NEW YORK — Bruce Springsteen previously said that he didn’t expect to make any major changes to “Springsteen on Broadway” in its second run. But he has rethought that.
The opening night show, June 26 at the St. James Theatre (which also was the first Broadway show of any kind since the start of the pandemic), didn’t just feature three songs not included in the original, 2017-2018 run. There also were changes to the script and, most important, a more emotional, more dynamic approach to the material.
Maybe it’s because the St. James is almost twice as large as the Walter Kerr Theatre, which hosted the original run, and Springsteen feels the need to reach out to those sitting far away. Or maybe it has to do with the joy of returning to performing for live audiences for the first time in more than a year. But Springsteen seems much more animated, this time around.
In 2017 and 2018, he projected intensity and focus throughout the show. But now he seems to have regained some of the crowd-pleasing abandon that was a trademark of his arena and stadium shows of his past.
You really have the full range of Springsteen here, from clowning to storytelling so deeply affecting he was wiping the tears from his eyes. More often than before, he is using a loud, commanding tone — preacher mode, more or less, even if the words aren’t sermon-like. Also more often than before, he creates intimacy by standing far from the mike while speaking or singing — and still managing to project his voice throughout the large theater.
He often got extremely wistful, at this show, when talking about the past. But he also broke from the script several times to ask fans applauding too long to “shut the fuck up,” or to refrain from cheering when the name of their hometown was mentioned. “Don’t do that!” he barked. “Your town probably sucks, just like mine.”
More genially, he talked about how he has kept busy throughout the pandemic with a variety of projects, and about how great it was to see people sitting next to each other in a theater, maskless. And he joked about his DUI charge, which was dropped earlier this year after he agreed to pay a fine. ” ‘The United States of America vs. Bruce Springsteen’ … that’s always comfortable to hear,” he deadpanned.
The three new songs served different purposes.
“Fire,” performed as a steamy duet with Patti Scialfa, added a playful element to the show, with the spouses flirting with each other as they shared a mic. Scialfa also sang part of the song on her own, giving her a moment in the spotlight that the earlier shows lacked. (Springsteen also made sure to plug her upcoming solo album.)
“American Skin (41 Shots)” made a connection to George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement in a more concrete way than the song it replaced, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” could.
And “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which closed the show, served as a hopeful, uplifting cap to an evening filled with stories about deceased family members and friends, and also gave hardcore fans the opportunity to hear a Springsteen song they had never heard in person before. (It’s from Springsteen’s Letter to You album, released during the pandemic.)
I strongly feel that Springsteen has improved on his Tony-winning show, two and a half years later.
That said, there are still problems with it.
While the first half is full of detailed stories about growing up and starting out as a musician, the second half is very disjointed, and loses the autobiographical thread for long stretches. The show’s lightest moment (“Fire”) is followed by some ultra-serious social commentary, with Springsteen talking about the “troubled and troubling times” we are living through and the attack on “democracy itself.” This leads to “American Skin,” but then that is followed by “The Rising” with no mention at all of the circumstances that led Springsteen to write that song.
Before “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” Springsteen talked about going back to his old neighborhood to find that his favorite tree from his childhood had been cut down. In the initial run, this referred back to one of his earlier stories, but since that earlier story has been cut out, this now comes out of nowhere.
Nevertheless, I think there is no question that Springsteen made a wise decision in changing the show around a bit and not just repeating what he had already done (which has already been immortalized in film and album form). While not entirely new, of course, “Springsteen on Broadway” is different enough to add to his legacy, as every Springsteen project should.
The show is scheduled to run to Sept. 4. For tickets, visit seatgeek.com/springsteen-on-broadway-tickets.
Here is the June 26 setlist:
“My Father’s House”
“The Promised Land”
“Born in the USA”
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-out”
“Tougher Than the Rest (with Patti Scialfa)
“Fire” (with Patti Scialfa)
“American Skin (41 Shots)”
“Dancing in the Dark”
“Land of Hope and Dreams”
“I’ll See You in My Dreams”