Secret Meeting score: 95
by Phil Scarisbrick
Bruce Springsteen has long been established as one of America’s finest storytellers. Through fifty years of creating tales – of what he describes as the difference between “the American dream and the American reality” – he has built a back catalogue that remains the envy of almost any other musician. In 2016, he released his autobiography, Born To Run, proving that this storytelling ability translated to the written word. Inspired by the reaction to his tome, he decided to take it to the stage. What we ended up with was a 230+ night, record-breaking, memory-making, Tony-winning, head-spinning, emotion-draining, tear-raining, history-learning, life-affirming Broadway show.
With the run now coming to an end, it has been immortalised on record and in the form of a Netflix special. Regular Springsteen collaborator – Thom Zimny – helms the filming here, but other than the cutaways and close-ups, this really is just the live show in your living room. Bruce walks onto the stage, and then two and half hours later he walks off. There is no glitz, glamour or preening, and that is largely because the show doesn’t need it.
Originally when he conceived the performance, Bruce intended to read sections of the book, each punctuated with a song that ties it together. Through the writing process though, he ended up creating new dialogue that make the final performance so much more than that. Though he touches on elements of his life in similar ways to those he does in Born To Run, the monologues here are totally alive in their own right. Rather than telling a linear narrative, he focuses in on nuggets of his life, be it specific people or events. This allows each act to flow in an almost dream-like sequence, each enhancing its predecessor.
Opening with an introduction to his life and family, he joyfully tells tales of his childhood home while picking he opening riff from Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ’s Growin’ Up. Family is clearly a huge part of his story, with large sections of the show dedicated to his parents and his wife, the latter joining him to duet on Tougher Than The Rest and Brilliant Disguise.
What is striking is that he covers almost every emotion throughout the show. He can have you laughing about how bad he was when he initially took up the guitar in one moment, to being tearful the next as he reflects on his flawed, but loving patriarchal role model. Like any good story, it is an emotional roller coaster.
Anyone who has attended a Springsteen concert with the E Street Band will be able to attest how important audience interaction is to them. Here, this interaction is kept to the bare minimum, save a few exchanges prompted by Bruce himself. This takes nothing away from the experience though. He is very much telling a story, and to do so he needs our full attention.
Although the album gives us a great snapshot of the show, I would advise people who weren’t lucky enough to get the the Walter Kerr Theatre during the run to watch the Netflix film first. The way Bruce moves around the stage, and even his facial expressions, are all important cues for the story he is telling us.
This release feels like the end of a two year journey through the back story of one of popular music’s most influential writers and performers. His autobiography gave us an insight into not only the story of his career, but also his experiences with mental illness and family relationships. To then bring that story to life as a Broadway show, in a way that feels so natural, is a feat in itself. Even now as he draws a line under this part of his career, the story continues. Nobody has done anything like this before, and after watching the show for myself, I’m not sure anyone else could.