Springsteen on Broadway: Showing Us How Many Lives We Contain
GREEN He reads much of the script — which is already a gloss on “Born to Run,” his 2016 autobiography — from quite visible monitors, yet he is surprisingly adept at the illusion you mention: He plays himself, or a series of selves, with great confidence and skill. When he said he doesn’t understand himself even after 40 years of analysis, he sounded almost like a borscht belt tummler. This joke, true as it may be, would not have fit into the bleak cosmology of the original run, which left me stunned and often in tears; in that version Springsteen seemed to go to great pains to strip away all ingratiation in favor of the dark poetry of his story. Keep in mind that he was performing in the aftermath of the election of Donald J. Trump; he seemed to use that moment as a warning. Now, after 15 months of lockdown and worse, he offers much more comedy amid the severity: He does voices, impersonations and even, at the end, some crowd work. He affects a soothing familiarity, an almost Bidenesque folksiness. (I don’t believe it for a second, but it’s effective.) If his aim, as he says, is to be of “service” to society through his music, the show is his judgment about how that might best be done right now. I enjoyed it as much as the first time, and I found its shift in emphasis — its message that we may live with our ghosts and even draw joy from them — timely and moving; yet the earlier incarnation was, for me, more profound.
ZOLADZ So much of the show is about the power of memory, surviving and bearing witness. One of the most affecting segments is still that bluesy, hollered deconstruction of “Born in the USA,” during which Springsteen pays tribute to two young men who never got to grow old, veterans of his local Jersey Shore rock circuit who were killed in Vietnam. “Springsteen on Broadway” was already a show thoroughly haunted by loss (of his father, his bandmate Clarence Clemons, and his mother’s slow deterioration because of Alzheimer’s), so he didn’t have to change much for its tone to meet this particular American moment. Right now, we’re all coming out of hiding, trying to square our gratitude at surviving with the heavy weight of loss we’ve witnessed. Springsteen is certainly up to the challenge of providing that kind of catharsis, and of reminding survivors their responsibility to honor and eulogize the dead — that is, of course, what “Born in the USA” is all about. In the end, as he recited an “Our Father” in his own idiosyncratic cadence, the show felt not so much like a theatrical performance or a concert as a religious sermon — I certainly heard more than one “Amen.”
GREEN That was a new turn in this iteration. Early on he refers to being “duped” by the church as a child, and basically threatened into a lifelong submission to an unloving institution, yet after taking us through all the terrible contradictions of his childhood in the central New Jersey town of Freehold — that two-syllable oxymoron — and the more rewarding ones of a life in rock, he offers, at 71, in the church’s own words, what can only be called a benediction. I’m not even Roman Catholic and I felt forgiven for my trespasses.
ZOLADZ You mentioned earlier the change in the closing number: Instead of “Born to Run,” it’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” from his most recent record. He still opens with the wide-eyed “Growin’ Up,” the second track off his 1973 debut album. And while the set list doesn’t run exactly chronologically, this change underscores the fact that we’re watching not only a character’s coming-of-age, but the long evolution of a songwriter learning how to chronicle his inner experience and the world around him. The show’s bare-bones arrangements allow him to crack these songs open and find new riches inside even the most familiar tunes. I must have heard “Thunder Road” a thousand times in my life — at the risk of sounding basic, it’s probably my favorite Bruce song — but I don’t think it’s ever moved me quite as deeply as it did last night, hearing such a stripped-down rendition that focused on the wistfulness of its lyricism.
GREEN Cracking open his songs, he’s cracking open himself, and in the process showing us how many lives we each contain. I thought of that when entering the St. James, where anti-vaccination protesters have been demonstrating against the theater’s requirement that all audience members be completely immunized. The protesters might be happy to know that almost no one inside wore a mask — except, in a way, Springsteen, whose mask, if it ever comes off, merely reveals another and another.