Springsteen on Broadway: a magic trick unpacked


Image Courtesy of IMDb

Bruce Springsteen has been selling out massive stadiums for decades. So when he announced in 2017 that his next tour would consist of five shows a week at a venue that seats less than 1,000, it was big news. Springsteen’s run on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, originally only scheduled for one month, ended up running over a year- 236 shows.

Unsurprisingly, tickets to these performances were next to impossible to obtain. Dates sold out immediately, and tickets would pop up on Stubhub costing thousands of dollars. But now, thanks to the Boss and Netflix, anyone in the world can experience the most intimate show he’s ever done.

This past December, Springsteen released a live album of the show, available in both digital and physical formats. Two days later, hours after his last performance, a filmed version of the show went up on Netflix. Filmed over two nights in July 2018, this special serves as one of the most defining pieces of Springsteen’s catalogue.

The show itself acts as an extension of his 2016 autobiography “Born To Run.” Springsteen plays songs acoustically that span his whole discography, either on guitar or piano, and he pairs them with a monologue. The audience walks through not just his career, but his own personal life. They travel down his childhood streets of New Jersey, learn of the Springsteen family tree and hear the man himself unpack the hopes, dreams and fears that make up some of pop culture’s most iconic songs.

With this context out in the open, the songs transform. “My Father’s House” peers into the tumultuous relationship he had with his father, a man Springsteen calls his “hero and [his] greatest foe.” With “The Wish,” he declares his love for his mother, who taught him compassion and gave him the money to buy his first guitar. He examines his own marriage, bringing out his wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa to sing “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise” together. He even reveals some surprising truths behind his public persona, such as the fact that he has never worked a full-time job and didn’t earn his driver’s license until age 24.

In this bare-bones form, even the rock radio staples sound different. On “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the tall tale of the E Street Band’s beginnings, Springsteen remembers Clarence Clemons, his larger-than-life saxophonist and sidekick who died in 2011. “Born In the U.S.A.” mutates from the synth-heavy singalong into a harrowing critique of war. And while introducing “Thunder Road,” a poetic song about getting out, Springsteen recalls a simple image – his band leaving New Jersey for the first time to tour the country, and the view of the summer night sky as he lay in the back of the truck, dreaming of the heaven that’s waiting down the tracks.

Image Courtesy of IMDb

In the decades since Elvis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and changed the world, the pool of classic rock legends has been gradually shrinking. Some, like Paul Simon and Elton John, have retired from touring. Others, like David Bowie and Tom Petty, have passed on to the next life. But within that shrinking pool, Bruce Springsteen still stands tall. At 69 years old, he is still finding new and exciting ways to make his stories heard. Now, with his run on Broadway, he’s cemented as one of the defining artists of our times.

To close out the special, just like every other Broadway show, Springsteen performs the song he named his book after. He sings, in a quiet voice over hushed chords, the lines that have defined his life:

The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive / Everybody’s out on the run tonight, but there’s no place left to hide  / Together Wendy, we can live with the sadness  / I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul  / Someday girl, I don’t know when  / We’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go  / And we’ll walk in the sun / But ‘till then, tramps like us, / Baby we were born to run.

Just like the Our Father he recites before starting the song, this is his final prayer. That one day, he, and all the rest of us, can escape those restraints that hold us down and find the freedom we’re all chasing. Bruce hopes he gets there. He hopes we all do, too.