Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show, premiering Sunday on Netflix, at times calls to mind a striptease.
There’s plenty to see, because Springsteen is a world-class showman. At the same time, he also reminds us that the best stripteasers never take it all off.
That said, this needs to be stressed up front: Springsteen On Broadway enchanted thousands of fans for 14 months, and it’s a major coup for Netflix to be delivering a video version the day after the live stage finale.
It’s hard to imagine any Bruce fan not wanting to watch the whole two hours and 33 minutes, multiple times.
For those who have been out of town, Springsteen On Broadway segues from his 2016 autobiography. Fans have not been discouraged from seeing it as a peek behind the curtain, an intimate first-person look at how one of a million awkward kids from working-class New Jersey grew up to become Bruce Springsteen.
He doesn’t treat the Walter Kerr Theater as a confessional. He’s always guarded his private life, and he’s not about to go tabloid on himself. Still, the book was open on several personal subjects, including therapy and his struggles with depression. In the broader picture, he walks through benchmarks of satisfaction and frustration.
No one expects him to go on stage and detail, say, his life with either of his wives. And that’s fine. It’s none of our business.
A bit more tantalizing in its near-absence is the E Street Band, with whom he has made music over four decades.
Springsteen has suggested at times that he sees the E Street Band as well-paid hired hands. Many fans, sometimes noting Bruce’s own comments about the powerful, almost mystical bond of a rock ’n’ roll band, see the unit as more than that.
Aside from a long, almost floral tribute to his late sax player Clarence Clemons, Springsteen doesn’t talk much about E Street here.
Fans have also speculated for years about Springsteen’s musical twists of the early ’80s. Coming off three acclaimed albums that had made him a rock ’n’ roll deity, Springsteen pointedly downshifted to the wonderful but stripped-down, reflective and often bleak Nebraska. Then he threw fans a new curveball with another kind of album he’d never recorded before, the catchy, top-40-friendly Born in the U.S.A.
He doesn’t owe us a conversation about any of this. But there have to be stories there, stories fans would love to hear. That’s the striptease part of the show.
The Netflix version probably feels a little different from the live version because the cameras repeatedly zoom in on Springsteen’s face. Parts of the Netflix production, which is beautifully filmed, feel like watching on Diamondvision.
That’s significant because, as Springsteen himself notes in his opening comments, the show we’re seeing is just that: a show.
From his first gigs in shopping malls, VFW halls and psychiatric wards, he’s been figuring out how to put on a show and he’s gotten really good at it. Now, at 69, you know he’s applying those lessons and meticulous standards to any production he presents to the public.
He was tweaking Springsteen On Broadway as it went along. He swapped out a couple of songs. He gauged the reaction when he stepped back from the microphone at a certain point in a story. It’s like when “all the boys you sent away” in “Thunder Road” became “all the men you sent away.” Nothing here hasn’t been carefully thought out, right down to how you make it sound like a casual, relaxed, informal reflection.
That’s okay. Part of what makes an artist great is precision, and that may be one reason Springsteen’s discussion of his early years feels more complete than some of what he discusses later on. Because some of those early players are gone and Springsteen made his peace with others — notably his father — more of that picture is filled in. Call it closure, maybe. What happened then is no longer good stuff or bad stuff as much as it’s just stuff that helped form him.
Springsteen jokes early in the performance that it’s the first time in his life he’s ever had to work five days a week, “and I don’t like it.” The line gets a laugh, partly because the show seems like such a natural for him. He’s always had an engaging stage persona, he’s been telling stories between songs for more than 40 years, and he’s got a truckload of grade-A musical material.
He’s also built up a powerful connection with millions of fans who hear their lives in his music, and over the years he’s delivered those songs in an explosive way that immerses fans deep in the sheer joy of the music.
The Broadway show isn’t an explosion. It’s the guy who created the explosion sitting down the morning after to talk about it.
The songs themselves, a dozen or so, are stripped down to Springsteen and his guitar or piano, except when his wife Patti Scialfa joins him for “Brilliant Disguise” and “Tougher Than the Rest.”
Springsteen has played acoustic versions of songs like “Born To Run” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” a number of times before, and he shifts a few nuances here.
“Born In the U.S.A.” opens with a bluesy bottleneck guitar solo, putting an exclamation mark on his long introduction about the tragedy of the Vietnam War. In the process he shuts down everyone who tried to sell the song as an anthem about the glory of America.
For all the exuberance in Springsteen’s music, there’s also been a current of sadness and an even stronger current of restlessness. That’s reflected at several points in the show, when he admits he misses the “blank page” of youth or expresses his frustration with things he sees today that he thought America had left in its imperfect past.
Springsteen on Broadway differs from a Springsteen concert the way Nebraska differed from Born To Run. He doesn’t drop the common threads, he just weaves them into a different tapestry.
Springsteen on Broadway hardly portrays its star as perfect. It’s clear he’s still working some things out, and equally clear that we’re seeing both the packaging and the personal. As he half-jokes in his opening minutes, he comes from a tradition of magicians, and a magician’s act always involves a little sleight-of-hand.
Or maybe a brilliant disguise.