Friday, December 21, 2018

No Place Left To Hide: Springsteen on Broadway, Hard-Fought Reminders and Fresh Keys to the Universe

Opening night on TV, December 16th, a Sunday, I watched Springsteen on Broadway with my dear friends Billy "Chin" Heaster and Ben Bielski. Bruce has compelled me to write in response since I was 15. That night was no different, and what follows is what came pouring out, with some much needed edits....
All I can say is I knew it would be good because it’s Bruce. Well past the point where he has to, Bruce continuously fights to raise the stakes each time out, at least for his core audience. I’d read a few reviews of the Broadway show, some of the best written by people I knew. But nothing I read really prepared me for what I experienced.
There are a couple of reasons for that, and they’re understandable. One is that Bruce designs what he does so much focused on his ideas that it’s hard to miss them (although many have), and that’s what writers want to write about, ideas, I think. At least the story.
Briefly, we start with the portraits of a hometown he loved and hated and move to polar portraits of his mother and father. Then we follow him as he goes for his own version of Elvis, discovers America and realizes how easily his life could have been lost, at home or in Vietnam. He forms a band that is, magically, a formula of “1 + 1 =3” and he finds a wife who can look him in his eye and call him on his bullshit. His father gifts him with an attempt at apology that helps him not make the same mistakes he made with his own kids. And then he turns overtly outward with a suite of songs about our better selves—the vision of Tom Joad, the conviction of the first responders during 911, folks like me (and almost everyone today) struggling to restart again “worrying about your little world falling apart” and, ultimately, that core theme of Rock & Soul, that “People Get Ready” train to the Promised Land. In summation, he shows every one of those themes’s DNA in the closing song, his signature “Born to Run.” It’s a compelling story, vital and beautiful.
But that’s not what makes the show work, not the story alone. It’s, as he calls it, the “magic trick.” It’s what he’s been after for some time. How can you tell the story as honestly as possible in a way that may truly be liberating? He’s been after it for years. I remember thinking of the analogy of Bruce night-after-night picking a lock over two decades ago. How do you use this thing in a way that doesn’t simply reinforce the illusion?
Well, he boils things down, for the most part, to their essence. He gushes over Elvis (tellingly without saying his name because he's talking about a promise more than a man) and he explains that his first step in learning his craft involved posing with a guitar not playing it. He is, at once, at his most theatrical and most scripted, and he is also at his most precise.
Director/Secret Weapon of E Street Band, Thom Zimny
 Springsteen on Broadway is bare bones in a way that reveals each song in a new light. I think it’s a profoundly musical experience. Even the monologues, which take up the majority of the performance, serve as verbal tone poems that connect the songs. The words are great—natural and poetic and honest, nakedly as close to that goal as you can get without embarrassing yourself and the audience. But what I think about in the monologues, and which director Thom Zimny captures so well with this film, are the facial expressions, the inarticulate moments, the balks, the agonized flailing, the shouts and the prayers.
This translates into a different way to hear the songs, as something familiar but new, enhanced. When Bruce sings “Brilliant Disguise” with Patti, they are eyeball-to-eyeball, telling each other they are watching for any sleight of hand, and, and, especially Patti lets you know that she’s going to catch some. I’ve never heard the pledge of “Tougher than the Rest” articulated more vividly. And this goes for much of the show. The way he manages to bridge the gap between a new sprightly rhythm for “The Promised Land” and the dark, desert storm vision that he articulated acapella on the Ghost of Tom Joad Tour….Well, to me, it’s mind-blowing.
Pretty much everything in this show is about everything but, first, the music of voice and the music of music. “My Hometown’s” never been more beautiful than set in this context on solo piano. “My Father’s House” never more haunting than after a tale of the old man’s bar (and his ruddy, misshapen, post-bar face). “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the E Street Band declaration of purpose, never more infectious. I asked my friend Billy, who was the only one who saw this on Broadway, “How did you not break out into song on that?” The restraint is part of the power of the show, too.
One of the great mistakes I make when writing about Bruce, or anyone, is my tendency to go on too long. As one of my great friends and mentors has put it, what you are doing is always in service of the music. Yes, the music takes care of itself. No commentary on the show could or should try to “cover” what the show has to offer, what the music is trying to do. That’s a fool’s errand to no purpose.
My main concern here is to say, if you watch Springsteen on Broadway, watch it as a piece of musical theater and be ready for it to be one of the most challenging pieces of musical theater you are likely to encounter. If you go in determined to disprove that notion, then you probably won’t have the experience. If you go in openly, the rest will take care of itself.
Beyond that, I want to declare the honor and privilege of watching it with my dear friends of the past three decades. When Bruce talked about losing his father, I felt the bond with my brothers, all of us now fatherless, with various levels of father-son issues unresolved (although all of ours in better shape than Bruce’s, he seems to have found some peace). When Bruce talked about his mother’s dementia and sang one of his greatest all-but-unknown songs “The Wish,” a song about her and dedicated to her, he spoke in varied ways to all three of us who still struggle to be there for our aging mothers. None of us missed the visceral way his reading of the thirty-year-old song speaks to his mother’s dementia, to our own concerns and fears.
And, finally, I felt blessed by the way the show spoke to the hope that binds my friends and I together. It’s not an idealistic hope. It’s a hope that’s there when you’ve got nothing left to lose. “You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart” never sounded more revolutionary. It’s tactical. It’s about how you do things rather than simply what you’re trying to do.
And that’s the beauty of Springsteen on Broadway. We all want to be reminded of our better selves and live up to that measure. The question is, “how in hell do we do that?” Bruce doesn’t have the answers, but he has many clues, musical and theatrical and philosophical clues he’s puzzling over himself. But he’s figured out a new way to present them that sheds more light on what he’s spent his life doing. It’s crucial, at least to us fans, because it helps us shine a new light on ourselves….
And I, for one, damn sure needed that.

Blood Brothers "Big D" Alexander, Benny "GTO" Bielski and Billy "Drive All Night" Chin

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