On the Scene at Broadway's First Night Back, as Bruce Springsteen Shows Us Who's Boss
"I don't know why I'm frightened," I thought to myself as I walked into the St. James Theatre on Saturday night, feeling a little bit like Norma Desmond as she returned to Paramount. Except, I knew exactly why I was frightened. I spent more than a year in a cocoon of self-preservation, venturing out little by little — an indoor restaurant here, a backyard barbecue there — to get reacquainted with this brave new world. I can count on two hands the number of people I had regularly encountered over the pandemic, and simply being in the St. James felt like getting pushed off a high-dive into a pool filled to capacity with 1,710 fully vaccinated, completely maskless strangers.
And just like that, 471 days after live performance venues across the state closed down as Covid-19 spread, 67 long weeks since New York City's beloved arts and culture scene was decimated by a tornado of respiratory droplets and restrictions, a Broadway theater had thrown open its doors to audience members once again, signaling the long and very welcome start of recovery. The man at the forefront of this recovery is perhaps the only one who could pretty much sell out a two-month, exorbitantly priced residency that was only announced three weeks ago: the man, the Boss, Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen is back for a victory lap of his Springsteen on Broadway acoustic show, the dazzling two-and-a-half-hour piece he premiered in 2017 a few blocks away at the Walter Kerr Theatre. While that version now lives comfortably in retirement on Netflix, the story arc has changed for the 2021 engagement. A relatively straight retelling of his life and how he created the myth of "Bruce Springsteen as working-class rock God" (the first run was timed around the release of his memoir) has given way to a deeply emotional communing with the ghosts of his past.
The energy was charged in so many directions. Outdoors, a small crowd of sidewalk-hogging anti-vaccine protestors carried signs bearing the deeply moronic slogan "Bruce Springsteen Is For Segregation On Broadway" (ironic, considering that one of three new songs in the roster is "American Skin (41 Shots)," a condemnation of police brutality against unarmed Black people). Indoors, the crowd was raring to go. E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt walked in and the place went apeshit. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy worked the crowd, while Pete and Chasten Buttigieg seemed to be on a double-date with theater owner Jordan Roth and husband Richie Jackson. Actors Fund president Brian Stokes Mitchell filmed an Instagram video while strolling down the aisle.
Despite having to present proof of vaccination and picture ID before even getting into the lobby, I wore a mask throughout (less out of a concern for Covid and more because I haven't had so much as a sniffle since March 2020, and I'd like to keep this streak going). I sat down and felt myself exhale for the first time in a long time. The lady in front of me texted during the performance. Ice clinked in sippy cups, people bought $45 t-shirts, the program advertised an upcoming Broadway star cruise (who went on those before, and who would go on one now?) and the guy next to me hogged the arm rest. I don't get weepy about these things, but it felt blissfully normal. Everything's as if we never said goodbye.
The script and set list are generally comparable to the 2017-18 run, with a few new spoken interludes and musical additions sprinkled throughout. Springsteen gets a lot of mileage out of his impressively busy 2020, which included a new album, a documentary, a podcast with former President Barack Obama, and a highly publicized DUI arrest. "I had to go to Zoom court," he quips as he riffs on the name of his case, The United States of America versus Bruce Springsteen. "That's always comforting to hear. That the entire nation is aligned against you."
The old standbys in the set — "Growing Up," "My Hometown," "My Father's House", and "The Wish" (dedicated, of course, to his 95-year-old mother, "ten years into Alzheimer's") — feel particularly haunted this time around. So does "Born in the U.S.A.," performed once again as the Vietnam War protest anthem it was always meant to be, as opposed to the cheerful rock anthem you hear on the oldies stations. "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out", the story song about the formation of the E Street Band, is always a wonderful tribute to his late sax player, Clarence "Big Man" Clemons. And Patti Scialfa, Springsteen's wife of three decades, takes the stage for an affectionate "Tougher Than the Rest" and a sexy as hell "Fire," which replaces "Brilliant Disguise" from the last run.
Vocally, Bruuuuuuuuuce sounds better than he ever has, and the night's final song, "I'll See You in My Dreams" is a genuine jaw-dropper. This is the most unexpected change, since the past finale was "Born to Run," a tune that's nowhere to be found here (at least, it wasn't on opening night). It's a pretty bad-ass move to cut your signature song, though I say that with the luxury of having had a comped ticket. If I had paid, I'd probably feel differently.
The whole show is pretty spectacular, which may sound hyperbolic, but it's not. From the quality of his voice and instrumentals, to the delightfully cavalier way he tells the audience to "shut the fuck up" and to not "cheer for every dumb fucking line I say" when they carry on, Springsteen on Broadway allows us the ability to watch a master craftsman up close. I also don't think I've ever seen a rock star — certainly not a rock star of his stature, anyway — present themselves with such genuine humanity. Yes, I know that's called acting. Yes, I know he's done this show 240 times. But after everything that's happened over the last year, over the last several years, Springsteen's ability to step on stage and connect with the spectral presences of his life was clearly as much of a balm for his soul as it was ours. No matter what label you want to put on it — theater, concert, church — it's the single-greatest live performance I've ever seen.
I've come home at last.