater on Thursday and Friday, and we opened on Saturday. The first rehearsal we had about 300 friends and family, the second had about half a house, with a rehearsal audience. By Friday night, we were ready to roll, and there was no doubt.
What did you think of opening night?
Speaking for myself, I was thrilled, and I can tell you a little about why in particular. Since we did the first 236 shows, three huge events occurred: the pandemic, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and January 6th and what I think was a threat to democracy, which is also how Bruce describes it in the show. And I believe that everybody, the audience, the artist, the manager (laughs) and everybody in our country experienced those three phenomena very profoundly. So since we did the show the last time, the audience has been changed by what has happened, and Bruce has changed. The man’s voice on the stage sort of encompassed those three phenomena within the scope of the show. And that gave it an extra feeling of depth to me, even more than its predecessor. To me, even though there are only three song changes in the show, the overall effect was distinct. In fact, the return to Broadway is really its own show, and the emotion in it is a little different than the emotion created in the original.
I think the substitution of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” for “Born to Run” was brilliant, and summed up this particular edition of this show in a very profound way, just as it does at the end of the album, “Letter to You.” I chatted with Bruce about that change, because I had assumed that he would still do “Born to Run” as an encore. I mentioned that to him and he said, “No, the story ends here. This is the story I’m telling right now, and this is where it ends.” He couldn’t have been clearer about it. And I think he made the right choice, both putting the song there and not putting anything after it, and letting that be the last word.
It changes the tone of the finale pretty dramatically — what do you think people are intended to take away from it?
My opinion is, the encounter with the pandemic that we all experienced, whether we lost somebody, had the illness ourselves, or simply spent a year and longer living with it as a daily potential threat to ourselves and our families — we all had a different kind of encounter with the fear of death. And I think that “Dreams” is a song about death, and yet it is about life and even a notion of an afterlife and winds up being deeply inspirational. It confronts and it inspires. For me, as the most biased person out there, it’s truly one of his great ones.
I had expected he would address the pandemic at the beginning of the show, and he did talk about it a few minutes in — but I guess he’s actually ending with it?
Well, yeah! But another difference for me between this show and the previous iteration is there was a certain formality to the show. I think in the original, Bruce was actually playing a part — the character Bruce Springsteen from the book of “Born to Run.” He did not come out and say, “Welcome to the show everybody, how ya doing?” and just address the audience as he normally would, in his own voice. In the first iteration, he came out and looked at the audience and said “DNA” — he put you right in the middle of it: “This is a play, I’m not just up here doing a collection of songs, this is something else.” I think now there is a little more informality in the way he addressed the audience.
So it’s almost like he took on the Bruce Springsteen character for the first run, but that’s not who he normally is onstage?
It was a little more formal. And also, he had written the show, it was scripted. Normally in concerts, he has some stories he tells pretty regularly, but there’s tremendous space for improvisation — he even takes requests from the audience. This isn’t that. This is a written show, and it was revised, re-edited, finessed for Part II.
It’s just a little counterintuitive that the character he would inhabit for his autobiographical show would be different from the person he normally is.
Well, when you’re doing something autobiographical, you’re telling the story of your life, I would underline the world story. You’re taking your life and shaping it into a narrative: You’re leaving certain things in, taking certain things out, and shaping that into a narrative. That’s what writers do!
Do you think that’s what enabled him to do the same show so many times, as a performer who usually changes his setlist every night? It’s going to be around 300 Broadway performances by the time this is over.
When the original show was first announced, a lot of fans said, “Oh, this is crazy, he’ll get bored out of his mind doing the same show every night.” But during the first 236 shows, he made one change: At some point, after he had been doing “Long Walk Home,” he decided it might be stronger and fit more what he wanted to communicate to do “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” That was the only change he made.
And if you saw him at the beginning and the end, he was just as excited on stage. Yes, it was time to stop, because he had other things to do and records to make, but he didn’t stop because he was in any way tired of doing the show. We extended the first run several times, and we’d reach a certain point, and I’d say to him, “Okay, are we wrapping up?” “No, let’s keep going, put another bunch of shows on sale.” And that was because he just loved doing it. So unlike what we’re all used to from the rock show, where he doesn’t do the same setlist two nights in a row, it emphasizes that this is a different sort of creativity and a different mode, and he experienced it in a unique way. It’s different — it’s something more than a concert. That’s one of the reasons it’s on Broadway.
He got very emotional — for him, anyway — several times during Saturday night’s show, and it didn’t seem to be because of coming back from the pandemic. It happened when he was talking about people who have passed away: family, [longtime saxophonist and wingman] Clarence Clemons, friends. Do you think that’s because he hadn’t inhabited his Broadway character for two and a half years?
