Springsteen On Broadway At The Walter Kerr Pre-Opening Review, Saturday, October 7th, 2017
So many disastrous rock musicals on Broadway, from The Who’s “Tommy,” to Paul Simon’s “The Capeman,” to Green Day’s “American Idiot” to U2’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” elephant graveyard stands as testament to the trickiness of transferring one aesthetic onto another. It is a different muscle. “Springsteen On Broadway,” currently in previews at the Walter Kerr, is not a disaster, and will make money because it has no overhead and is sold out from one end of its four month run to the other, and top dollar $600 means there is money to be made even in a 975 seater, but it suffers to a similar problem to “The Capeman” -it needed to be workshopped by professionals and because it isn’t, the one man (plus one woman when his wife Patti Schiaffi joins him for two songs) doesn’t work as drama. It works, and very well, as other things -not least rubbernecking, but it is not a play or a musical, and the arc of its story, an hour on his childhood, and the last half hour more or less a mini-acoustic set, concluding with a benediction he hasn’t earned in the previous two hours but absolutely has in a lifetime of service to rock and roll, doesn’t make sense. It isn’t really anything.
Dressed in black jeans, tee shirt, and bitchin’ kicks, alone on stage except for a guitar tech guy (who spends the second most time on stage), and performing on acoustic guitars, and a piano, as well as a harmonica, he might know why he is here though the why ends up being to read passages from his excellent autobiography “Born To Run,” but to no specific end. If he had gotten a director, Bruce would have known how to perform and not read his words. If he had a writer, someone could have sculpted his stories into a cohesive whole. With neither he allows his immense star power to pull him through. Not just his immense star power alone of course, also his immense skills with songs.
Ah yes, the songs.
From “Growing Up” to “Born To Run,” the songs and their performances were splendid. Just splendid. While Bruce’s rebuke that “Born In The USA” was not realized at the time as a protest song might be false memory, the blame remains with the arrangement and production which was aiming for and achieved pop arrogance and domination, all these years later Bruce has refined and refined the song till during “SOB” it achieves the majestic blues and pain he was aiming for; a minimalist searing story of war and its aftermath. That was one of two greatest songs during the evening (to be honest, there really isn’t a duff musical moment), “The Wish,” off Tracks. was the other. I loved Tracks as well, but I was so busy grooving to “Bishop Danced,” I missed “The Wish”. Written for his beloved Mommy Adele, it is perhaps the single sweetest song in his catalog and it puts a warm glow after the roughness of his relationship with his father. “If you’re looking for a sad song, well I ain’t gonna play it” goes beyond a simple benediction and it means more than the lovely words he speaks about his Mom, it’s a gift a son gives his mother, the gift of happiness. I regret him dropping “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” for “The Rising,” though it is the best version of “The Rising” i’ve ever heard. Of the songs you know (or hope) he’ll perform, “The Promised Land” has a terrific harp on it. Bruce plays with the keys a little, and rewrites “Born To Run” though he pins it to that indelible lick. I strongly disagree with his decision to perform “Tougher Than The Rest” and certainly “Brilliant Disguise,” they are not Patti’s songs and if he wanted to share the stage with his beautiful and beautifully voice wife (She knows something about love, he reminds us), he should have gone with “If I Should Fall Behind” and “Book Of Dreams” (“Red Headed Woman”??? Yikes). All four songs are topnotch, it is a question of theme.
Bruce’s speaking voice is a wonderful thing, he imparts dignity and roots as well as good humor and honesty to his words. He can’t say his words well enough during “SOB” because he isn’t an actor, though the writing is spectacular, but he can say them deeply enough to move you anyway. He sounds like the voice of truth, of a powerful self-assurance and he speaks like he singss, his timing on his jokes is excellent; remembering a man stealing his girlfriend one night is a masterpiece of patience. He has a feel for his material but should have conned it better, nobody expects a 68 year old man to remember 1000s upon 1000s of words, but you expect him to know them well enough where the teleprompters are just that, prompts, not text. He needed to have it down better and takes advantage of our deep affection for him not to call him out for not doing his homework.
Opening with a discussion of “DNA,” as it pertains to rock and roll and a huge audience, he steps back to review his roots, in a giant oak tree in his childhood home and in the Irish-Italian Catholic New Jersey buttfuck USA, before adding amusingly that after writing so many songs about running away, he now lives 30 minutes from Freehold. “When they said sit down, I stood up” he sings. Yeah, the singing is tremendous…. the reading not so much. Of course, “Springsteen On Broadway” is still in previews (though it does open on Thursday). even so there is something not professional enough about it. As he reads from teleprompters he occasionally loses his way, and occasionally pauses at the end of a line and when he says the next word it is disconnected, sometimes he stops for no reason, and most of the time the great gift of theatre, the suspension of disbelief, doesn’t come close to happening. Bruce needed help. not to change the story, but to give it an internal clock, so it moved through on a forward keel. All stories are the same: thesis, antithesis, synthesis and new thesis, But SOB isn’t that and it has to be if it is more than a vanity project the way his autobiography is more than a vanity project. Springsteen is the story of a man who ran away from his past only to discover he dressed in his father’s work clothes to play rock music and discover after running from his heritage he grew to be the greatest chronicler of his heritage in the mid 1900s USA, for those who came before him and will arrive after. He hopes that what we are going through is “just a bad chapter on the ongoing search for the soul of the nation”. The only way he could fit this vision of his career within two hours was to throw away his autobiography and start from scratch. It just can’t be done.
Bruce Springsteen is one of our greatest rock stars. He begins the evening by summoning Elvis Presley and ends it by referencing Joe Strummer, Springsteen has more than earned his place among this pantheon, as a live performer only James Brown was better, as the poet laureate of the working classes there is only Woody Guthrie, or you’d have to change genres and go to literature and John Steinbeck, to find his equal. Seeped in money and contradiction and performing a Broadway production that doesn’t come close to equalling his greatest concerts, for an audience that can afford it because it costs a month’s rent for the majority of Americans, Bruce doesn’t flinch in the face of our doubts. Bruce claims he did it all for us, to share his stories of the USA with us so that we can add our stories to his. “I hope I’ve done that and been a good travelling companion”. Quite possibly the best traveller in rock and roll history.