30 Dec 2018

Review: Springsteen on Broadway

From Widescreen, 1:56 pm on 30 December 2018

The legendary rocker’s theatrical autobiography is well worth the investment of your time, says Dan Slevin.

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Photo: Netflix

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Bruce Springsteen’s intimate 15-song acoustic concert from the Walter Kerr Theatre should ring in at over two and a half hours long. After all, his stadium gigs with the E Street Band regularly enter a fourth hour before the encores kick in and surely no artist of our era has felt a greater need to explain himself and his music between songs.

The Broadway show, now streaming in its entirety on Netflix after a ten-month run of five shows a week, has been described as a theatrical adaptation of Springsteen’s 2016 autobiography Born to Run with some musical accompaniment and the balance certainly appears to be tipped more in the direction of monologue than music.

There are times in this show when it feels like you are at one of those poetry events where every poet insists on spending longer introducing the actual poem than reading it (also slowing down the poem so much that every syllable gets its full weight of meaning but that’s another beef I have with poetry readings…).

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Photo: Netflix

As it turns out, this is less of a problem than it might be because Mr. Springsteen certainly has a lot to say. Some of it is political as his fears for America under Trump are made crystal clear, some is inspirational ‘learn who you are and then be that person’ self-help, and a great deal is deeply psychologically intriguing insight into his relationship with his father and how it shaped his troubled early life and that desire to “get out while we’re still young”.

But he’s also aware of the ironies that abound in his career: that he’s taken on the mantle of working-class hero while never working a day’s manual labour in his life; writing about the joys of the road while still living less than a hundred miles from where he was born. Springsteen freely admits that the identity he created in the early part of his career was an attempt to get closer to the distant (and some suggest mentally ill) father who was unable to relate to him.

The song selection in the show hews to the autobiographical (and the creation of that image) – the first three songs are ‘Growin’ Up’ (From Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.), ‘My Hometown’ (from Born in the U.S.A.) and ‘My Father’s House’ (from Nebraska) – and to the songs that are most personal to him with his wife of 28 years, Patti Scialfa, joining him for two songs from the relatively unacclaimed Tunnel of Love (which he made in 1987 during the break-up of his marriage to Julianne Phillips and the his growing relationship with Scialfa).

Patti Scialfa and Bruce Springsteen on stage in the Netflix special, Springsteen on Broadway.

Patti Scialfa and Bruce Springsteen on stage in the Netflix special, Springsteen on Broadway. Photo: Netflix/Rob DeMartin

As you might imagine, this concert performance looks and sounds perfect and the direction (from Thom Zimny, a Springsteen collaborator for 17 years) offers all the intimacy that one might have had from a seat in the theatre. The stage is tiny and the auditorium seats less than a thousand.

Tickets for Springsteen on Broadway were in such short supply that audiences had to go into a ballot but now, for the relatively low cost-of-entry of a Netflix subscription, we all get to see it. Worth every cent.

Springsteen on Broadway is streaming on Netflix.