Review: The Brilliant Disguises of ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

Review: The Brilliant Disguises of ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

Rather, “Springsteen on Broadway” is a painful if thrilling summing-up at 68: a major statement about a life’s work, but also a major revision of it. As music acts go, it thus has more in common with Lena Horne’s revelatory “A Lady and Her Music” from 1981 than with a greatest-hits concert by the likes of Barry Manilow.

Call it a greatest anti-hits concert: Many of the songs Mr. Springsteen has chosen to sing are less familiar and more meditative than his chart-toppers, and those that were chart-toppers are almost unrecognizable.

That’s why the show’s version of “Dancing in the Dark” admits no clapping; sung at a slower-than-usual tempo, and accompanied only by Mr. Springsteen on acoustic guitar, it is no longer the casual invitation to sex it seemed to be in its first incarnation. It is instead a parable about the nihilism underlying such invitations.

Nor is “Born in the U.S.A.,” also from 1984, the jingoistic anthem it once sounded like on MTV, when the thrust engine roar of the E Street Band sent it into orbit. With its choruses now spat away quickly and its bleak verses about damaged veterans dwelt on, it is, as Mr. Springsteen says he always intended, a “protest song.”

Photo

Patti Scialfa, appearing with her husband for two songs in the show.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

This will not be news to fans who have been paying attention to him during the 30 years since his sleeveless T-shirt and bandanna heyday, or to anyone who has read his hair-raising 2016 memoir, “Born to Run.” There he outlined an ideal of rock music as a “culture shaper” and an ideal of himself as someone who would “collide with the times” in order to change them. “Springsteen on Broadway” distills the same daunting dream; its spoken portions, which make up about half of the two-hour show, are mostly taken from the book or build on its ideas.

Not that the music stops much even then; when telling stories about his chaotic upbringing in the “crap town” of Freehold, N.J., he is often picking at one of his guitars or vamping on the piano, his eyes half-shut. The same two-chord figure continues for what seems like hundreds of bars, making apt, trancelike accompaniments to a claustrophobic tale of “church, school, homework and string beans.” Songs like “Growin’ Up,” “My Hometown” and “My Father’s House” draw their expressivity from (or despite) a similar sense of confinement.

Admittedly, this is a well honed story, a self-portrait of a mask. There have been many such masks over the years — mama’s boy, loner, stadium stud, Woody Guthrie — each developed through songs that would seem to cancel each other out.

“Springsteen on Broadway” sets out to reconcile that contradiction by reshaping his glibber hits and personas along the lines of his mature, “Ghost of Tom Joad” vision. But first he acknowledges the contradiction, using words like “fraud” to describe himself: a bard of the working class who has “never held an honest job” and a rebel who despite his millions still lives 10 minutes from the house he grew up in. Even his five-decade career has been a “magic trick,” turning the unpromising tools of his cheese-grater voice and “hideous” appearance into a vehicle for the primal rock message that “fun is a birthright.”

That’s another mask: rock Dionysus. In any case, “fun” is not a word I’d use to describe “Springsteen on Broadway.” (How about “relentlessly serious” for the marquee?) On Heather Wolensky’s abandoned warehouse set, under Natasha Katz’s deeply shadowed lighting, Mr. Springsteen comes off as the kind of character he often writes about: a pink-slipped worker in a shuttered factory in a dying industry. Fair enough. There is little left of the music business that could once breed and elevate a performer like him, whose ear is tuned to the whole world’s injustice.

At other times, in the startling intimacy of the 939-seat theater (Mr. Springsteen often plays stadiums that are vastly larger) and with the help of Brian Ronan’s you-are-there sound design, “Springsteen on Broadway” seems like a radio monodrama broadcast from the deepest interior of a single troubled soul. His voice, still quite capable of what he calls in the memoir his “Jersey-Pavarotti-via-Roy Orbison singing,” more often sounds like the howl of a dog caught in a barbed-wire fence. His guitar sounds like the barbed wire.

Are there any other artists of Mr. Springsteen’s stature who would choose to drive a show — on Broadway yet — so close and so often toward what he calls the “suicide watch”? (He is credited as both writer and director.) The opening grimness, unrelieved but for some self-lacerating jokes, does not let up until “Thunder Road,” about a half-hour along. The height of the evening’s high spirits is “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” a “boardwalk soul” dance tune whose first words are nevertheless “Teardrops on the city.”

More often we are in the strange, exalted precincts of “Long Walk Home” and the Sept. 11 psalm “The Rising.” Even the songs he sings with his wife — “Brilliant Disguise” and “Tougher Than the Rest” — question the possibility of fidelity, both to oneself and to others.

But he clearly knows where he’s headed and that he can get there; at any rate he has to keep this up five times a week through Feb. 3. (The run is sold out, except for some tickets available by digital lottery and those going for more than $1,000 each on the resale market.) Perhaps, like a priest, he enjoys the ritual. He does call music his “service,” his “long and noisy prayer.”

That’s another mask, of course, but the thing about his masks is that they’re all real, made with enough craft to see and be seen through. Indeed, as portraits of artists go, there may never have been anything as real — and beautiful — on Broadway.

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