Bruce Springsteen has described his new Broadway show as a “third entity,” a hybrid of songs and storytelling that’s neither a straightforward musical performance nor a conventional one-man show. Currently slated for a sold-out run through February at Manhattan’s Walter Kerr Theatre after officially opening last Thursday, Springsteen On Broadway is essentially an adaptation of Springsteen’s 2016 memoir, Born To Run, borrowing the book’s structure and much of the “dialogue,” which unfurls on a teleprompter posted near the balcony that Bruce only fitfully feels compelled to consult.
The show works like this: Bruce stands on stage for two hours, mostly alone — save for a stunning two-song cameo by his wife, Patti Scialfa — and performs 15 tracks from throughout his 45-year recording career on guitar and piano. And he also talks about the things that inform those songs: His father, his mother, rock and roll, Jersey, The Big Man, fame, social justice, transcendence, America. Is it a concert? A play? Performance art? Whatever you call it, Springsteen On Broadway is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
For the Springsteen fanatic — here’s where I admit that I’m afflicted with that incurable disease — the central appeal of Springsteen On Broadway is intimacy. That is the invaluable commodity that people are paying thousands of dollars for, the sort of uncommonly close proximity to Springsteen that can’t be felt even from a killer spot in front of the stage on an E Street Band tour. The 960-seat Walter Kerr Theatre is between 1/20th and 1/50th the size of the arenas and stadiums that Bruce normally plays. When I saw Springsteen On Broadway last Friday, I was seated dead center in the fourth row, approximately a dozen feet from the Boss. I was so close that I could keep tabs on a fly that circled Bruce throughout the show’s second half. If I had a fly swatter, I could’ve leaned forward and smashed it. Maybe he would’ve appreciated that.
When you see Springsteen in a venue that small, what’s most overpowering is his voice — how strange and incredible it is to hear that iconic carburetor roar without amplification and pitched down to a level several notches below “arena-rock scream.” When Bruce sat behind the piano to play a starkly mournful “My Hometown,” or was bathed in vivid red light and boundless shadows while rendering “The Promised Land” into a hardscrabble desert ballad, I felt my throat close and sinuses flair, a near-Pavlovian response to a uniquely direct and personal experience. I’ve loved Springsteen songs for as long as I’ve loved songs, but this was something else — this felt like a late-night conversation, or a warm embrace. To label Springsteen On Broadway a tearjerker doesn’t go far enough. Bruce might as well have literally reached out and pulled the tears out of my eyes.