Originally slated to play for just eight weeks, the now year-old, wildly successful Springsteen on Broadway show run in New York City is drawing to a close. Jonathan Alley reflects on how Bruce has drawn his world to the stage as Sony gear up to release the recorded version of the icon’s gripping broadway performances.
Dateline, 1973. You’re strolling along the New Jersey shoreline, late afternoon.
Manhattan is grey and sweltering on the horizon, shimmering over the murky Hudson straits, in the smog and heat. A happy-go-lucky, shaggy dude in a white singlet and jeans, acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, jumps into a beat-up old Chevy as you walk up off the beach to the dilapidated boardwalk. “Hey man,” you call after him. “What’s your name?” “Uh, Bruce,” comes the muttered reply. “Bruce who?” you ask. “Springsteen, man… Bruce Springsteen,” he grins back. “Hi, Bruce.” you say “I just arrived from 2018: you’ve got your own show on Broadway, over there in New York City.” The young musician stares at you, long and hard, drags on his cigarette and simply says, “I’ll have what you’re having, man.”
Fast forward to now – through Springsteen’s critically acclaimed ’70s, globally dominant ’80s, lost and dark ’90s, and a post-9/11 resurgence kicked off by The Rising album (recorded with his long absent comrades The E-Street Band) – and the singer has again climbed steadily back to relevance and recognition.
How did he make it back up?
The romance of the Springsteen story just never fades: a young man with a dream and a hard-arsed dad, running the streets with his buddies, finding fame, fortune, and misadventure, fooling around in cars, dating delightful girls, and playing guitars.
In the background of the story, rock’n’roll blares constantly; the soundtrack to the rise and fall of America. And sure, the good guys always struggle, and often lose – but now and again, they win one.
Yes, it reads like a song lyric, but that’s Bruce; his story is in the songs, and now the songs tell his story. And, they have a hell of storyteller. If you’ve heard his live version of The River from the 1975- 1985 live retrospective boxset, you’ll be innately familiar with his ability to entrance an audience by spinning a yarn, before diving into a song. The stage show Springsteen on Broadway runs a mile with that idea, formed as a lengthy monologue with songs mixed in, to help tell the story of the singer’s life.
So, how did Mr Cars and Girls (his songs infamously always feature one or both) end up swapping arenas for an extended run in New York’s theatre district? The show’s setlist (replicated on the resulting album, Springsteen on Broadway) provides some answers.
The last few years – from the reflective tone of 2012’s masterful Wrecking Ball, his autobiography Born to Run, and the reality check of losing two longtime bandmates (saxophonist Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici) – have inevitably focused the songwriter on life’s natural meetings and partings. The setlist signposts a life: beginning with Growin’ Up and the stark My Father’s House, running through The Wish and Thunder Road (youth), The Promised Land (success) then The Rising (redemption) to Born To Run (triumph on the ever-running road). But as much as the songs go deep, for the legions of fans it’s about Springsteen the man: the hope and pure-heartedness, the passion, the sincerity, the actual love of the guy that transcends the relationship most fans will have with a musician. Bruce Springsteen actually really matters to people.
2013’s documentary Springsteen And I showed us the world of the rusted-on fans, the Springsteen faithful who save their pennies for years and then attend 10 or 15 gigs in a row, shadowing his tours until the money runs out.
Doubtless many of these diehards will have journeyed to New York, from all over the globe, to bear witness to how Springsteen on Broadway unfolds. STACK tracked down Australian music industry legend Stuart Coupe – author of current hot-seller Roadies and a well-received biography of entertainment mogul Michael Gudinski, former manager of Paul Kelly, Laughing Outlaw Records boss, and all-round nice guy.
Coupe is also a self-described “card carrying member of the Springsteen fan club,” and says he’s “just a little obsessive about the man.” Making the pilgrimage to The Big Apple to see The Big Man, he says Springsteen on Broadway was one of the most affecting shows he’s ever seen.
“It’s at times side-splittingly funny, and then unbearably moving and poignant – those emotions occurring frequently, and within the space of minutes,” he says. “How Springsteen manages to hit the emotional depths that are so frequent, night after night, is beyond my comprehension. You emerge from the two-and-a-half hours feeling completely drained, yet wanting to walk back into the theatre and see it all again. And then, see it again.”
Well, we can’t see it again. The show winds up on December 15, but for his legions of Australian fans – from rusted-on 40-year veterans to new converts alike – there’s always the album.
Springsteen on Broadway is out December 14 via Sony.
Keep up with the latest Australian release dates for music.