Bruce Springsteen's one-man Broadway show, an impactful and Tony-Award winning hybrid of storytelling and song, lasted for close to 18 months at New York City's legendary Walter Kerr Theater. Why all this hype for what was essentially a 69-year-old rock artist telling his life story on-stage with just the assistance of guitar and piano? Because, Springsteen is the epitome of a masterful storyteller, if there ever was one — he knows how to grab your attention with words alone. After all, he’s been doing it in song and on-stage for more than 50 years now. It’s almost become a caricature to think of him as anything but a songwriting troubadour, a man of the people, who could grab the attention of 80,000 fans in a stadium with soaring anthems. And sometimes he manages to tell a story about his life experiences to a captivated audience.
And so, is it any surprise that his Broadway show became the phenomenon that it was? With plenty of non-fans showing up to find out what all the hoopla was about? Of course not.Netflix's Springsteen on Broadway turns out to be one of the most moving and invigorating screen experiences of 2018. It shows you the act of a man, at the twilight of his career, looking back at the moments that marked him, or rather scarred him, into becoming the thoughtful and deeply ingrained human being he is. You see, this show isn't necessarily about music at all, but about discovering oneself, realizing who you are in a world in which it is so easy to get lost into darkness.
Springsteen decides to introduce us to the world that would bring in that darkness, when he was all but a tyke and worked his first, and as he says, last job cropping the hedges and mowing the lawn of his next-door neighbor's front lawn for fifty cents an hour, just to amass enough money to buy his first acoustic guitar. Not too long after that he recounts his "first show," too lazy to learn the guitar chords necessitated to become a musician, he ended up performing in the backyard for a group of local kids, by fake-strumming the newly acquired guitar. "I slapped it! I shook it! Most importantly, I posed with it!" utters Springsteen.
From there on he invites us into the world of his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, but more importantly, and touchingly so, he tickles the drastically different relationships he had with his cheery mother Adele and his morose, job-hopping late father Douglas, a man who Springsteen would have to collect from the local bar, at barely 10 years old, to get him to come home to his mother on an almost daily basis. The way he describes his dad, a heavyset boozer, who could never hide his inebriated state due to his pale, Irish face reddening up with every bottle of beer, showcases the storytelling strength of Springsteen, an artist who can effortlessly thrust you into a world that you could instantly recognize and envision in your head. During this intimate performance, in which he's alone on-stage for more than two hours, Springsteen conjures up the ghosts of his past, most notably the traits, the genetic predispositions, that his father Douglas left in him. His dad was a blue-collar worker who had a clear history of un-diagnosed mental illness, only officially diagnosed with Schizophrenia in his late 60s. Springsteen believed that it was inevitable that his father would pass on those demons to him, and that he would inherit the DNA of a man who never found a way to escape his inner demons. He then goes into a harrowing rendition of the "Nebraska" tune, "My Father's House," which talks about father and son disconnect and how the scars can never truly be healed.
On the other side of the spectrum, and with that the show's most touching moment, comes the tender tribute to his 92-year-old mother Adele, which eloquently segues into his piano rendition of the 1987 outtake "The Wish," a song that turns out to be quite fitting for a Broadway show, with its heart-on-the-sleeve ode to the most important person in Springsteen's life, a woman who always kept him grounded and had a joie-de-vivre that would show him the good side of life, a mental counterattack to the "meanness of this world" his dad had to endure. As he sings in "The Wish," "If Pa's eyes were windows into a world so deadly and true, you couldn't stop me from looking but you kept me from crawling true."
Springsteen then acknowledges his mother's seven-year struggle with Alzheimer's. Suffice to say, it hits you like a ton of bricks, and shades the otherwise sunny memories into a wakeup call of life's harsh truths. And then the chorus of the song, with the decision to repeat the line "I'm older, but you'll know me in a glance" — which becomes almost too painfully resonant for the viewer to take in — packs a wallop of emotional resonance. It's there and then that any raves you've heard about the show seem warranted and legitimized.
Wife Patti Scialfa shows up to duet on "Brilliant Disguise" and "Tougher Than the Rest," both love songs that nevertheless warn of loves ups and down, and how you can power through the latter to gain newfound appreciation for the former. There's also an immaculately touching passage on late E-Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons. “He was elemental in my life, and losing him was like losing the rain,” Springsteen says, “If I were a mystic, I guess Clarence and my friendship would lead me to believe we stood together in other, older times, in other lives, along other rivers, in other ancient cities, in other fields, working side by side with the sun setting, do our modest version of God’s work. I’ll see you in the next life, Big Man.”
The elemental moments keep coming in this wondrous and unique show. The show's final section deals with a childhood tree and "the words of a very strange but all too familiar benediction." It then culminates with a rendition of Springsteen's most popular and legendary song, "Born to Run," which ends up garnering extra meaning and an almost holy significance after that dreamy intro. [A]