Bruce Springsteen woke Broadway from a 15-month sleep Saturday, returning to live performance to deliver an emotional, updated rendition of his 2017 smash Springsteen on Broadway to an audience so wildly enthusiastic the star himself cautioned against “cheering every dumb f*cking thing” he said lest the show last all night.
As it was, the re-opening night of Springsteen on Broadway – and of Broadway itself – ran two and a half hours, about the same length as the last time (and as the filmed Netflix version), with a few amendments to content all but necessitated by this most unusual year.
The first sign of change was evident even before entering the St. James Theatre, with anti-vaxxers picketing out front, shouting know-nothing slogans about “segregation” over the theater’s Covid vaccine requirement. Early in the show, Springsteen drew a sustained cheer – his prior request notwithstanding – when he marveled at his audience “unmasked, sitting next to each other in one room.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said to an audience that included his longtime guitarist Steven Van Zandt, former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and husband Chasten, MSNBC’s Brian Williams and row after row of enthusiasts who greeted every song like an old friend.
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“I’ve never seen anything like this past year,” Springsteen said early in the show before offering a quick recap of his own personal 12 months: a record with his E Street Band, a film, a radio show, a podcast, and getting “handcuffed and thrown in jail.”
“The United States of America Against Bruce Springsteen,” he said, shaking his head and referring to the court case resulting from his November misdemeanor DUI arrest. “It’s always comforting to hear that…I drank two shots of tequila. New Jersey, they love me there.”
With that, Springsteen launched into “My Hometown” (from his album Born in the U.S.A.), then sticking fairly close to the song roster from the 2017-2018 set list: “My Father’s House,” “The Wish,” “Thunder Road,” “The Promised Land,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “The Rising,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” (no “Born to Run” this time though).
With wife Patti Scialfa, Springsteen revisited “Tougher Than the Rest” and, in place of “Brilliant Disguise,” a sultry “Fire,” one of the show’s highlights.
But the most notable addition to the show was Springsteen’s inclusion of “American Skin (41 Shots),” the song he wrote in 2000 after the NYPD killing of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man. Bathed in a red spotlight as he sang “You can get killed just for living in your American skin,” Springsteen updated his Broadway show with a 21-year-old song that, tragically, could have been written just last summer.
Even on second (or third) viewing, Springsteen on Broadway retains not only its musical power – the Boss is in fine, gruff voice, and his guitar playing is, as always, both delicate and percussive – but the hometown yarns, the thoughtful deconstruction of his self-made rock star persona, the invocations of familial ghosts and garage band memories, the commemorations of friends lost to war or the road, have lost none of their poignance, humor or tribute.
Perhaps it was the sense of occasion, but Springsteen himself appeared visibly shaken when he arrived at a late point in the show in which he declares of his dead, “I remember them, I remember them all.” Yes, he’s a good actor – you’d have to be to make these scripted anecdotes seem improvised night after night – but his tears on Saturday appeared genuine, maybe even a long time coming.
Springsteen on Broadway runs through Sept. 4 at Jujamcyn’s St. James Theatre.