Springsteen on Broadway Is Worth It for the Quiet
You’re not paying for more. You’re paying for less. And that’s probably what the Boss is there for, too.
The first Bruce Springsteen tour I saw was the first where he didn’t tell any stories. It was his 1999–2000 reunion with the E Street Band—his first with his most famous group in more than a decade, and the first I was old enough to attend. My expectations had been set by the Live 1975–85 boxed set and by the half-dozen universally recommended concert bootlegs I’d patiently tracked down: I anticipated 30 to 35 songs clocking in around 3½ hours, not including the intermission that would come about 80 minutes in. Springsteen would introduce or interrupt a handful of numbers with anecdotes or jokes I would later learn had been carefully rehearsed to sound off the cuff.
What I saw turned out to be substantially different from the E Street Band tours of old. The reunion tour did away with the intermission (though the shows were still nearly three hours long) and the raconteuring. “Little” Steven Van Zandt, who’d quit the E Street Band about five years before Springsteen had fired the rest of them, had returned, bringing the number of guitar players on stage each night to four. These concerts were very loud.
Springsteen’s previous outing had been a solo acoustic affair supporting The Ghost of Tom Joad, an almost anti-commercial album of downbeat ballads set on the U.S.-Mexico border, arranged and performed in a whisper. He had booked substantially smaller rooms than the arenas and stadiums he’d been playing with the E Street Band for the better part of 20 years. The Artist Formerly Known as the Boss began these unusual concerts by politely asking the audience to keep quiet during the songs. These shows included his first public performances of “Born in the U.S.A.” arranged the way he’d initially written it: As a lament sung by a Vietnam veteran, inspired by Ron Kovic’s war memoir Born on the Fourth of July and Springsteen’s subsequent friendships with Kovic and Vietnam Veterans of America founder Bobby Muller. (Springsteen had headlined a benefit concert for the VVA in Los Angeles just a few months before he’d written the song.) It’s not the jingoistic hymn many people have interpreted it as over the past three decades and change, but you have to be able to hear the verses of the song to get that.
Springsteen’s requests for quiet on the Tom Joad tour were not always honored. There was usually someone in the crowd who just wouldn’t accept that watching a 45-year-old man perform somber folk tunes about desperate meth cookers and homeless boy prostitutes on acoustic guitar and harmonica called for a different code of conduct than watching an 8-to-12-piece rock band thunder through anthems about believing in the promised land and not surrendering and pulling out of here to win. Springsteen going acoustic was Dylan going electric in reverse, and as with Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, you can hear affronted fans heckling him on the bootlegs.
But unplugging allowed Springsteen to do something Dylan would find appalling: to speak at length about the inspiration and context for his work. (The Ghost of Tom Joad also included a bibliography, and if that wasn’t enough to show you what a literary guy Springsteen had become, he’d begun sporting a goatee.)
I love this sort of banter, so when I read that Springsteen would be adapting his 2016 memoir Born to Run into a monologue punctuated with songs, I was elated. That show, Springsteen on Broadway, opened in October for a cautious initial run of eight weeks, which sold out instantly. Last month, Springsteen announced a third and final series of 81 extension dates that will keep him commuting to the Walter Kerr Theatre on West 48th Street through Dec. 15. The Boss is going to hit his 69th birthday just under a year into the first five-day-a-week job he’s ever had. This sort of simultaneously myth-burnishing and myth-puncturing insight is woven throughout Springsteen on Broadway, which opens with its subject remarking that the boardwalk in his native Asbury Park, New Jersey, is “tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.”
It’s a line straight out of his autobiography, which I’d already consumed in both its print and audio forms. By the time Bruce reached his memoir-publishing phase, I’d attended a double-digit number of E Street Band concerts—enough that I might even consider skipping the next tour. But then Springsteen on Broadway was announced. Not a rock concert, not a musical, not a Spalding Gray–style monologue, but some unusual hybrid of all those things. I knew I had to go.
This meant facing down the absurd economics of the thing. The average ticket price was $497, more than twice the largest sum I’d ever paid to see Springsteen play. The rapturous reviews that appeared after Springsteen on Broadway’s press performance in October, particularly those written by theater critics rather than the music journalists who had chronicled Springsteen’s career previously, made no attempt to wrestle with the numbers. “No Doubt About It. Bruce Springsteen Belongs on Broadway” ran the headline in the Washington Post.
The verb stuck in my craw. Belongs. To say that rock ’n’ roll’s Gatorade-chugging, crowd-surfing chronicler of blue-collar disappointment—a guy who’d heckled the high rollers in the skyboxes when he played Los Angeles’ Staples Center on the night that venue opened in 1999—belongs on Broadway made me see no white, no blue, just red. Broadway. The most expensive and exclusive performing venue in the United States, with the possible exception of Las Vegas. And none of those reviews took into account what the value proposition of a show with a top ticket price of $850 looked like to the base who had helped Springsteen remain a top touring act long after his music ceased to have the kind of cultural cachet it had in the ’70s and ’80s. Two hours? 15 songs? To someone with a drawer full of ticket stubs and a hard drive full of bootlegs, that sounded like half a Springsteen show for two to five times the price. (That is, unless you’re able to win the lottery.)
One of the observations Springsteen returns to several times in the show is that if you’re sufficiently open to inspiration, one and one can be made to equal three. Without vouching for his poetic arithmetic, I can tell you that having paid the equivalent of one of my mortgage payments for a pair of aisle seats in Row K, I found another factor that comes close to balancing the financial equation: volume. Not volume as in quantity. Volume as in loudness. Or quiet.
The hush in the 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre allows him to do two things. First, and most obviously, it allows him to tell his stories, as long as he wants, without fear the audience will become impatient. In the past, his jibber-jabber has been an object of mirth: It was parodied by Ben Stiller on Saturday Night Live and by McSweeney’s, with the former playing Springsteen in an ad for Bruce Springsteen: Just the Stories, “a complete collection of the stories Bruce tells in between songs.” Here, it’s arguably the main attraction, so no one can demand he cut the talk and move on with the rock. And the peer pressure discouraging interruption is strong. It was stories like the one on Live 1975–85 that precedes the song “The River”—in which Springsteen recalls running away with a few friends for several days after they all got their draft notices and finally returning home to report to his famously disapproving father that he’d failed his physical—that pushed me from casual fandom to insane mortgage payment–flushing devotion. But even there, on the version Springsteen handpicked for his very first live album, you can hear many fans cheer when he gets to the news that he failed his physical, to which he responds, “That’s nothing to applaud about.”
Second, it allows him to perform the songs more conversationally and delicately than would be possible even in the theaters and concert halls he played on the Tom Joad tour. He plays the entire show on guitar or piano, with the only other accompaniment coming from his bandmate and spouse Patti Scialfa, who joins him for two songs from 1987’s Tunnel of Love. While the set includes a few rarities, it mostly consists of revealingly downscaled versions of material he’s played hundreds of times before—chosen, it would seem, for the way they form a not-strictly-chronological narrative of his life and career. Hearing the mileage that a 68-year-old brings to a song he wrote at 22, but is no longer trying to sing as though he’s 22, is inescapably poignant. That’s what you hear when he growls “Growin’ Up,” the first song heard in Springsteen on Broadway. And when he played “Born in the U.S.A.,” it sounded more like an open wound of a blues than ever, its barking choruses subsumed by its howling verses. He didn’t have to ask us to be quiet.