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Review: Bruce Springsteen's 'exuberant and intimate' Broadway debut

Bruce Springsteen Image copyright Getty Images

Bruce Springsteen is breaking box-office records with his one-man show, Springsteen on Broadway.

The rock star made $2.3m (£1.8m) in his first week of previews, behind only Hamilton and Hello, Dolly! – which both played more shows in the same period.

Mixing live music and storytelling, the show is set to run for 16 weeks, with The Boss taking up residence in the 960-seat Walter Kerr Theater.

“It’s probably the smallest venue I’ve played in the last 40 years,” he said.

The show officially opens on Thursday night – but the BBC’s Elysa Gardner managed to catch one of the previews.

Image copyright Getty Images

Bruce Springsteen’s first Broadway show is neither a musical nor a concert in the tradition of his previous solo tours.

Written and directed by The Boss, Springsteen On Broadway – which arrives roughly a year after his autobiography, Born To Run – is a meticulously crafted, deeply personal journey with set words and music, with the star alternately accompanying himself on guitar and piano.

But the two-hour program is also, in its distinctly intimate, understated fashion, an affirmation of the exuberant showmanship and vivid storytelling that Springsteen’s rock and roll shares with musical theatre.

As a songwriter, we’re reminded, he’s as much an inheritor to Rodgers and Hammerstein as any contemporary pop artist; an unabashed romantic with a probing social conscience, whose soaring tunes give full-throated voice to American dreams and the demons that haunt them.

The songs in Springsteen On Broadway are clearly chosen less to show off Springsteen’s array of memorable characters (or hits, for that matter) than to acknowledge the people and events that shaped them.

Not surprisingly, more time and detail are devoted to his youth than his nearly 45 years as one of the most famous people on the planet.

“I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with a bit of fraud,” he announced at a preview before the official opening night, before tearing into his first number, the early classic Growin’ Up. Two verses in, as if to underline the point, he paused to quip, “I’ve never held an honest job in my life… and yet that’s all I’ve written about.”

Such self-deprecating humour, which extends to tales of Springsteen’s wayward youth and early career struggles, was offset by moving, lyrical tributes to his father, a depressive who sought refuge at the local bar, and his defiantly positive mother.

“She gave the world a lot more credit than it deserves,” Springsteen observed, heading to the piano for an achingly tender The Wish.

Image copyright Shutterstock

Springsteen also played the rock and roll preacher, naturally, applying a shrewdly scaled-down version of the shamanistic intensity that has whipped packed stadiums into frenzies. The script used winking but seductive repetition, with playful references to the pleasures of the flesh, as well as the general promises of youth – captured in exhilarating readings of Thunder Road and The Promised Land.

As the show progressed, though, the emphasis shifted to more mature concerns and rewards. It’s here that Springsteen’s ability to open his heart and transcend sentimentality – as the most affecting rock and musical theatre artists almost invariably do – came to the fore. Back at the piano for a muscular Tenth Avenue Freezeout, he held forth without reserve about late E Street Band sax hero Clarence Clemons.

Joined by wife and fellow E Street member Patti Scialfa for two songs, he chose to wrap with Brilliant Disguise, an account of the frailty of love, written while Springsteen was married to another woman, made all the more poignant by a couple that has survived it.

Politics did not go entirely unmentioned; after noting that folk don’t like rock stars advising them on such matters, Springsteen made reference to “the mess we’re in” – embellishing that observation with a colourful adjective, but avoiding the T-word.

Nodding to an era when his lyrics were twisted by another president, Springsteen introduced Born in the USA with blistering, Eastern-flavoured chords (the show’s most flamboyant demonstration of his guitar virtuosity), then sang the first lines a cappella, his voice raw and weary.

But that’s plainly not the USA Springsteen chooses to see, or represent. One of the evening’s most rousing numbers was The Rising, an account of courage, sacrifice and, yes, transcendence that was the title track of an album Springsteen released less than a year after 9/11. Its hero and narrator is a firefighter working that day, facing the abyss but also looking beyond it.

It’s an image that, 16 years later, carried a fresh sense of urgency. Springsteen spoke of finding “beauty and power” in American stories, a goal that has found him consistently defying jingoism, and prodding us to keep dancing in the dark, while reaching for the light.

Image copyright Getty Images

Setlist:

  • Growin’ Up
  • My Hometown
  • My Father’s House
  • The Wish
  • Thunder Road
  • The Promised Land
  • Born In The U.S.A.
  • Tenth Avenue Freezeout
  • Tougher Than The Rest
  • Brilliant Disguise
  • Long Walk Home
  • The Rising
  • Dancing In The Dark
  • Land of Hope and Dreams
  • Born To Run

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