NEW YORK — In “Springsteen on Broadway,” which officially opens tonight at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the star of the show talks about renting his first guitar at the age of 7. And then returning it, a few weeks later, because his hands were too small to play it. But before it went back, he used it to put on a show for some fellow Freehold kids, shaking and shouting and banging on it, without actually playing it. And he killed.
That Springsteen — the showman, the ham, the pied piper, the rock ‘n’ roll animal — is almost totally absent from “Springsteen on Broadway.” Another Springsteen — the serious, intense, introspective one — dominates this slightly-more-than-two-hour affair, which takes place in a theater that holds less than a thousand people, and seems microscopic compared to the arenas and stadiums where most Springsteen shows take place.
Springsteen’s regular concerts strike a balance between tension and release; this one is nearly all tension. It’s a show unlike any Springsteen has ever done, and therefore big news to his fans. Yet, as a musical experience — or even a theatrical experience — it was, I felt, not quite as satisfying as a typical Springsteen concert is. It had its magical moments, of course, and I’m very glad I had the opportunity to see it. But it was not as consistently revelatory as I hoped it would be.
It’s, in many ways, a live version of his 2016 autobiography, “Born to Run.” Like that book, it tells his life story, with detours into subjects like personal growth, family dynamics, band dynamics, religion and politics. Many of the stories he tells are pulled directly from the book, or are slightly modified. There are also 15 songs that complement the story. At times, stories and commentary are added in the middle of a song.
This may be Broadway, but it is not a glitzy production. The stage seemed more like a rehearsal room than a typical Broadway set. The back wall was made up of bare brick; equipment cases, cables and a radiator were visible.
Springsteen wore a T-shirt. When he walked out onto the stage at the start of the stage, and people started cheering, he put up his palm to stop them. Later, when they started clapping along to “Dancing in the Dark,” he held up a palm again and dryly said, “I’ll handle it myself.”
Even his jokes were dark. “I’m going to take you off of suicide watch right now,” he said, when transitioning from talking about his brooding, distant father to paying tribute to his cheerful, life-affirming mother.
Springsteen was alone onstage except for a two-song segment, “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise,” during which his wife Patti Scialfa harmonized with him. This was definitely a moment when the intimacy of the venue enhanced an aspect of the music — their rich, soulful vocal blend, which sometimes is hard to appreciate in a more spacious setting.
The overall flavor of the show was often reflected in the songs themselves. “Land of Hope and Dreams,” for instance, is a joyful, inspirational anthem when played with The E Street Band. Here, it took on an air of grim determination, as if Springsteen were trying, through sheer force, to will its idyllic vision into reality.
“The Promised Land” was folkier and more upbeat than usual, but “Born in the USA,” which Springsteen introduced as a “protest song” and a “G.I. Blues,” has never sounded more mournful.
There was great detail in the stories Springsteen told early on. He was absolutely mesmerizing relating memories of playing hide-and-seek in the graveyard when growing up in Freehold, and smelling the coffee smell from the Nescafé factory. He warmed up a little when talking about his breakthrough years as a musician, and also spoke wistfully about missing the “endless possibilities of youth,” now that he is older.
With an added spoken word segment, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” became even more of a tribute to the E Street Band than it normally is, and provided the evening’s most ecstatic moment, when the audience enthusiastically cheered the “Big Man joined the band” line.
Throughout the show, though, Springsteen seemed intent on deflating his own myth, telling us — as he has before — that while he is considered the bard of the working class, he has never held a real job, and that while he likes to write about cars, he didn’t actually drive, himself, until long after he legally could.
In the second half of the show, there were far fewer autobiographical details: Songs were introduced with no stories, or very short ones. “Dancing in the Dark,” for instance, got just a brief comment — “when things look darkest, lace up your dancing shoes” — and segued, without a break, into “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
Before “Long Walk Home,” Springsteen got political for a moment, touching on the Charlottesville rally and “the fucking mess we’re in” — a time when even your neighbors can feel like complete strangers. It’s an “on-going battle for the soul of the nation,” he said.
He also made an attempt to tie everything together, toward the end of the evening, with some thoughts on his own purpose, as an artist, and a metaphorical final story about revisiting his hometown and finding that an old tree he used to love was no longer there. Before the final song, “Born to Run,” he recited “The Lord’s Prayer.”
I’m not sure if Springsteen will alter “Springsteen on Broadway” in the course of its run, but I do think he could improve it. Mostly, I think continuing the life-story thread through the second half of the show, instead of largely abandoning it, would help. Maybe adding a couple of lighter moments or coming up with some more new stories instead of relying so much on the ones from the “Born to Run” book might help it seem fresher, too.
There was a certain stiffness to the show: You were always aware that he was reading something that had been prepared ahead of time. Great actors or stand-up comedians can create the illusion that they’re just standing there, talking to you. Springsteen can’t. I feel if he added a little musical spontaneity — with, perhaps, an encore that could change nightly — or just went off script a bit, it might enhance the show.
That said, I still think “Springsteen on Broadway” is very good, and well worth seeing for anyone who can afford the pricey tickets (or is lucky enough to get one of the less expensive ones).
Offering such a rare opportunity to see such a legendary figure in such a small venue, how could it not be good? But I wanted it to be great, and I felt it didn’t really get there.
“Springsteen on Broadway” will run through Feb. 3 at the Walter Kerr Theatre at 219 W. 48th St. in Manhattan.
Here are the songs performed on Oct. 11. All are were performed solo, unless otherwise noted.
“Growin’ Up” (guitar)
“My Hometown” (piano)
“My Father’s House” (guitar, harmonica)
“The Wish” (piano)
“Thunder Road” (guitar, harmonica)
“The Promised Land” (guitar, harmonica)
“Born in the USA” (12-string guitar)
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” (piano)
“Tougher Than the Rest” (piano, with Patti Scialfa on vocals)
“Brilliant Disguise” (guitar, with Patti Scialfa on vocals and guitar)
“Long Walk Home” (guitar)
“The Rising” (guitar)
“Dancing in the Dark” (guitar)
“Land of Hope and Dreams” (guitar)
“Born to Run” (guitar)