The city that never sleeps is still a little sleepy, unsure of how to move its joints and muscles as it awakens from its forced hibernation. Although Times Square is now almost as brightly lit as ever, it’s remarkably hard to find a bar that will serve a drink after 11 p.m. On a late-June Saturday night, Eighth Ave. around 42nd Street was vibrating with young people: guys imported from the outer boroughs and beyond in their baggy, rumpled shorts, young women in elastic spangled mini-dresses making their first outing after a year lying in a drawer, men in mardi gras beads and the tiniest of tank tops ready to make the most of the final days of Pride month. Yet it was hard to know exactly what all these people were doing there, other than taking their place in a kind of Brownian-movement minuet under the cheerfully garish lights. Because Times Square cannot be itself while Broadway—meaning not the actual street but the constellation of live shows around it—is still closed, which, as of 7:59 p.m. on the evening of June 26, it was.
Until one minute later, when a bridge-and-tunnel guy ended the spell.
Springsteen on Broadway is the first show to launch after some 470 days of silence in New York’s theater district. But when Bruce Springsteen took the stage on opening night—his chiseled cheekbones and muscles a testament to the benefits of eating well and working out, his milk-pitcher ears a reminder that nothing you can do at the gym can erase all the markers of a 1950s Jersey boyhood—a whole world, and not just that of Broadway, seemed to reopen around him. A few minutes into the show, he looked out at the audience as if he’d never seen people before. There were some famous ones in the crowd, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, as well as longtime E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt. But most of us were just regular, vaccinated people. (Proof of that was required for entry, prompting a group of about 50 disgruntled and adamantly illogical anti-vaxxers to protest outside the theater.) “It’s good to see everyone here unmasked, sitting next to each other, in one room,” Springsteen said. “71 years on this planet, I’ve never seen anything like this past year.”
This new Springsteen on Broadway, now at the start of a 10-week run at the St. James Theater, is a tweaked version of the show Springsteen did in 2017 and 2018 at another, slightly smaller venue, the Walter Kerr. The intimacy is the point: Plenty of fans have seen Springsteen dozens of times over the years, but mostly in cavernous arenas. On a smallish stage, the equation of Springsteen plus a guitar and a piano equals a secret whisper, proof that rock’n’roll, proudly the noisiest of genres, is in reality a code that needs no overamplification. Admittedly, Springsteen on Broadway is less a concert than a monologue—delivered by a master jokester and storyteller—accompanied by music. The show incorporates riffs from Springsteen’s 2016 autobiography, including sense-memories of how his hardworking, hard-drinking father smelled to him like “some mix of Schlitz and Old Spice,” and reminiscences of long evenings in Freehold, N.J., happily riding his bike “behind the DDT truck.”
But there are so many things Springsteen wants to catch us up on—hence this updated bulletin from his world. He told us a little about his own year, which included a new record with the reunited E Street Band, Letter to You, and a podcast with President Barack Obama. He was also, he added wryly, “handcuffed and thrown in jail,” a reference to his November 2020 arrest—the charges subsequently dropped—for drunken driving and reckless driving in New Jersey. “And then,” he said, after waiting one understated beat, “I had to go to Zoom court.”
One of Springsteen’s great gifts is his ability to convince us he’s just like us, though even he knows that’s partly an illusion of showmanship—he admits as much in the show’s opening lines, acknowledging that he’s perfected a magic trick of sorts. But there’s no deceit here, because we must fully admit that Springsteen can do a lot of things we can’t. This new Springsteen on Broadway opens, as the earlier show did, with “Growin’ Up,” his paean to being a kid racing toward the future. Only the guitar he strums now isn’t the rental he begged his parents to procure for him at age 7—an instrument he failed, at the time, to learn how to play—but a celestial rock’n’roll tool that yields to his every wish and command, spinning out chords bent low to the ground or flying high toward the sky.
Springsteen is teasing out something with a much finer grain than mere nostalgia—let’s call it remembrance. In the patter around, and woven into, his brisk piano reading of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” he recalled his late friend and longtime bandmate Clarence Clemons. Elsewhere, he spoke of his mother, Adele, a woman who came of age in the 1940s with two sisters, and who loved to dance. She is, Springsteen told us, now 95, having lived the past 10 years with Alzheimer’s. This is what time will do to people, more a reason to keep dancing than to stop.
Later in the evening he widened his scope, with a confession of how much he fears for the future of democracy. Bathed in red-hot light, he performed “American Skin (41 Shots),” which he wrote for Amadou Diallo, who was shot and killed by four New York City police officers in 1999 while reaching for his wallet. The inclusion of “American Skin” was one of several notable changes to the show. In another, his wife and longtime bandmate Patti Scialfa joined him onstage for a simmering duet on “Fire,” which might be alternatively titled “Tango for a Long-Running Marriage.” After singing the lines “Your kisses they burn/ But your heart stays cool,” she leaned in close to her husband, meeting him nose-to-splendid-nose, teasing him, seducing him, ultimately showing him and us who’s boss, if not the Boss.
It was a lovely moment, a way of bringing one of the world’s most revered performers to Earth level—though of course he has always known that Earth is where he belongs. Depending on the song, or the moment, Springsteen’s voice has the texture of rust on a tailpipe, or moss on the cool underside of a rock, or the husky warmth and mystery of how your dad or grandfather’s whiskers felt when you were little. Though Springsteen is often lauded as a poet of great American things, I’d argue that he’s really a master patchwork-quilter of the small ones. He’s carrying on the storytelling work of pioneer women, only with rock’n’roll.
Springsteen closed the show with a new song off Letter to You, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a metaphysical invitation that replaces the earlier closer, “Born to Run.” Even if you managed to make it through this past hellscape year without losing a friend or a loved one, you may still find yourself feeling dazed and unmoored as you re-emerge into the reawakened world. This new Springsteen on Broadway—a slight reimagining for a grand reopening—is not so much a reflection of what we’ve lost as an invocation to step boldly toward all that’s left to be found. Most remarkable about the audience vibe on opening night was not that it felt strange to be sitting shoulder to shoulder with unmasked strangers, but that it felt normal. At last, it’s time to come back to work, and to play, and in going back to the work of live performance, Springsteen offers us the gift of fortitude. He’s the phantom of a new opera, only he’s here in flesh and blood, to tell us a new story from sounds we’ve heard before. And that was the future of rock’n’roll all along.
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