11 Bruce Springsteen Songs Musical Theatre Fans Should Know | Playbill

Lists 11 Bruce Springsteen Songs Musical Theatre Fans Should Know Before the rock icon gets to Broadway in October, here are the storied songs musical theatre fans should know—and will love.
Bruce Springsteen Antonio Scorza / Shutterstock

Ask anyone who’s seen him live in concert, Bruce Springsteen is pure theatre. First, there’s the showmanship, and the leave-it-all-on-the-floor kind of performance that few performers have the wherewithal and talent to deliver.

But for those who have never taken a closer listen to his songs, or explored the history behind his music, Springsteen is a true craftsman of lyrical storytelling, often taking on different perspectives and characters from track to track. In addition, many of the songs Springsteen recorded with his longtime musicians The E Street Band feature instrumental arrangements that support the arc of the story—it just happens that Springsteen works in the rock idiom and not musical theatre.

In our previous article, we dreamt up a wish list of musical theatre songs we’d love to hear Springsteen cover in his upcoming Broadway engagement.


Springsteen's breakout record Born to Run—hailed as one of the greatest rock albums of all time—is filled with dramatic tension, building to what is arguably the most musically complex and emotionally satisfying endings in rock history. “I wanted to make the greatest rock record that I'd ever heard,” he told Rolling Stone in 2005. “And I wanted it to sound enormous and I wanted it to grab you by your throat and insist that you take that ride, insist that you pay attention.”

With evocative titles, lyrical craft, character-driven material, and inspired musicianship that builds like a work of theatre, here’s a look at 11 Springsteen songs musical theatre fans should check out.


1. “Thunder Road” (Born to Run 1975)

Springsteen was only in his mid 20s when he wrote “Thunder Road,” the driving opening anthem to his breakout 1975 album Born to Run. A soulful harmonica leads into this restless, piano-driven rock and roll masterpiece.

“The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey, that's me and I want you only
Don't turn me home again, I just can't face myself alone again

Don't run back inside, darling, you know just what I'm here for
So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
You ain't a beauty but, hey, you're alright
Oh, and that's alright with me”

2. “Born to Run” (Born to Run 1975)

Few rock musicians write in the first person as well as Springsteen does, and this love letter from a fast-driving rebel to a girl named Wendy captures a universal longing and desire that Springsteen turns into an exhilarating experience.

“Wendy let me in I wanna be your friend
I want to guard your dreams and visions
Just wrap your legs ‘round these velvet rims
And strap your hands 'cross my engines
Together we could break this trap
We’ll run till we drop, baby we'll never go back
Oh-Oh, Will you walk with me out on the wire
‘Cause baby I'm just a scared and lonely rider
But I gotta know how it feels
I want to know if love is wild
Babe I want to know if love is real”

3. “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” (The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle 1973)

Sure, everyone loves Grease. But if you’re among those who were never charmed by its tongue-in-cheek take on puppy love, don’t worry, Springsteen fixed it for you. His song “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” hits right at the heart of lonesome adolescence. Referred to as simply “Sandy” by Springsteen fans (and completely unrelated to the musical despite the striking parallels), the wistful ballad captures the gritty essence of a New Jersey boardwalk in midsummer. Think of this as “The Real Ballad of Danny Zuko.”

“Sandy the fireworks are hailin' over little Eden tonight
Forcin' a light into all those stony faces left stranded on this Fourth of July
Down in town the circuit's full of switchblade lovers so fast, so shiny, so sharp
As the wizards play down on Pinball Way on the boardwalk way past dark
And the boys from the casino dance with their shirts open like Latin lovers on the shore
Chasin' all them silly New York virgins by the score

And Sandy, the aurora is risin' behind us
This pier lights our carnival life forever
Oh love me tonight for I may never see you again
Hey Sandy girl”

4. “The River” (The River 1980)

The untamed rebel archetype from Springsteen’s “Born to Run” days is now a working class American Joe struggling to make ends meet for his wife and kids. The devil-may-care possibility of “magic in the night” has shifted to a stark reality—but old dreams die hard. Springsteen revealed in his 2016 memoir Born to Run that “The River” draws heavily from his sister Ginny’s relationship with her husband Mickey in their early years.

“Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress

That night we went down to the river
And into the river we'd dive
Oh down to the river we did ride”

5. “Born in the U.S.A.” (Born in the U.S.A. 1984)

One of Springsteen’s best-known singles almost didn’t happen. Instantly recognizable by its opening chorus—a repeating patriotic chant— this anthem to Vietnam War veterans returning home to the dissolution of the American dream, was actually dropped from Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska in its first iteration. Springsteen revised the song as an acoustic guitar track, but when The E Street Band started improvising between studio takes, Springsteen told them to keep going and joined in on vocals. They recorded the song on the spot without any charts in place. The version that made the album is their second take, and only the third time the band had ever played the song together.

“Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that's been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.,
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.,
Born in the U.S.A.

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

Born in the U.S.A.,
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.,
Born in the U.S.A.”

