Earlier this year, I lamented that I wouldn’t get to see Bruce Springsteen’s one-man Broadway show because I don’t get back to New York as often as I used to, and the seats were prohibitively expensive. My brother and sister-in-law, who live on the east coast, did get tickets and reported back to me how remarkable the experience of being in that theater was. After listening to them, I joked that I’d have to wait for the bus-and-truck version with some Springsteen impersonator in his stead when it came to St. Louis, or hope Springsteen would sign with Netflix for a filmed version.
Not long after, my brother texted me: “You got your wish.” Netflix did indeed make a deal with The Boss, for a special that began streaming Sunday, after his final sold-out performance Saturday night. My wife and I sat down that afternoon and were immediately entranced by Springsteen’s living version of his autobiography. I’d read the book, “Born To Run,” but hearing him re-tell some of those stories made them more impactful, particularly those about his childhood, the death of Clarence Clemons and other friends, and the myths he’s created onstage that weren’t as much about him as his audience thought.
I was enraptured, while my wife was kinda depressed by many of Springsteen’s downer stories. But we loved the acoustic versions of his songs, on both guitar and piano, the well-worn and the not-so-well-known. Moreover, I was more impressed than ever by his writing ability. The script for his one-man show is dense, cinematic, and heartfelt, and he’s enough of a showman to make it seem as if he’s relating the more emotional parts to a close friend for the first time (I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he choked up each night in the same section of one particular story about his father).
David Anthony (of The AV Club) saw “Springsteen On Broadway” in person and on Netflix, and has written a very good recap and review that I agree with wholeheartedly:
In the middle of a stage, in plain, black clothes, Springsteen lays himself bare. The show opens with what is basically a 10-minute version of “Growing Up,” as he extends the bridge to bring out more of his story, weaving it into the song and stopping dead to talk frankly with his audience. This sets the stage for what’s to come, as Springsteen slowly begins to dismantle his own legend. And while he’s still very much performing up on that stage, there appears to be a genuine desire to rectify who he is with how his audience has viewed him.
In the early going of Springsteen On Broadway, he makes reference to his “magic trick,” something that he’s used time and again over the course of his 40-year career. And fittingly, he exposes it here, calling bullshit on every single fabrication that people have taken as gospel. As he puts it, “Mr. Born To Run” still lives a 10-minute drive from his hometown, he couldn’t drive when he wrote “Racing In The Street,” and perhaps most importantly, he never worked nine-to-five in his life. To some, this could read like the admission from a life-long grifter, a ploy to rid his conscience of all that nagging guilt before it’s too late. But in reality, it shows Springsteen as an artist, one capable of taking the stories of his family, friends, or neighbors and injecting them with the rich, lived-in details that would make his songs resonate so deeply with his audience.
There have been other biographical stage shows about musicians (“Beautiful,” “Jersey Boys,” “The Boy From Oz”), but none of them told in the first-person by the singer-songwriters themselves. I can’t think of a performer other than Springsteen who could pull this off. The closest I’ve seen is the one-man show that Byrds founder Roger McGuinn staged in some small theaters a few years ago (“Stories, Songs, And Friends”), but that was more about the backstory of the songs than his own personal history.
If you’re a fan of The Boss, “Springsteen On Broadway” is must-viewing. Even if you’re not, at the very least you’ll get some compelling tales and memorable songs. I can’t recommend it enough.