Bruce Springsteen remains a notorious difficult mark. For a man who’s been in public life for decades--for many of it a chief performer in America and beyond--vanishingly little can be said about his personality, his likes, his desires. Very little comes across in interviews. It’s not that he’s guarded, he seems to be ill at ease with normal conversation. For a man known as a talented wordsmith whos lyrical gifts were evident from his earliest output, that’s not necessarily strange. Bob Dylan never made for a particularly good interview either, remaining inscrutable for decades.
Bob Dylan though never staged a one-man Broadway show.
Its an open question as to what On Broadway is supposed to deliver. If this is supposed to be Springsteen in his own words, setting the record straight on a life that’s inspired its share of tabloids. It all comes off as aw-shucks hagiography. “That’s how good I am!” is a constant refrain. In every instance this refers to Bruce finding songwriting gold in topics he should have no business representing. Whether that be factory life, cars, or a straight 9-5 existence.
Springsteen’s relationship with his father supplies the narrative arc for this performance. “You’ve been good to us… but I wasn’t good to you,” Springsteen’s father said to his adult son as a way of apology. That’s a powerful statement to pass between father and son. Context is unnecessary, still it had made me realize that Bruce had still kept this relationship entirely to himself. Here he divulges that his father was often sullen (due to depression), and spent evenings in a stupor at the neighborhood bar. These things don’t in themselves wouldn’t merit bitter send-offs like “Adam Raised a Cain” or “Independence Day”. Springsteen of course doesn’t need to give details or relive trauma for our benefit.
The same could be said for the rest of his family. His sisters are acknowledged more so than woven into his life. One gets an extended anecdote about marrying a bull rider. The other is mentioned to have moved to California (that one, Pamela, had an interesting flirtation with Hollywood via a series of B-movies, left unmentioned here).
Springsteen’s mother merits one extended nostalgic sequence. Their relationship is by his account a source of light. She is a woman born of dance, who still recognizes the thrill of a good beat while weighted by alzheimer's. Springsteen doesn’t go so far as credit his success to her. She is more of a kindred spirit in this telling.
The same follows depictions of Bruce’s bandmates. As you might expect Clarence Clemons gets an extended, poetic nod. There’s no mention about the drama between them. No mention of Bruce tabling the E-Street band at the peak of their popularity to embark on complicated stint as a true solo artist and the damage that did to their relationship.
At the end Springsteen on Broadway is another two and a half hours with the man that leaves you with precious little about the man himself. In that regard its a mildly disappointing undertaking.
As a performer though, Springsteen is generous as always. The songs are all highlights with a few surprises thrown in. Bruce has played Born in the USA as stripped-down delta blues for years but in this context it feels appropriate. He recasts the tune as the words of a man who lied and bawled his way out of service when drafted, never forgetting that someone took his spot in the war.
There’s especial poignancy where Springsteen reveals that his most popular stage persona was a idealization of his father: that hard-working, car-racing, head of the family, union man bore no relation to Bruce, but spoke the best angels of his father and that generation. This also explains the transition from the skinny kid who wrote lovingly about bus trips, carnivals, and a litany of women on his first couple albums to the rust-belt father in a biblical struggle against a declining industrialism. The son saving his father, if even just from being a nobody nebbish fits right along with some of the most popular entertainment contemporaneous with Springsteen himself, think Back to the Future and Return of the Jedi.
Springsteen’s relationship with Patti Scialfa is similarly expressed in terms of performance. The two have shared a stage for decades now, harmonizing, and exchanging longing glances on cue, night after night. They are both thorough professionals and like her husband, Scialfa gives precious little away. Together they duet on Brilliant Disguise, as they probably did on countless occasions before, including every night of this Broadway engagement. She leaves the stage only speaking Springsteen’s words. Whatever the nature of their relationship outside of professional performance, On Broadway doesn’t bother to address.
Springsteen on Broadway is largely a collection of medium shots that capture its subject from the waist-up. Director Thom Zimny has little interest in working in the set pieces that adorn the stage, or establishing shots in general. There are only a few instances where Springsteen’s whole body is in the frame. The stage itself looks consciously-haphazard: stacks of large gear boxes, light metal trim on black. Zimmy certainly could have made something of it. The failure to do so prevents On Broadway from being cinematic. If the intent is that this replicates the experience of attending one of these performances, you’re in the seat of someone who’s eyes never wander or glance askew.
Ever since Ray, musicians have sought “warts and all” portrayals.. In this era its a bit refreshing to see Springsteen veer into hagiography and to continue to build his myth. Zimmy and Springsteen can feel adverse to spontaneity itself. There’s no trace of Jonathan Demme’s wandering camera capturing throwaway moments. There’s not even a glimpse off stage of Springsteen, Scialfa, or any of the crew. Everything goes according to script. No flubbed notes, or mistakes in vocalizing. There are benefits to this approach, but in the end you’ll be just as distant from the actual man than you were at the beginning.