NEW YORK – His hair was all shaggy. The leather jacket newish. Those tennis shoes intentionally unmatching. He oozed energy and hunger as he literally scurried atop the tables at Greenwich Village’s small Bottom Line nightclub, singing about running away from his Jersey home, searching for opportunities and seeking the promised land.
That was the first time I saw Bruce Springsteen in concert. It was August 1975, two weeks before his “Born to Run” album would arrive and transform him into a rock star.
Last month, I again saw the Boss in a small venue in Manhattan, the 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway.
His hair was razor-cut short, his T-shirt plain black, his boots thick-soled and matching. He either sat at a baby grand piano or stood still in front of a microphone stand, picking an acoustic guitar.
This time, Springsteen wasn’t running and searching. This time he was reflecting on his life, where he came from, where he’s been, what he’s accomplished. “Springsteen on Broadway” — the latest endeavor in his Rock Hall of Fame career — is part monologue, part music and wholly unprecedented. No wonder he was given a special Tony Award last month.
The evening starts out with the Boss declaring himself to be a fraud. He has spent his entire career singing about the working class, but it’s been a brilliant disguise. “I’ve never worked five days a week until right now,” he jokes about his theater gig.
The Boss on Broadway is the toughest ticket in town — hotter than “Hamilton.” Tickets to Mr. Working Class run $200 to $850 — face value. They are going for thousands on the resale market. The show, which has been extended twice, is sold out until it closes on Dec. 15.
Despite what he said onstage, backstage the Boss, 68, looks like a working stiff. He’s wearing a weathered leather jacket over a plain white V-neck T-shirt, baggy carpenter pants and old brown boots that have never met shoe polish. Oh, he’s got makeup on. That’s showbiz.
“I’m a thespian now,” he says, followed by that familiar Springsteen nervous chuckle.
Maybe he’s always been a thespian, playing the part of Bruce Springsteen, a character he becomes in song, onstage and in interviews. It’s a now mythic character, one he tries to debunk in “Springsteen on Broadway.”
The spoken words that occupy much of the show are taken from his revelatory, self-searching 2016 memoir, “Born to Run.” That makes the Broadway show seem a bit like an audiobook with songs. Except the Boss, always quite the storyteller in concert in his early and midcareer, has perfected his timing, punching his lines, getting the rhythm right on his jokes and dropping f-bombs for dramatic effect. It’s infinitely superior live to the printed page.
With the vivid eye of a novelist, Springsteen talks about his neighborhood in Freehold, N.J. — the sights, the sounds, the characters. Then he sings “My Hometown,” which becomes more riveting contextualized by his roots.
The narrative flows with detailed descriptions and emotional moments, but it’s the self-deprecating humor that humanizes this larger-than-life rock star.
Stating that he couldn’t wait to break free from “the death trap” of Freehold, he points out, “I currently live 10 minutes from my hometown. I was born to stay home.”
Particularly poignant are stories about Springsteen’s father (his hero, with whom he didn’t get along), mother (his biggest fan, who is 93, seven years into Alzheimer’s) and buddies (who died in Vietnam while he got a deferment). Each of these tales is followed by a song to support them.
Premiered at White House
Springsteen conceived this show entirely on his own. His manager, Jon Landau, didn’t know about the concept until the Boss unveiled it at the White House on Jan. 12, 2017, in one of President Barack Obama’s last weeks in office.
In the East Room in front of about 250 people, the singer laid out sheets of paper on the floor in front of him and performed a 15-song solo show on acoustic guitar.
“I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Landau told me at the Walter Kerr Theatre. “He was so close with Obama that they set this up directly.”
An idea was born that night: Find an intimate setting on Broadway to present this show on a regular basis.
“Bruce had been to Broadway shows before,” longtime tour manager George Travis told me, “but he and I went to three theaters and he stood on the stage and walked around and sat in various seats like he used to do in arenas.”
After they chose one of the smallest rooms on the Great White Way, “Springsteen on Broadway” opened in October to auspicious notices from critics and, naturally, rave reviews from fans.
Of course, there is no understudy. The Boss commutes 70 minutes — when the traffic is good — from his New Jersey estate to the theater. A driver chauffeurs Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, who joins him for two songs in the show. Some nights, they stay in their Manhattan apartment instead of returning to Jersey. There are no matinees.
Changing the script
“I’ve played this show 146 times with the same set list,” the Boss announced on June 19, diverging from his usual script. “Tonight calls for something different.” He didn’t mention the previous day’s news about border-crossing immigrant children being separated from their parents. But everyone in the theater knew what he was talking about as he gave a little sermon.
He then delivered a haunting version of his harrowing “The Ghost of Tom Joad” from 1995. Although his comments sounded sincere and spontaneous, they actually appeared on a teleprompter on the back wall of the theater. But the Boss wrote the script, directed the show and knew how to deliver the lines.
Springsteen’s nearly 2½-hour presentation may be closer to performance art than a Broadway show. It certainly isn’t a concert, although the last third felt like it a bit because a few tunes had no introductions. And he ends the show the way he often ends his big concerts, with “Land of Hope and Dreams” and the inevitable “Born to Run.”
No plans after December
Waltzing into the green room at Walter Kerr with Scialfa post-performance, Springsteen seems kind of fidgety. He’s clearly mentally spent but not physically exhausted the way he seems after arena and stadium marathons.
Never big on showbiz glad-handing, he is nonetheless accommodating. Pop star Christina Aguilera has stopped by with her fiancé, Matt Rutler, a Jersey guy who proudly tells the Boss that he worked on the crew for one of Springsteen’s shows. They pose for cellphone photos.
Springsteen has changed out of his stage uniform, the same all-black outfit he wore when he performed on the Tony Awards. He seems anxious to hit the road with his wife.
He’s got an album in the can, but there’s no word on release plans.
Is he going to take “Springsteen on Broadway” on the road?
“I’m here until December,” he said. “We’ll see, we’ll see, we’ll see. I’ve gotta run.”
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719