springsteen on broadway: a performance of unrivaled intensity

In my most recent Listening to Joni post, I said that I write with my brain, but I listen to music with my heart. A few nights ago in New York City, my music heart broke in pieces, over and over again. I've seen a lot of theatre -- and quite a bit of Bruce Springsteen -- but I'd never experienced anything quite like this.

Springsteen on Broadway is one of the most intensely moving theatrical experiences I've ever had.

The show starts with humour, both Springsteen's typical self-deprecating humour, but also a satirical bragging -- the guy who has never held a job in his life, singing about the workingman, the guy who has never driven one block singing about cars: "That's how good I am." Sometimes the humour is just a facial expression and a hand gesture -- which plays perfectly for the tiny 900-seat house.

But the humour soon gives way to a raw intensity. Springsteen relieves the tension with the occasional laugh, but by that time, the audience is chuckling through the tears.

Speaking of audience, I have never sat in a quieter, more respectful crowd. It didn't hurt that before the show started, we were repeatedly warned: cameras, cell phones, talking, texting would not be tolerated. Disobey, and ushers will remove you from the theatre. These tickets were hard to come by -- who's going to risk it? It was also announced that at the conclusion of the show, the house lights would go on, and you may take photos then.

It worked. The crowd was silent and incredibly respectful while Bruce was talking and singing, applauded only between pieces -- then burst into near hysteria at the end of the show.

At my first Springsteen concert, in 1978, my long-awaited Thunder Road was ruined by a drunk asshole in the aisle screaming the lyrics at the top of his lungs. And who-knows-how-many more concert moments have been ruined by sing-alongs and clap-alongs. Not this night! A few people started clapping along with Dancing in the Dark, but it died after a few notes. (Read the beginning of this excellent review.)

The show is like a stripped-down version of Born to Run, Bruce's memoirs, and it follows the same arc: the discovery of rock and roll, the town, musical ambitions. Set pieces on his father, his mother, Clarence (Tenth Avenue Freeze Out), Patti (Brilliant Disguise, Tougher Than the Rest). Ron Kovic and Born in the USA. America's broken democracy and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

It is anything but a greatest-hits compilation. Many of the songs were interesting choices and often barely recognizable in new arrangements. Much of the speaking was almost spoken-word poetry, almost chanted, like an incantation -- words spinning the web that binds us to Bruce's music, and his life to ours. The review linked above compares the show to Lena Horne's The Lady and Her Music (which I saw -- twice! -- in 1981), and that's an excellent comparison. Call it a musical journey through the life and times of Bruce Springsteen. A portrait of the artist as best he can. Call it life is pain but still, we love.

Springsteen on Broadway is strictly for fans only. I can't imagine it would be very interesting to anyone not already interested in Springsteen's music and his life. I was also glad I had already read Born to Run before seeing it. The book lent context to many of the stories, so sometimes I felt we were hearing things unspoken.

I haven't read about the show yet, because I wanted to go in completely cold. I'm interested to know if Bruce worked with a director or editor on choosing the stories, editing them for performance, even the staging and movements back and forth between guitar and piano. If he created the whole thing himself, he is an even greater performer than I knew.

Springsteen fans know how intense Bruce can be, both his music and his stage presence. He is one of rock's great frontmen, and the only one who (appears to) close the gap between audience and performer, whose stage persona is a raw authenticity.* Now take that authenticity and channel it through intimate stories of love, pain, fear, trust, loss, and redemption, and do it in a small theatre, with an almost bare set and intimate lighting.

Bruce Springsteen and I go back a long way. Unlike the millions who claim to have known about Springsteen in the early 70s -- "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen" -- I'll say with honesty that I first heard "Born to Run" on FM rock radio in 1975. I read the famous Time and Newsweek cover stories, and joined the ranks of music lovers waiting for the three-year silence to end.

I saw Bruce with the E Street Band for the first time in 1978, and many times since then. If I never see him perform again, I'll always be grateful to have ended on this note.

* Rock's other greatest frontmen are all brilliantly and famously pure artifice: David Byrne, David Bowie, and above all, Mick.

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