It’s hard not to worry a little about Bruce Springsteen. He revealed in his memoir last year that he’s battled depression on and off for decades. And in recent photos (if you’re the kind of fan who notices such things), he looks, well, haunted. Is it just the state-of-the-world despair that’s going around these days? Or something darker?
Springsteen on Broadway, his extraordinary new stage production, won’t set your mind at ease. Dressed all in black, the showman known for exuberant stadium marathons delivers a two-hour performance — part storytelling, part singing — almost entirely without cracking a smile. There are no sing-alongs or choruses of “Bruuuuuce!”—he shuts those down with a “no, no” and a shake of his head. It’s intense — and spellbinding.
Partly, it’s the power and proximity of his physical presence. The theater seats just 939, so everyone gets a clear view of those practiced fingers on the guitar strings, the craggy face that appears, depending on how the light hits, age-worn or astonishingly young. He doesn’t seem 68. (“Look at that body!” a woman next to me whispered. “Best forearms in the business.”)
It’s also the songs, of course. Stripped down, accompanied with just piano or guitar, “Growing Up,” “My Father’s House,” “Thunder Road” cut straight to the heart. What he’s called his “journeyman’s instrument” of a voice — like a woman who “ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right,” to quote “Thunder Road” — hasn’t diminished over the years the way some prettier ones do. It’s built for the gravitas that comes with experience.
And then there’s the poetry and emotion of his story. Drawing on his memoir, he talks about growing up in working-class Freehold, New Jersey, his difficult father and beloved mother, a childhood that felt like “a lifeless black hole of homework, school, church and green beans.” From the beginning, though, he possessed the “naked desire for fame, love, adoration, women, sex and oh yeah, a buck” that would lead him to rock and roll, and salvation.
RELATED VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen on Broadway
Midway through the performance, wife and longtime bandmate Patti Scialfa joins him onstage for two songs. “The queen of my heart,” he calls her. He expresses gratitude as well for saxophonist and pal Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011. “I carry the big man in my heart every night when I walk out on stage,” he says, visibly brightening. In the battle against his demons, the people he loves have clearly been key, and he includes his audiences in that. “My magic trick,” he says at one point, speaking of how performing has gotten him through. “Us.”
That’s part of the singular impact of this intimate, unforgettable show. It’s like therapy, or the confessional, or a lovers’ heart-to-heart: you leave feeling you’ve journeyed with a superstar to the depths of his troubled soul, and in some small way–ridiculous though it sounds–you’ve helped.