NEW YORK — If you're still wondering whatever happened to class, consider what's transpiring five nights a week at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre. On a simple, industrial set, a guy in a T-shirt and jeans is wrapping lyrical stories of an extraordinary, ordinary life around moody rock-and-roll ballads that sing the song of an America of work boots and whiskey, of waning factory whistles and a hopeful sun still blazing over a Western desert.
It's elegant, it's austere, it's moving. And oh my God, it's Bruce.
"Springsteen on Broadway" — now there's a Jersey Boy — had its official opening Thursday night, in a taut and beautifully turned-out evening as sincerely wrought as a poetry reading. For sure, Springsteen rocks out a bit and tells some funny stories on himself. But onstage for two hours minus the E Street Band, and with Patti Scialfa — born like her husband on the Jersey Shore — appearing with him for two of the show's 16 songs, Springsteen is determined to maintain a mostly elegiac tone on this occasion. He's a musician on a mission. And it's a quest for a New York audience to listen for the craft in an American voice ringing with simple truths.
"I'll handle this myself," he politely advises the 975 or so theatergoers in the Kerr during a rendition of one of his biggest hits, "Dancing in the Dark." Bruce's fans at Tuesday night's press preview had the temerity to begin to clap to the beat of a song they loved, and he wasn't having it. Nope, didn't like it, wasn't interested. He had a clear vision of the evening, and the onlookers were fogging up the windows. A momentary hint of the control freak within. All it took were four words from the Boss and the rhythmic response shut off, like a spigot instantaneously gone dry.
What Springsteen has turned on, in his sold-out, four-month stand at the Kerr, is something on the order of revolutionary: a world-class singer-songwriter from the precincts of rock, a megastar parking his talent on Broadway for an extended period. His suburban New York contemporary, Billy Joel, has had his music translated into the musical "Movin' Out," and farther down Seventh Avenue, he has been such a fixture at Madison Square Garden that the venue has designated him a franchise, like the Knicks. But it was Springsteen's notion to stake out an intimate Broadway house, relatively speaking, for a long-term solo engagement. And it's fair to say he is blazing a trail for other recording artists of his mass appeal and rarefied caliber to come to midtown and create something just as artfully interesting.
And why not? "Springsteen on Broadway" erases any last whiffs of Broadway squareness that were not totally eradicated by "The Book of Mormon" and "Hamilton." He also has a story to tell; the show is almost as much spoken word as music. It's a Concert-Plus. (The Playbill — Bruce gets a Playbill — describes the show as "written and directed by Bruce Springsteen." The prospect of Springsteen being nominated for a Tony as best director of a musical is sort of hilarious.)
"I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged of fraud. As am I," Springsteen tells us, near the top of the evening. The long prose passages of "Springsteen on Broadway" — he relies on some strategically placed screens with the words of the script, an unfortunate, limiting crutch — are deeply emotional. Sections are devoted to his mom, his dad, to Freehold, where he grew up, and to the late Clarence Clemons, a.k.a. the Big Man, the saxophonist Springsteen first played with when he was getting started in the early '70s. "Nobody captured an audience's imagination like Clarence," he says, adding that he was "a character out of a rock-and-roll storybook."
That storybook feeling, fused with the every-American-kid accessibility of his working-class background, gives Springsteen a galvanizing narrative rationale. (He likes the word "magic" a lot, and it seems a counterpoint to the details of a rather unmagical childhood.) I grew up a few Jersey towns over from Springsteen, in Old Bridge and East Brunswick, and listening to Springsteen's new delivery of old songs like "Growin' Up" (from his first album, "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.") and "My Hometown" (from 1984's "Born in the U.S.A."), I suddenly felt nostalgic for my own tract-house early life. They didn't seem like noteworthy places when I was a kid, and here was Springsteen, reminding me that we all come from somewhere worth singing about. Central Jersey never struck me that way before.
Springsteen occupies a small swath of the stage, wandering back and forth from a piano to a microphone stand, where a stagehand brings him one of the several acoustic guitars he uses during the production. The song list — it's unfair, I think, to label it a mere set list — ranges over career-defining hits such as "Born to Run" to lesser-known songs like "The Wish." The voice, of course, is not made for an angels' choir; it's a powerful, lived-in instrument, a melodic gravel road. It sounds particularly good for "The Rising" and "Long Walk Home" and in the two duets with Scialfa, "Tougher Than the Rest" and "Brilliant Disguise." And when he walks away from the mic for an unamplified stanza of "Promised Land," you can feel that this 68-year-old rocker, bathed in an orangy halo by Broadway lighting whiz Natasha Katz, has still got stuff to sing to us.
The occupant of the seat next to me was a member of Springsteen's base — a woman from Ortley Beach, N.J., who was celebrating her 55th birthday on this evening, accompanied by a friend. At the evening's end, she turned to me to gauge my reaction, but hers was the one that had more meaning. She looked as if she were the luckiest person on earth. Imagine possessing the magic to make someone feel like that.
Springsteen on Broadway, written and directed by Bruce Springsteen. Set, Heather Wolensky; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Brian Ronan. About 2 hours. Through Feb. 3 at Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., New York. All performances sold out, but a lottery will be held 24 hours before each show that will sell 26 tickets for $75 each, with a limit of two to each buyer. Visit luckyseat.com/springsteen-broadway.