In my opinion, the reason for the occasional visual display of emotion is — and he tells the audience this in the monologue that precedes “Dreams” — he is visiting with these people that he’s lost: “I’m visiting with Clarence, I love to come here,” he says, “I wanted to do these additional shows because I get to visit with them,” and he’s having a new experience. He’s in the moment — this is a man who, when he’s on stage, whether it’s here or a concert or a studio, he’s always in the moment, and that’s what he demands when he’s on stage with the E Street Band. He explains in the introduction to “10th Avenue Freeze-Out,” that what you need most of all are people who are on your wavelength, that are as tuned in as you are to what you’re trying to do. And that’s who they are. He tells you pretty directly what he’s feeling, and he’s utterly open about it.
Did you expect there to be a second run?
I didn’t expect there to be a second run now. I thought he could revisit it somewhere along the line, but I was not thinking it would happen now. Producer Jordan Roth, who owns Jujamcyn Theaters and both the Walter Kerr — the original “Springsteen on Broadway” theater — and the current St. James Theatre, he had called me a few times about this concept of Bruce going first. Jordan is very much an activist in protecting Broadway and wanting what’s best for it, as well as obviously his own shows, and we spoke several times during lockdown, and he said it would be spectacular for Bruce to sort of preview the reopening of Broadway. I called Bruce each time, and we chatted about it, but it was a little early the first time he called — we just weren’t ready to think about it.
But this last time he called, toward the end of May, Bruce took about a day to think about it. And so it’s 1 a.m. on a Saturday — I’m a night owl — and I see I have a text message, and it’s Bruce saying, “I’m in, let’s go for it.” Normally when we make an important decision, I ask him to wait a day or two, and we re-discuss it. I just want to be sure this is a final decision — this is a big commitment! So I texted him back in some humorous way, basically saying, “You sure about this?” And he said, “You don’t have to ask me again. We’re doing it.”
The Walter Kerr wasn’t available for the full range of dates we wanted, so we went over to take a look at the St. James, and it was decided in one second: We opened the stage door, walked onstage and the little group of us who were there just said, “This is the place.” And we were off to the races — really, the whole thing got pulled together in about three weeks’ time. We had to redo the lights and the sound, and we had to redo the stage, the set, to recreate the exact look, sound and feel of the original.
The St. James holds almost twice as many people, yes? [The Walter Kerr holds around 975 people; the St. James 1,710.]
When we were looking the first time, we looked at a variety of theaters, and somewhere around a thousand seats felt safe. What was needed for the show is fundamentally an audience that is quiet. We would never do this show at [New York’s] Beacon Theatre, which we love, because it’s a rock house and people are used to coming in and sitting down for half an hour and then going out into the lobby, which is always packed, and getting some drinks and then coming back. It’s a different atmosphere. For this, we wanted the Broadway atmosphere, that “I’m going to sit down and listen to a performance.” And the St. James felt remarkably similar. We didn’t have any doubts about maintaining the feeling of intimacy — it is bigger, but it’s not that much bigger. And also, after 236 shows, Bruce knows what he’s doing up there.
Did the fact that it lasts for the entire summer vacation play into the planning at all?
Coincidence, that never figured into anything.
The theater followed Covid protocol very seriously: ticket, proof of vaccination, photo I.D. If there’s a big spike, do you think you’ll need to postpone or cancel shows?
Well, we will be responsive to anything that occurs. But we are following official New York City recommendations and dealing with a fully vaccinated house, and we feel, with the information that exists, that this is going to be a safe experience. People can make their own judgment about that — if you’re not ready to go to a show at all, that’s individual. We felt that having a fully vaccinated audience would create a level of safety: If they come, people know that they have been vaccinated, and they’re sitting next to someone who is.
Are any other Broadway theaters open, or is it just you?
We are the vanguard! I believe that in August there are some theaters opening and in September there are widespread openings. But right now, I think 42 or 43 theaters are considered Broadway, and we’re the only ones right now — we have Broadway to ourselves!
And it was proposed by Jordan Roth that you lead the charge?
He did, we’ve become quite friendly. He’s a really extraordinary person and we’ve really enjoyed the association, and he encouraged us, definitely. People do seem to see this as the beginning of the reopening of Broadway, which is an incredible, important, symbolic and real event. It’s one more step into the hope for a return to a more normal life. The timing felt right.
Do you think, in an ideal scenario, Bruce and the E Street Band will tour next year, as a couple of bandmembers have said?
Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m gonna concentrate on what we’re doing right now, and I’ll save that for our next conversation (laughing).
Fair enough! How are “Broadway” ticket sales?
(Laughing) Do you wanna guess? It’s a virtual sellout, it’s long gone. It turns out people still wanna see him!
Is there anything more you’d like to say?
Let’s see. The man has made 20 albums. He’s written more than 400 songs. He’s done thousands of phenomenal concerts and created an entire legend around his performances. He’s now directed and co-directed four films, he wrote an incredible memoir that was reviewed brilliantly and was No. 1 in many countries. He distilled the book into this play, now two different variations of it. He’s 71, and I’ve never known him to have more energy and more drive than he has right now.
And to see him on Saturday night, he’s at the top of his game right now — it’s thrilling. The man is phenomenal, I think the phrase “one of a kind” applies. And for me having the opportunity to be a contributor for my entire adult life, what a ride. What a ride!