Back in September, when tickets went on sale for Springsteen on Broadway, I seemed to be one of the lucky few to make it through Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan process and successfully snag tickets. I brought my mom along for the ride — which was particularly special, as she is the biggest Springsteen fan I know and the one who instilled in me my love for all things Bruce. I traveled from Seattle and she traveled from Milwaukee, and we met in New York City earlier this month to share the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When we walked into the Walter Kerr Theatre about an hour before show time, it was already clear that the night was going to be a special one. The stage was sparsely set with a microphone, a piano, an industrial-looking stool, and a few instrument crates stacked against the plain backdrop of the stage’s brick wall – all meant to make the 975-seat theatre seem even more intimate, and to transport the audience back to the tiny Jersey bars where Springsteen made his name.
Unsurprisingly, photography of any sort was prohibited, including shots of the empty stage. This set the tone for the rest of the night, during which the audience was trusted to demonstrate the restraint and decorum expected at a Broadway show. Nonetheless, the excitement in the air was electric – even for the theater staff – and everyone was already in their seats when the lights dimmed promptly at 8 p.m. for Springsteen to take the stage.
The only job the Boss has ever known is that of a storyteller, and this show highlights his extraordinary ability to captivate an audience of any size. Armed with an arsenal of material from his 2016 memoir Born to Run, Springsteen approaches the show chronologically and sets up each song with a lengthy word-for-word reading from the book – some on a mic, and some spoken directly to the audience with his signature growl only slightly louder than an ordinary speaking voice. Early reviews of the show pointed to his use of a teleprompter to keep the stories straight and chided the stiffness of his delivery as a result. Now, Springsteen seems to be entirely off-book, and as cool as one would imagine.
Over the course of about 140 minutes, Springsteen delivers 15 gems from his extensive catalog, all arranged and performed in ways that have rarely been heard before – solo, and mostly acoustic. He opens the show by covering the more anxious and troubled parts of his childhood with three heart-wrenching songs on guitar. After wrapping up a bittersweet homage to his father, he sighs, “okay, I’m gonna take you off suicide watch now,” saunters over to the piano and focuses on establishing a detailed and warm portrait of his mother.
A stunning, reserved rendition of “Thunder Road” marks the highlight of the show, and guides the narrative into Springsteen’s coming-of-age as the Boss: his unruly years as a young musician in New Jersey, his time on the road, and the formation of the E Street Band. From here on out, it’s hit after hit.
Springsteen so lovingly sets up a tribute to the late great Clarence Clemons and other members of the band and builds to such a frenzy that, for a second, it seems plausible that the band might actually come out from the wings and rip into an on-your-feet performance of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” On Broadway, the Boss goes it alone and somehow manages to conjure and sustain the same level of excitement from the crowd by pounding on the keys, roaring out the chorus, and pouring every ounce of emotion into the moment.
Springsteen’s bandmate and wife of 26 years, singer-songwriter Patti Scialfa, joins him on stage for two beautiful duets just over halfway through the show. She lends flawless vocals to “Tougher Than the Rest” and the pair each take a guitar for “Brilliant Disguise.” The only moment that Springsteen noticeably faltered in his monologue came after Scialfa left the stage, as if she had drawn him into the moment so closely that he wasn’t quite sure how to continue after she was gone. It came off as endearing rather than distracting, hinting at a connection more complex than can be expressed through words or music.
Wrapping up the show, Springsteen addressed the tumultuousness of our current political climate by expressing his admiration for veterans, reminding us of the importance of holding out hope for a better future, and weaving in themes of spirituality. Predictably, “Dancing in the Dark” marks an uplifting turn in the show, preceded by this sage advice: “Even when it feels like we’ve failed and there’s nothing good ahead of us, follow my mom’s lead and put on your dancing shoes.” This is the only point in the night that the audience had to be reminded not to sing along, with Springsteen stopping about four bars in to patiently say “I’ll take it from here.”
Before leaving the audience with a weighty take on “Born to Run,” Springsteen recites the Lord’s Prayer and tells the audience, “May God bless you and your loved ones.”
What’s perhaps most impressive about Springsteen’s performance on Broadway is its surprising juxtapositions. He’s able to shift the tone from weighty seriousness to lighthearted banter in a matter of seconds; opt for self-deprecating humor at one beat and staunch cockiness in the next; and move from a solemn ballad to a rocking fan favorite. All this without losing focus, credibility, or the audience. It’s his palpable self-awareness and unabashed vulnerability that seem to make these jumps possible.
Springsteen confronts the irony of being lauded as the working man’s hero without having set foot inside a factory, the paradox of having penned “Racing in the Street” without driving a single block before the age of 21, and the incongruity of currently residing ten minutes from his hometown after having romanticized in so many songs the notion of leaving and never looking back.
It’s clear that Springsteen is a perfectionist whose career has been deliberately building to a project of this impressive caliber. This is a show that brilliantly combines the grittiness of a rock concert with the scripted emotion of a Broadway show, and that is no small feat. I’d be remiss not to mention, though, that the Boss is backed by a stellar team of entertainment industry giants for Springsteen on Broadway.
The technical aspects of the show – scenic, lighting, and sound design – are expertly crafted to Broadway’s highest standards by Heather Wolensky (The Tonight Show), and Tony Award winners Natasha Katz and Brian Ronan, respectively. For the rest of the crew, this show marks their Broadway debut. Springsteen calls on the trusted record producers, business managers, tour managers, and roadies that he’s collected over his decades-long career to direct and produce his performance. It is a creative move that speaks to Springsteen’s innovative approach to his career, and it pays off in this show.
With an almost entirely sold-out run for the remainder of the performances, all that’s left to do is cross your fingers for a Springsteen on Broadway live album.
Springsteen on Broadway setlist
My Father’s House
The Promised Land
Born in the USA
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Tougher Than the Rest (feat. Patti Scialfa)
Brilliant Disguise (feat. Patti Scialfa)
Long Walk Home
Dancing in the Dark
Land of Hope and Dreams
Born to Run
Kelsey was music assistant at The Current from 2014 to 2016.