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The picture on the home screen of my phone is from late February 2020: It's my kid and me at Wicked on Broadway, both beaming at the camera. The stage is in the background, a packed house surrounds us. Still a wonderful memory, but hard to separate from the horror movie playing just beneath it, one that would shut theater doors just a few weeks later while we began the long, painful climb out of our collective COVID-19 nightmare.
The virus took the stage away from all of us. On Saturday night, the Boss took it back.
Bruce Springsteen has always been first to show up in troubled times and usher music lovers back to the light, most notably with 2002's restorative post-9/11 album The Rising and subsequent tour with his beloved and mighty E Street Band. So it's really no surprise that he would lead the charge in welcoming starved theatergoers back to claim their seats on the Great White Way with a revival of his Tony-winning knockout Springsteen on Broadway for a 30-date run at the St. James Theatre.
The hour leading up to the show was its own performance. Anti-vaxxers crowded the street outside with signs blaring "Bruce Springsteen is for segregation on Broadway" - an extreme take on the venue's more-than-reasonable vaccine entry policy - while the audience filed in, many with a look of stunned excitement across their uncovered faces. This was, after all, the Theater District's first crack at post-pandemic seat-filling, and everyone seemed to be taking a beat to decide exactly how to behave.
"Broadway is back, baby," one gentleman said repeatedly to anyone within earshot. "Gotta be a special guest or two," added his date. And in fact, cell phones did emerge from purses and pockets as New Jersey governor Phil Murphy pressed the flesh en route to his seat, just before E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt tried to slide in discreetly to watch the show and ended up drawing an earth-shaking ovation. Little Steven's capo di tutti capi hadn't even taken the stage yet and the room was vibrating.
After easing in with opener "Growin' Up," Springsteen sat on a piano bench and gave words to the moment: "It's good to see everyone together, unmasked, sitting next to one another in one room." He then followed with a brief summation of his past year, which included one album (Letter to You), one podcast series with former president Barack Obama (Renegades: Born in the USA), and one arrest for accepting two tequila shots from fans while on a motorcycle at a federal park in New Jersey last November. (To great laughter, Springsteen groused about his day in "Zoom court" and admitted to having felt no small amount of apprehension over his dauntingly named court case, The United States v. Bruce Springsteen. Of course, the whole ordeal was much ado about nothing, for one obvious reason: "New Jersey? They love me there.")
Apart from this brief but rousing update, the autobiographical show was very much in the spirit of its original run. Springsteen showed no rust, vacillating effortlessly between fullhearted monologues on Big Life Issues and intimate details from his own upbringing, all of it shot through with an infectious humor.
Wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa came out for a couple of duets, most notably a rendition of "Fire" that's new to the show. And after their "Tougher Than the Rest," Springsteen admitted to having forgotten the last verse. Luckily, "she loves me, even when I'm f---in' it up." Later, he talked about how "we are living in troubled - and troubling - times," before launching into a rendition of "American Skin (41 Shots)," inspired by the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, that elicited audible gasps from the rapt audience. The show used to end with the standard Bruce crowd-pleaser "Born to Run," but this time Springsteen went with "I'll See You in My Dreams," a cut off his latest record that ended up being a much more apt - and poignant - way of closing out the night.
Springsteen has spoken recently of getting the E Street Band together and taking matters on the road in 2022, which seems like the natural next step in a hard-fought return to doing what he does better than anyone else. On opening night at the St. James Theatre, a community of Bruce fans gathered once again to be restored - after far too long a period of being removed. Next year, shoulder to shoulder, we're gonna rock. Can't wait to bring the kid.
My Father's House
The Promised Land
Born in the U.S.A.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Tougher Than the Rest
American Skin (41 Shots)
Dancing in the Dark
Land of Hope and Dreams
I'll See You in My Dreams