Springsteen on Broadway is no ordinary Bruce Springsteen concert (as if The Boss has ever performed an ordinary concert in his career).
The show—which I was able to take in during a trip to New York last fall—is really a mix of concert, one-man stage show and spoken word event. It is, according to Springsteen, his first full-time job, at the age of 68.
Springsteen on Broadway amounts to a reassessment of the artist’s work and career through 15 songs. But it’s no revisionist history. He’s not repudiating his songwriting, music and career, but he is using stories to help put his work in context. The multi-Grammy Award–winning musician shares stories of his childhood and family as well as personal recollections of experiences that informed his songwriting. Some of the stories are new; others are pulled from his autobiography, Born to Run.
And for someone like me who spends a lot of time editing, writing and thinking about stories (and who is also a huge Springsteen fan), the show struck a chord. It also made me think and helped crystallize a few things around storytelling. Namely:
1. The best stories are personal.
One of Springsteen’s strengths is his ability to use his own experience to give a personal voice to universal feelings. He’s always done that with his songs, but in his Broadway show, the stories he tells give those songs additional depth and context.
Stories that contain a personal element—even if you’re writing about fairly technical subjects like technology or cars—will resonate with readers because your audience will see something of themselves in your experiences.
Here’s an example: like Springsteen, many of us have felt the need to break free from our roots. He gave voice to that angst in “Growin’ Up” (“I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said sit down, I stood up”), the song that opened his Broadway show. As well, during one of the show’s lighter moments, he sat down at the piano and began talking about Freehold, N.J., his hometown and near where he finds himself today. “I’m Mr. Thunder Road. Mr. Born to Run. Mister gotta get out. Death trap. Suicide rap. Gotta run, run, run, run. And now, I live 10 minutes from my hometown.” Moments like that got some laughs and more than a few knowing nods from the crowd.
2. Stories let you take a fresh look at yourself.
We tell ourselves stories and create our own personal narrative. Over time, those stories and that larger narrative can change, and that’s OK. It’s OK as well to take a fresh look at ourselves and change the story we’re telling. Several of Springsteen’s songs were born out of the clashes he had with his late father. In Born to Run, and onstage, he said that looking back now, he realizes he wasn’t entirely fair to his father (who had his own troubled past).
That doesn’t make songs like “Adam Raised a Cain,” “My Father’s House” or “Independence Day” any less powerful. They are each a reflection of a time and a feeling. If anything, the new perspective that Springsteen’s spoken and written stories provides gives the music even more power and depth.
3. You should take your work seriously. But not too seriously.
Like any writer, Springsteen wants his songs to have thematic impact and a strong narrative. He tends to traffic in serious and weighty topics like isolation and yearning. Even his lightest songs carry an undercurrent of darkness. But sometimes, writers have to give themselves a break and not be afraid of writing something that might be outside their comfort zone.
A perfect example is “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s an outwardly catchy song, but the lyrics are about dissatisfaction, despair and a longing for a human connection. Springsteen wrote it, reluctantly, after his manager urged him to craft a broadly appealing song that would compete with ’80s chart-toppers Prince and The Police. It became a last-minute addition to Born in the USA, and he said later that it veered further into commercial pop music than he was initially comfortable with.
But it became a top five hit (helped along by its famous video counterpart), connected him to a legion of new fans and gave Born in the USA the out-of-the-gate hit it needed. Springsteen has long since made his peace with the song. And, added to the Broadway show, it now takes its rightful place alongside epics like “Born to Run,” “The Promised Land” and “The Rising.”
While his music still takes centre stage, the stories told by Bruce Springsteen help his “long and noisy prayer” continue to ring true.
Image credit: Instagram/scullather1invnt and Shore Fire Media