6. “Hungry Heart” (The River 1980)

Originally written for The Ramones, Springsteen decided to keep “Hungry Heart” for himself after watching other musicians have hits with his songs, including Manfred Mann’s Earth Band with “Blinded by the Light,” The Pointer Sisters with “Fire,” and Patti Smith with “Because the Night.” The song about a Baltimore family man who goes out for a ride “and never went back,” takes its title from the Tennyson poem “Ulysses,” which describes the restlessness of a man “always roaming with a hungry heart.”

“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don't know where it's flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going

Everybody's got a hungry heart
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody's got a hungry heart”

7. “Because the Night” (Unreleased 1978)

Not everyone knows that Patti Smith’s edgy hit about liberated female sexual empowerment, is actually a Springsteen song. Springsteen initially recorded “Because the Night” during sessions for Darkness on the Edge of Town. Uninterested in releasing what he felt was just another love song, Springsteen gave the demo to his music engineer/producer Jimmy Iovene who was also recording Smith's album Easter in the studio next door. Smith’s version of “Because the Night” was released as the first single from Easter, and brought the album mainstream success. It remains one of Smith’s best-known songs. Springsteen often performed his version of the song during his 1978 Darkness tour. His original recording from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions was released on the 2010 compilation album The Promise.

“Take me now baby here as I am
Pull me close try an understand
I work all day out in the hot sun
Stay with me now till the mornin' comes
Come on now try and understand
The way I feel when I'm in your hands
Take me now as the sun descends
They can't hurt you now
They can't hurt you now
They can't hurt you now

Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to us
Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to us”

8. “Badlands” (Darkness On the Edge of Town 1978)

Like “Thunder Road” on Born to Run, “Badlands” sets off Darkness On the Edge of Town with a shot in the dark. Springsteen selected the song titles before he had written a note, challenging himself to write a song worthy of their name. The song also showcases E Street Band drummer Max Weinberger and the work of late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, Jr. whose sound defined an era in rock music. (Lady Gaga fans will recognize Clemons’ work on “The Edge of Glory.”)

“For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside,
That it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive
I wanna find one face that ain't looking through me
I wanna find one place,
I wanna spit in the face of these...

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday,
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay,
We'll keep movin' 'til it's understood,
And these badlands start treating us good.”

9. “Streets of Philadelphia” (1994 Single)

Director Jonathan Demme asked Springsteen to write a song for his 1993 film Philadelphia, one of the first major Hollywood films to address the AIDS crisis that was ravaging the gay community. Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington co-starred. Springsteen won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, in addition to four Grammys including Song of the Year, Best Rock Song, Best Rock Vocal Performance, Solo, and Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television.

“I was bruised and battered, I couldn't tell what I felt.
I was unrecognizable to myself.
Saw my reflection in a window and didn't know my own face.
Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin' away
On the streets of Philadelphia.

I walked the avenue, 'til my legs felt like stone,
I heard the voices of friends, vanished and gone,
At night I could hear the blood in my veins,
It was just as black and whispering as the rain,
On the streets of Philadelphia”

10. “Independence Day” (The River 1980)

Springsteen has been open about the strained and distant relationship he shared with his father, who died in 1998. “He loved me, but couldn’t stand me,” Springsteen wrote in his 2016 memoir. Their relationship served as source material for several songs in Springsteen’s career, among them, “Independence Day.” Springsteen later wrote that he felt he’d been unfair to his father, casting him as a domineering archetype, in many songs. He also revealed that the two shared a reconciliation when his father showed up at his door following the birth of his son Evan. “He said, ‘I wasn’t so good to you,’” Springsteen wrote. “I said, ‘You did the best you could.’ It changed our relationship immediately. It was a lovely gift. A lovely epilogue.”

“Well Papa go to bed now it's getting late
Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now
I'll be leaving in the morning from St. Mary's Gate
We wouldn't change this thing even if we could somehow
Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us
There's a darkness in this town that's got us too
But they can't touch me now
And you can't touch me now
They ain't gonna do to me
What I watched them do to you

So say goodbye it's Independence Day
It's Independence Day
All down the line
Just say goodbye it's Independence Day
It's Independence Day this time

Now I don't know what it always was with us
We chose the words, and yeah, we drew the lines
There was just no way this house could hold the two of us
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind”

11. “Jungleland” (Born to Run 1975)

Just like a fine-tuned musical, there is no fat on Springsteen’s rock masterwork Born to Run, which threads together eight songs (each with their own distinct contribution to the story of the album). If Springsteen used “Thunder Road” as a call to follow him into the night, he brings us into the dawn with the lushly orchestrated, ten-minute closing number “Jungleland.” The song reveals the expert musicianship of the E Street Band, from the 23-note violin introduction and the lightly played intricate piano riff, building to the deafening guitar solo right before the bridge, which is closed out with a long, wailing sax solo from Clemons. Lyrically and musically, “Jungleland” develops like a great musical theatre song, adding layer after layer as it builds to a stark final image.

“The midnight gang's assembled
And picked a rendezvous for the night
They'll meet 'neath that giant Exxon sign
That brings this fair city light
Man, there's an opera out on the Turnpike
There's a ballet being fought out in the alley
Until the local cops, Cherry-Tops, rips this holy night
The street's alive as secret debts are paid
Contacts made, they flash unseen
Kids flash guitars just like switchblades
Hustling for the record machine
The hungry and the hunted
Explode into rock 'n' roll bands
That face off against each other out in the street
Down in Jungleland”



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