Springsteen on Broadway: Faith, family, renewal in a rock musical

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It’s not every day a rock legend’s musical voyage of Dickensian proportions comes to life right before your eyes on Broadway, but that’s what happens at Springsteen on Broadway. From the get go, the set – part garage, part rehearsal studio — invites you into a personal space, and a certain kind of healing with The Boss.

Someday girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun… until then tramps like us, baby we were born to run.

If it weren’t for Springsteen, those of us who followed him, believed in his music, and trusted him through our coming of age, we wouldn’t have been able to make sense of the times we were growing up in. As he tells the audience on this Saturday night, “I was always leaving, leaving, leaving,” and so were we – Born to Run away from our angst-ridden lives — Growing Up.

The lights go down at the Walter Kerr Theatre on the Great White Way.

Photo by: Susan Ponting

Phones off or you better watch out!

Like the opening of a Shakespearean play, Springsteen takes the stage, and, stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in his masquerade, black t-shirt and jeans, black leather boots with a few shining studs on the sides – he bellows out a soliloquy fit for Richard III, speaking about becoming a rock icon – it’s in his DNA – and it’s all he ever wanted. What he accomplished is miraculous even to him, he says, “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit a fraud. So am I.”

Photo by: Susan Ponting

For two-and-a-half hours, with no intermission, Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run comes alive with his gifted, charismatic presence and powerful voice. At times, away from the mic stand his voice can still be heard throughout the sold out 975-seat theatre. And his songs – Good Lord, the sound was so rich, it was like 77 guitars all strung together in some grand auditorium. He played harmonica, a 12 string, and a variety of other acoustic guitars that, save for the 12 string, all looked like they’ve been with him a long time on his incredible musical ride.

Effortlessly moving from guitar to his piano, not once did he break into his familiar anthemic rock vocal. No, this was not a sing-a-long concert, these were his babies, out there naked, absent of the operatic screams above stacks of Marshall amps all gloriously stripped of their glitter still, they all, came out with their souls untouched.

The show begins chronologically as he explains how he caught the Rock n’ Roll bug, or in his case maybe it was a disease, watching who we can only surmise is Elvis Presley on TV – although he doesn’t say his name, Springsteen refers to him as an Adonis with a guitar and when comparing himself he says he was, “pathetically creepy looking.”

His first performance of the evening, Growing Up, coincides with his book and relationship with his parents. He begins with his mother, Adele. His stories about her speak to the unconditional love she gave him and the protection that sustained him as a boy as his father battled depression and alcoholism and tragically called him an, “outcast, misfit, weirdo, sissy boy.”

Reminiscing about his mother on stage, he recalls her jet-black hair, Roman nose, and red lipstick – her face lighting up as she looked down at him, the two of them holding hands, walking together in Freehold, New Jersey – her smile giving him all he needed, “She was always really happy to see me,” he remembers. She’s now, “seven years into Alzheimer’s,” Springsteen says as he heads over to the piano to sing her a song about taking her dancing, “My aunts and mother never stopped dancing!”

He then moves on to his complicated relationship with his dad. His intensely intimate conversations and feelings he has for his father leave the impression that writing the book and doing the performance was, and is, not only cathartic for him, but telling these age-old familial stories of strife the way only Bruce Springsteen can, may just help someone else. Imparting, through spoken word, the wisdom that we must conquer the demons that chase after us when our hearts are closed and bitter. It was just before his son was born, Springsteen says, that his father drove a long way to see him to say, “You’ve been very good to us. I wasn’t very good to you.”

Breathe in forgiveness.

Springsteen’s tales of family, work, and relationships aren’t legendary. What is though, is being able to tell the stories that kill parts of us, and heal parts of us, too. The families we are enmeshed and co-dependent in but can’t quite figure out. It’s nothing new under the sun – but as he puts it, “the demons” that snap at the heels and stab at the backs of our families, relentlessly seeking to weaken and destroy – they lurk all around us. We’ve got to be mindful of that, we’ve got to seek out God and know he is surrounding us in our deepest pain – we can get through it.

Now a husband and father himself, he tells the audience, “You can be a ghost to your children and haunt them,” or you can let them go, let them make their own mistakes, let them be their own people. And, from the book, “We honor our parents by carrying their best forward and laying the rest down. By fighting and taming the demons that laid them low and now reside in us.” 

Photo by: Susan Ponting

Yes, thank God for Bruce Springsteen – he’s seen us through with his musical grit, soul, determination – and – almighty truth: “Day after day, year after year, my dad just sat there in the kitchen, in the dark, smoking his cigarettes, he was like a ghost. I didn’t realize until many years later: Depression.” Springsteen’s father was, as he puts it, “his hero and his foe.” He documents his own struggle with mental illness in the book and his song, This Depression, Baby I’ve been down, but never this down. I’ve been lost, but never this lost.

One ticket left at the box office on a Saturday night in Manhattan. Just one ticket! From 1981 at Maple Leaf Gardens and other venues throughout the years, to Broadway in 2018 – what a life blessing and nothing short of a miracle – for this fan anyway. We’re a little older, maybe wiser, and tramps no more – and still as Bruce put it on stage, “surrounded by God.”

The lights come down and he recites The Lord’s Prayer,

“Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom forever, Amen.

A few shout-out, “Amen’s!” from the audience, including me, and, just when we thought it was over… as promised at the beginning of the show – pictures would be allowed at the end of the performance – and, because of Patti Scialfa’s (my redheaded woman,” Bruce calls her) absence due to one of their children needing her on this night – Bruce says, “Since Patti wasn’t here tonight you get an encore! She sends her love and I’ll send her yours,” and into This Hard Land he went.

Performances Saturday night:

Growing Up

My Hometown

My Father’s House

Dancing In The Dark

Born In The USA

Born To Run

Land Of Hope and Dreams

The Ghost Of Tom Joad

Thunder Road

Tenth Avenue Freeze Out

The Rising

Encore: This Hard Land

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(Executive Producer and Showrunner)

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