In his two and a half hour Broadway Show, performed at The Walter Kerr Theatre, five nights a week for over a year, Bruce Springsteen speaks a lot about his magic trick. That trick is conjuring songs out of racing cars when he couldn’t even drive and working in a factory when he had never seen the inside of a factory. He doesn’t mind admitting that he was very good at the sleight of hand!
Yet, when Springsteen speaks of being at the very top of his industry he isn’t speaking from ego. He is merely using the same eye for detail that his songs have evoked for forty five years. When he speaks of his success it is merely fact. From that fact he is actually very deprecating, making himself vulnerable in his honesty about who he pretended to be, foolishly thought he wanted to be and how the boy who spent the first ten years of his career singing songs about getting out of his home town, now lives ten minutes from it.
There can be no better evidence for the brilliance of his magic trick than this Broadway performance, a walk though his life and career, a live reading almost of his powerful autobiography Born To Run. What Springsteen does here is maybe as remarkable as anything he has ever done. You can understand a band with the players he wrapped round him, to play the songs he wrote, captivating a stadium with their tightness, jamming, extended instrumental flourishes and a front man gallivanting all over the stage.
Stand in a theatre on your own for two and a half hours and talk. That’s a trickier prospect. He tells us about his mum and dad and the tree outside his house growing up. He tells us about driving a car across America without knowing how to shift gears. He tells us about the Big Man joining the band. Even the songs are not only stripped back of instrumentation but they are almost at times spoken, the melodies not even what matters. He only moves from guitar to piano.
You are transfixed to the screen. You never take your eyes or ears off him. Yet, without much dramatic effect in body moves, The Boss pulls it off like some less spectacular Houdini or Blondin. A magic act indeed!
As friends who had seen it before me suggested, I was very taken by the storyline. Not that it surprised me. I have been talking this storyline since I wrote a chapter in my book The Rock Cries Out back in 2003. For me Bruce Springsteen’s life and music is a modern day telling of Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son.
In this Broadway production Bruce tells the tale. A son brought up in family and faith needs to get a way. He feels he is Born to Run and that there is a Promised Land that he needs to find. He finds it but in the end loses his hatred for the father he left behind and ends up back home, where it is all familiar and not at all as bad as it had seemed when he was too young to know what it was he was looking for.
“I grew up surrounded by God,” Springsteen tells his audience early on. His house was a stones throw from the Church, though he makes it very plain that he was bored and maybe even a little smothered by it. In my chapter in The Rock Cries Out I call Springsteen the Prodigal Son returning but say that I am not sure where he is in Jesus telling of the story. That was 2003.
On Broadway in 2018 Bruce Springsteen gently testified to where he is, the story comes right back round and, over two hours in, Bruce is back outside the doors of that Church reciting The Lord’s Prayer. Oh my!
Springsteen On Broadway is a phenomenal performance. Springsteen takes his own particular story, a story that fascinates millions of fans. In the telling of that story because people are intrigued by it, he opens up all our stories. As you listen you are constantly asking about your own dad and your own mum, your own youth, your own dreams, your own marriage and your own faith. You are asking how you see the world and war and peace and justice.
Like a preacher, or I would say parish priest, Springsteen shines the light of the spirit onto the souls listening to a rather long homily where God is not so much explicit most of the time as implicit but at the end becomes just that… the end of the journey!