Review: In Springsteen On Broadway, the Boss Tells His Life Story in Words and Music

Photo Credit: Kevin Mazur.

In early 1978, Bruce Springsteen embarked on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour, in what would become a new benchmark for his brand of stadium epics. The Boss and the E Street Band would tour the follow up to 1975’s blockbuster Born to Run across the United States, delivering 25 song sprints (later, for The River and Born in the USA, Springsteen would make famous the three-hour-plus marathon set) to fans hungry to indulge in and engage with the Jersey-born rocker’s dense, inspiring songbook. For those unable to attend in person, these concerts were immortalized on widely distributed bootlegs of the now infamous Winterland concert of December 15, in San Francisco. Listen to these recordings (or any of the radio broadcasts from the tour) and you’ll find a man just reaching the top of his game– the germ of a true icon finding his singular footing.

Darkness on the Edge of Town was released to critical acclaim on June 2, 1978. The tour, however, began a few weeks earlier, on May 23 at Shea’s in Buffalo, New York. Those lucky to have been at that concert heard songs like “Badlands” and “Racing in the Streets” for the first time, before anyone else, before these tunes would be memorized by millions as rock ‘n roll scripture. I write this while back home in Buffalo for the holidays, just a few miles from the spot where that magic moment took place; I lived in Western New York for the first 22 years of my life, and if I ever had reason for intense civic pride, well here it is.

Point of origin, both physically and psychically, is essential to Springsteen’s story, and that idea is the central thread of Springsteen On Broadway, which has been exquisitely filmed and edited by Springsteen’s longtime collaborator, Thom Zimny, and is now available to stream on Netflix. Closed as of earlier this month, the solo residency at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York sold out shows five nights a week, and marked the first time, by the artist’s own account, that the legendary musical workhorse held a steady job. Springsteen is famously from the Garden State, and the show blends acoustic renditions of his songs with an impassioned monologue charting his humble beginnings and his meteoric rise, all the while offering insights into the emotional inner-life of an intensely reflective mind.

Nancy Bishop, my editor here at Third Coast Review, theater critic and Springsteen aficionado (ask her how many shows she has seen), saw the show on Broadway, and writes:

Springsteen’s stories are very personal and seem to come from deep within his childhood, adolescence and professional life. He tells of his father’s many jobs and deep depression. He describes his mother’s joy in her work as a legal secretary and his memories of her putting on her makeup and high heels every morning to go to work. His mother was a happy person, taking joy in her family and playing music at home. She loved to dance, he says, and she still does today, when she’s in her 90s and slipping into Alzheimer’s.

The songs Springsteen performs are mostly from earlier albums and serve to punctuate his life story. Differing from his concert performances, where the playlist is different every night, his Broadway setlist never varies. He noted before opening that it would be “a locked-in piece of music and script.” Some of the tracks, that are familiar as arena anthems (“The Promised Land,” “Born in the USA” and “Born to Run,” for instance) become totally new and mournful ballad/stories when he performs them acoustically. For a long-time fan, who knows the lyrics to every song in the canon, this styling is illuminating.

When I discovered Springsteen in my early 20s, I was struck by the immediacy of the poetry, and the intensity of the performance on disc. The interludes here, spoken with a preacher’s assuredness, are rendered with equally thoughtful prose. Springsteen is clearly a born storyteller, and he benefits immensely here from the economic songwriting previously mastered on albums like Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad and Born in the USA. When talking about Jersey Shore musicians lost to the Vietnam War and his feelings of guilt for never serving, or his deep, passionate relationship with Clarence Clemons, the late, great saxophonist of the E-Street Band, Springsteen pulls no punches, and never strays from the emotional kernel of his story.

But of course, the music remains the real draw here, and fans of this iconic catalog will not be disappointed. Each song for this show is boldly reimagined and given space to reveal its foundational brilliance. Most strikingly, as Nancy noted, “The Promised Land”– the ferocious youthful snarl traded for a determined, careful proclamation, finally sounding like the sermon it always embodied lyrically– and “Born in the USA”– becoming a backwater blues battle cry, reaching sublimity when Springsteen repeats “the road… the road.. the road” and then solemnly declares “I’ve got nowhere to run, I’m a long-gone Daddy in the USA,” blowing wide open the veiled activism and conflict contained on that record.

“Music is to remind us of who we are and who we can be,” Springsteen explains to his audience. What we have here is a watershed experience, an archive and documentation of a master at the end of a historic career; his words, in his own words. Springsteen On Broadway manages, as the story of one man’s struggle for piety and purpose, to contain the entire story of America herself; the story of our shared shame, anxieties, desires, insatiable hungers, of our quests for justice, meaning, love, truth, and beauty. What emerges from it all is the revelation of Springsteen’s truest gift; a compassionate, unrivaled artistic empathy. I think I finally understand what he meant by “show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.”

Springsteen On Broadway (run time 2.5 hours) is now streaming on Netflix, with the companion album available from Columbia Records.

Official setlist, Springsteen on Broadway

  1. Growin’ Up
  2. My Hometown
  3. My Father’s House
  4. The Wish – Studio Outtake – 1987
  5. Thunder Road
  6. The Promised Land
  7. Born In the U.S.A. – Demo Version – 1982
  8. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
  9. Tougher Than the Rest / with Patti Scialfa
  10. Brilliant Disguise / with Patti Scialfa
  11. Long Walk Home
  12. The Rising
  13. Dancing in the Dark
  14. Land of Hope and Dreams
  15. Born to Run

Matthew Nerber
Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

One comment

  1. Utterly astounding. Tender, emotional, classic bruce Springsteen. Chronicles his life with such pathos. One of the greatest of all times. Those who were there will never ever forget this night.

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