Given enough time, most artists transition into the “McDonald’s” phase of their career. From baby boomer staples like The Rolling Stones and Jimmy Buffet to early aughts bands like Dave Matthews and Phish, many groups eventually just lean back and play the hits. New music manifests as soft retreads of tried and true ideas, and tickets and merch still fly out the door. It’s like McDonald’s: sales stay up for a familiar, consistent product, but it comes at the cost of excitement or surprise. Most of us either stay for the warmth of comfort food or we move on to something else.
Even if you don’t count yourself as a Bruce Springsteen fan, Springsteen on Broadway is still a sight to behold. This feels counterintuitive because on the surface, it’s easy to lump Springsteen into the McDonald’s category. It’s been 35 years since The Boss was in his cultural heyday, dominating the charts and national conversation alike, but what’s always made him unique is his attempt to reflect the world as it is, not as it was in his prime.
Springsteen began his residency for Springsteen On Broadway in October 2017, but after more than 200 shows, his final performance was captured on film for Netflix. In the show, the rock legend stands alone on an unadorned stage, his only tools a well-worn guitar and baby grand piano. For two and a half hours it’s just a man, some hit songs and the stories he has to tell. No breaks. No cutaways for interviews. No backing band. It wouldn’t be the most exciting premise save for the master craftsman and entertainer at the center, guiding the audience someplace both familiar and unsettling.
When Stand Up Comedy Meets a Funeral
It’s not accurate to call Springsteen on Broadway a concert film. Most of the time is filled with Springsteen’s stories, which he strings together like a novel. Through these interludes, Springsteen introduces us to the characters of his life, and some of the stories run as long as 15 minutes between guitar strums.
At first, the tone is light and self-deprecating. Bruce recites the lyrics to his mega hit “Thunder Road,” packed with imagery of hitting the road and seeking adventure, only to reveal he currently lives 10 minutes from his hometown, and he wrote the song despite not knowing how to drive. He jokes about Catholic school, quitting guitar lessons and the universal awkwardness of puberty. The punchlines land hard and fast.
But the levity deflates when Bruce turns to the topics which influenced his blue-collar ethos. Bruce is open about the fact that he never saw the factory floor that’s appeared in some of his biggest songs, but he shares how those same songs were inspired by chasing the love his father never showed. Doug Springsteen was a factory worker who medicated his depression with heavy drinking and silence. “When it came time, I chose my father’s voice because there was something sacred in it to me,” Bruce told Esquire. “All we know about manhood is what we learned from our fathers. My father was my hero, and my greatest foe.”
Bruce has said Springsteen On Broadway is a vehicle for what he always wanted to say to his father, but theirs is not the only relationship he mourns during the show. Bruce’s best friend Clarence, the towering 6’5” sax player who served as the emotional center to the E Street Band, died in 2011 from complications after a stroke. “He was elemental in my life,” Bruce shares during one interlude. “And losing him was like losing the rain.”
Despite its heavy emphasis on grief, Springsteen on Broadway never falls into despondency. Rather, it displays a performer who’s reached the winter of his life handing down hard-won wisdom through chorus and verse.
The Surprising Faith of Springsteen
For much of his career, Springsteen has come off as a stereotypically bitter ex-Catholic. In the past, he’s described his feelings on being brought up in church as “somewhere between grateful and hateful.” In his memoir, Springsteen wrote: “My knuckles classically rapped, my tie pulled ’til I choked… All business as usual in a Catholic school in the fifties. Still, it left a mean taste in my mouth and estranged me from my religion for good.”
But along the way, something happened that shifted the Boss’ focus back toward faith.
When Springsteen speaks in On Broadway on approaching septuagenarian status, he says: “In this life, you make your choices and take your stand and you awaken from that youthful spell of immortality where it feels like the road is going to go on forever. You recognize that life is finite, that you’ve got so much time. So you name the things that will give that time its purpose, its meaning.”
In 2016, Springsteen started going public with his renewed faith, telling Stephen Colbert the Catholic influence on his songwriting was “pretty overt.” He’s gone as far to say: “As funny as it sounds, I have a personal relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in His godly power. I believe deeply in His love and His ability to save, but not to damn—enough of that.”
Springsteen’s refusal to accept the doctrine of hell might agitate some believers, but On Broadway is as much proof as we have of his sincerity. At the end of the show, he shares a transcendent moment that occurred while wandering his old neighborhood, mourning his father and Clarence. As he was walking, the Lord’s Prayer entered his head: “Once again surrounded by God, those were the words that came back to me,” he says, before reciting the prayer itself and launching into a final rendition of “Born to Run.”
It’s a rare moment when the power of pop culture smacks into the eternal, the benediction of a prodigal son who cursed his maker, then found his way home several decades later.
Whether Springsteen’s music has been a part of your life, On Broadway forces the viewer to stare down big questions surrounding grief, doubt and returning to faith.
For good measure, it mixes in enough hit songs to keep the viewing experience from being a slog of sadness. It would be easy to dismiss On Broadway as simplistic nostalgia fare, but nothing could be further from the truth. Springsteen isn’t trying to force us to look back. Here, he’s set on turning our gaze away from the rearview mirror and toward both the good and painful parts of our current existence.