One year on: Bruce Springsteen on Broadway is an unstoppable force
Bruce Springsteen doesn’t do short. Not by a long chalk. No, largesse in most of its forms is something he is rather partial to. In the world of Bruce, everything is long: his songs often don’t get into gear until the seventh or eighth minute, his concerts top-out at three hours minimum, and his tours - well, his tours often last longer than U2’s or Bob Dylan’s (and as Dylan has been on his never-ending tour for decades - seemingly - this is really saying something). He also pours his soul out, like a sluice, night after night after night, giving more of himself than probably any other entertainer of his generation.
And recently he’s been giving Broadway something of a run for its money, too. Since October last year, Springsteen has been performing five nights a week at the 960-seat Walter Kerr theatre on 78th Street in Manhattan, just a saloon bar spit from Times Square, playing guitar and piano and recasting episodes from his wildly successful autobiography Born to Run.
And a year in, he doesn’t appear to want to stop. The preview performances of Springsteen on Broadway began on October 3, 2017 followed by the official opening on October 12, 2017. Officially the run was originally expected to finish two weeks later, however due to high demand for tickets and issues with scalpers, additional dates were added through June 30, 2018. In all honesty it was unlikely that Springsteen would have bothered preparing a show if he was only going to perform it for a few weeks, and the initial short run was probably advertised to see what the commercial response was, and also of course to gauge whether or not the Boss actually enjoyed doing it. As it was, the show was extended a second time on March 20, 2018, extending the run right through to December 15. Which, if you believe Springsteen’s management, is when it’s due to finish for good.
Springsteen’s original idea was a simple one. Prosaic, even: break from his tradition of playing long band shows in front of tens of thousands of people. He wanted to downsize for a while. "My vision of these shows is to make them as personal and intimate as possible,” he said. “I chose Broadway for this project because it has the beautiful old theatres which seemed like the right setting for what I have in mind. In fact, with one or two exceptions, the 960 seats of the Walter Kerr Theatre is probably the smallest venue I’ve played in the last 40 years. My show is just me, the guitar, the piano and the words and music. Some of the show is spoken, some of it is sung, all of it together is in pursuit of my constant goal—to communicate something of value.”
This being the anniversary of the show, it is fascinating to see how Springsteen has developed as a cabaret entertainer, and I don’t say that pejoratively; for an entertainer of his magnitude, communicating in front of a thousand people can often be more complicated, and certainly more revealing that performing in front of fifty thousand (which is what Bruce does most nights of his life). And he appears to do it effortlessly.
The first thing you notice is how small the auditorium is, and while I might have been expecting to see Springsteen perform in a traditional Broadway theatre, the Walter Kerr is one of the smallest, so when you walk in, the stage’s lone microphone stand looks close enough to touch. So you touch it.
Bruce is funny, too, and while a lot of the material in his best-selling autobiography is over-written and melodramatic (I feel, not that many concur with me), on stage it works perfectly, as Springsteen weaves you into his extraordinary life as he chronologically, beautifully, hilariously, retells it. He has mastered the art of the punchline, as well, and when he carefully unfolds an anecdote, the denouement is delivered with expert precision. I had expected the soliloquies to be more free wheeling, but apart from some perfectly judged interjections about Trump - and boy does he do this well - this is all by the book.
And brilliant it is too. As are the solo renditions of his songs, performed either on guitar or piano: “”Growing Up”, “My Hometown”, “My Father’s House”, “Dancing In The Dark”, “Born In The USA,” “Born To Run”, “Land Of Hope and Dreams”, “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”, “Thunder Road”, a simply remarkable “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”, “The Rising” and more. Because his wife Patti Scialfa was at home “being a Mommy” we were unfortunately spared their duets on “Brilliant Disguise” and “Tougher Than The Rest”, but then we were treated to a slightly longer show (two and a half hours with no interval), complete with an encore. As Bruce sings himself, in this train your dreams will not only not be thwarted, but your faith will also be rewarded.
There are two parts of the show that are more revealing than any others, one that grabs you almost before you’ve sat down, as Springsteen spends the first five minutes of the show self-deprecatingly demolishing any rights he may have to represent the working man (it’s lacerating, completely surprising and because of that, brings a collective smile to the house), and then conveniently just before the last section, where he talks about the two motivations that seem to propel all performers - namely the desire to leave home and explore, and then inevitably the unnecessarily torturous search for a way back.
Home, it’s what the search for success is all about, and Springsteen appears to have found it in the confines of the Walter Kerr theatre.
Of course, there has obviously been much speculation that the show might move to London, to the Palladium, the Festival Hall or even maybe the Albert Hall, although industry gossip will tell you that the E-Street Band, Bruce’s institutional touring minstrels, are getting itchy feet and fingers, and that they want him to return to the boards, their boards.
If Bruce listens, and this really is the end of the run (and this show really is Born to End), I recommend you sell everything you own in order to catch it before it finishes in December - including cars, houses and members of your immediate family. So grab your ticket and your suitcase, as thunder’s rolling down the tracks, and if you don't know where you're going now, you know you won't be back.
Springsteen on Broadway is on until 15 Dec 2018 at the Walter Kerr Theatre