When Bruce Springsteen walks out on stage at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York, as he has five times a week since October 2017, he’s begun every performance by talking about his “magic trick.”
The performative sleight of hand his fans are waiting for in Springsteen on Broadway, he explains, is to create a communal bond with his people, a deep connection in which his own life story becomes indivisible from that of his audience. “I am here to provide proof of life to that ever-elusive, never completely believable ‘us’,” he says before launching into “Growing Up.” “That is my magic trick.”
One of the things that made Springsteen on Broadway feel so, well, magical during its sold-out 230-plus show run is that, inside the cozy confines of the Walter Kerr Theatre, ‘us’ hasn’t numbered all that many. It’s an exclusive, expensive gig: Only 970 souls fit into the theater, and top face value for a ticket was $800. Having traveled far and sacrificed greatly for their audience with the Boss, the faithful were ready for a revelation.
This weekend, all that exclusivity goes out the window. Springsteen on Broadway’s final show is Saturday. At the stroke of midnight, it becomes available to stream for Netflix’s more than 130 million subscribers around the world in a version that was filmed over the course of two nights in July.
So does it feel like as privileged an experience to watch Springsteen’s emotionally wrenching musical autobiography play out on TV (or a computer screen) as it did to have the bragging rights that come with holding the hottest ticket on Broadway?
Of course not. But by making the show available on Netflix — rather than another platform with a higher bar of entry, like HBO, where he’s released other film projects — the previously only-for-the-well-heeled Springsteen on Broadway experience has been democratized so pretty much anyone can watch it, as many times as desired.
And along with ease of access and dollars saved — and the ability to create your own intermission and get up and do the dishes halfway through the show — there are many upsides to seeing Springsteen on Broadway in the comfort of your own home.
For starters, the version that’s streaming on Netflix directed by Springsteen documentarian Thom Zimny is a better show than the one I saw on Broadway. (Twice: Top that!)
That’s partly because Springsteen is such a self-improving worker bee. The performances I saw were early in the run, and the script has since been honed over many months.
Along with its serious themes about family, faith, and one’s struggle to be true to oneself while striving to find a place in the community at large, Springsteen on Broadway is also funny, and its comic timing has been sharpened.
“I’ve never worked five days a week until right now,” the Boss says, pausing for effect, mocking his blue-collar persona. “I don’t like it.” Recalling the reality of his 1970s beginnings and the myth that surrounds them, he says, “There was no Jersey, Jersey, Almighty Jersey s-! I invented that.”
But the show is also better — and, at two and a half hours — longer, because of added content. When he opened the show that grew out of his Born to Run memoir and a performance at the White House in the final days of the Obama presidency, Springsteen was adamant about not altering the set list from night to night. This was going to be a scripted piece of theater, not merely a concert with a bunch of shaggy dog song intros.
He’s largely kept that promise, but there were a few variations along the way that are happily included in both the Netflix version and the two-volume Springsteen on Broadway soundtrack release, which comes out Friday and which is an audio-only replica of the streaming show.
Two key performances not part of the set list in the Tony Award-winning show’s initial staging follow two songs from 1987’s Tunnel of Love sung with Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, who joined him on most nights of the run.
When Scialfa wasn’t there, “Long Time Comin’,” from the 2005 solo album Devils & Dust was subbed in. That song’s intro is about Douglas Springsteen’s visit to his son just before the singer was about to become a father. It provides a measure of resolution in the embattled relationship dramatized earlier in the evening before Nebraska’s haunted “My Father’s House.”
The other addition is “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” the title song from the 1995 album inspired by Henry Fonda’s speech at the end of John Ford’s 1940 movie version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Adding that song about empathy for the downtrodden to his nightly set list in July gave Springsteen a means to bring his theater piece into the current political moment and comment on Donald Trump’s America in 2018.
The “Tom Joad” intro is inspired by the March for Our Lives, the anti-gun violence demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere in the spring. Springsteen cheers the student protesters as a counter to those “in the highest offices of our land who want to speak to our darkest angels," whose goal, he stresses, is not to be taken lightly. It is "to destroy the idea of an America for all. That is their intention.”
Springsteen on Broadway is a pure performance film. There are no behind-the-scenes shots or interviews. What you see is what happens between the singer-actor on stage and his people. Zimny’s direction is unobtrusive and patient as he comes in for closeups, pulls back for long shots, and varies the perspective enough without getting carried away with quick cutting.
Springsteen draws you in to his life story with closely observed details. The smell of coffee from the Nescafe plant in Freehold, N.J., when he was a boy; the look on his beer-drinking father’s reddened face “distorted into some kind of booze mask by Mr. Schlitz.”
The camera captures moments that might have been missed, even in a room 45 times smaller than the venue the rocker last played in Philadelphia (Citizen’s Bank Park in 2016). The wedding ring on Springsteen’s left hand as he plays piano on “My Hometown”; the sadness that plays across his face as he talks about his 93-year-old mother Adele’s continued love of dancing even as she struggles with Alzheimer’s.
The alchemy spoken of in the intro gets further elucidation throughout the show.
Ghosts are brought back to life, whether they be Springsteen’s father or his original Jersey Shore rock heroes who died in Vietnam in a war he avoided. And in a “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” set piece, the presence of departed compadres Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici and the entire E Street Band is conjured.
It’s a neat bit of abracadabra in which Springsteen explains his “1 + 1 = 3” philosophy of life. That whole-is-greater-than-the sum-of-its-parts way of thinking is “the essential equation," he says, of love and art and rock and roll.
And the fact that that calculation — Rock Star + Audience = Us — can still hold true and create such an intimate connection after a ballyhooed sold-out theater event has turned into an accessible-to-nearly-everybody TV show? That’s Springsteen on Broadway on Netflix’s’ magic trick.