And You May Lose Your Heart

Why do we all know the names Bonnie and Clyde?


Bonnie and Clyde weren't particularly good criminals. They made a lot of mistakes. They left a lot of robberies with nothing to show for it. They only rarely robbed banks; mostly, it was little mom-and-pop grocery stores (they sound less like Robin Hood now, don't they?), leaving jobs with as little as five or ten dollars.

So how did these half-assed kid-criminals get to be as famous as Al Capone or John Dillinger, maybe even more famous? The media. There were two ways to be famous in America in the 1930s. You had to get in the papers or on the screen. In the opening number of Bonnie & Clyde, Bonnie chooses the screen, and Clyde chooses the papers. As it turned out, what really did the trick was Bonnie's poems – the newspapers published anything she gave them, and that's what made them stars.

At first, the public was on their side, seeing them as rebelling against the establishment power structure that was oppressing everyone, but that pretty myth kept getting punctured, as they repeatedly robbed the working poor. In real life, the public largely turned against them eventually.

Personally, I think the main reason they became more famous than the other gangsters is that they were Just Two Wild Kids in Love. None of the other outlaws of the period had a story like that. You can just see Mary Sunshine from Chicago writing about them.

I've read in several sources that most of the lawmen were referring to them as Clyde and Bonnie, but once the poems were published, everyone began calling them Bonnie and Clyde. The order of their names is a recurring joke in the show, Clyde objecting for obvious reasons, and Bonnie always holding the trump card that nothing rhymes with Bonnie.

Imagine Bonnie and Clyde in today's uber-saturated media environment. They'd both be in hog heaven. They'd be uploading videos to YouTube twice a day and live-tweeting their robberies. And the FBI would be tracking the GPS on their car because Clyde hadn't thought about that...

I've discovered as we work on this show that everybody knows their names, but nobody knows anything about them, except if they've seen the 1967 film, most of which is fictionalized.

I recently found a Bonnie & Clyde History group on Facebook, and the things they share there have been really helpful. I posted in the group about our show, but as I was typing, I realized I had to explain this show – it doesn't adhere to so many of the details of these events, and leaves out a lot of things and people. And then I understood – this isn't historical biography; this is fable.

And the moral of the fable is: A broken country creates broken people with broken values.

Just as Bonnie's poems and a willing press turned their real story into a romantic adventure, the 1960s film turned their story into a counter-culture thriller about the individual fighting back against America's failing establishment; and the stage musical turns the story into a fable about how a broken country can break its people and its values.

This is a show like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson that is its own animal. We can't try to force it into some other form. Sort of like Assassins, this is a show not about historical accuracy, but about emotional authenticity instead. And after all, as Voltaire famously said, "History is a pack of lies we play on the dead." Documentaries can focus on details; this show is about the emotional state of our country during these dark times. Clyde and Bonnie stand in for America in our show.

The musical's opening number gives us the story's emotional circumstances (of both our heroes and America), and "How 'Bout a Dance?" is the show's subtle (subliminal?) statement of theme. Look at the lyric as metaphor and it all jumps out at you. It's Bonnie's agreement to commit to Clyde's adventure, and though the characters aren't aware of it, the song essentially describes the arc of the entire show. By the end of the song, these two are now a couple and they are taking this journey together. With the confidence of only the very young, they carve their own path.

And almost everyone in the audience knows the adventure ends with their deaths in eighteen months.

With all that in mind, here's the lyric. Translate this lyric of images into the thoughts and emotions of these characters at this moment. Think of "dance" as adventure; "music" as the magic of Clyde and Bonnie's attraction (she twice mentions his looks), and/or maybe the allure of celebrity; "the blues" as the despair and shame of the Depression, particularly there in the Dust Bowl; and read "lose your heart" any number of ways...
How ‘bout a dance?
It’s always fun –
Come over here,
Let me get to know ya.
Can’t beat a band
To lift your spirits, hon.
You look so handsome…

How ‘bout a dance?
Let’s make a start.
Music like this
Can really throw ya.
You’ll lose the blues,
And you may lose your heart.

Tonight is the night
I’ve been waiting for;
Even the moon looks just right.
I’m sure the crowd will
Make room on the floor,
When they see you
Look like you do.

So, how ‘bout a dance?
Let’s make a start.
Music like this
Can really throw ya.
You’ll lose the blues,
And you may lose your heart.

When Bonnie sings, "Tonight is the night I've been waiting for," the surface meaning is that she's fallen in love and maybe also, depending on the performance, she wants to have sex tonight. But the next lines are about being in public. This isn't about sex; this is about a man showing up to take her away from her awful life. She's been waiting for the night she could drive away from West Dallas.

And now, when I hear the line, "I'm sure the crowd will make room on the floor, when they see you look like you do," I see the scenes in Act II in which Clyde is robbing a store and then a bank, with the customers all cowering together, hands up, Clyde center-stage.

This song almost seems like a throwaway: Bonnie Sings a Song for Clyde. But it's not a love song, it's more than that. Inside the innocuous dialogue and lyric, Bonnie and Clyde are sizing each other up, and deciding to make a real commitment. They're beginning their joint adventure, with their broken values and broken dreams, and this innocent-sounding song tells them and us what their end will be, before they even get started. They're just not listening because they're falling in love.

They sing this song again, later in the show, in the hideout right before the big shootout with the lawmen. It's this moment of false security, when they think everything is calm and safe, but we know it's not – which creates very cool tension. Bonnie hears this song on the radio and says, "Baby, it's our song!" Yes, it is their song, but in a way they don't understand.

When Bonnie repeats the last two lines of the lyric in the last few seconds of the show, the metaphor hits us: when you turn to crime and murder, you may lose the crippling despair of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, but you'll also lose your soul – and likely, your life – in the process. I know Bonnie understood that; I don't know if Clyde did.

I kinda think he didn't. At least, not in our story.

This isn't a show about them falling in forever-love; that's pretty much a given in the script. This show in its final form is a socio-political fable about the unintended creation of criminals. Which is why we're taking a very different approach to Bonnie and Clyde's relationship from what the original production did on Broadway. The script and the Broadway production were full of passionate kisses, with our heroes in various states of undress. It still looked like the La Jolla production, a tragic love story of two toxic but passionate kids.

But that version of the show is on the cutting room floor, along with half a dozen homeless songs. My whole understanding of the story in its current form is that these damaged kids can see only one path to any kind of happiness or security in this dystopian America, and they're ill-equipped either to legitimately make their own way, or really, even to be all that good at crime. Because they're essentially children. Emotionally, socially, psychologically, morally, everything but physically, they're children. Continually fed a religion that no longer seems relevant, Bonnie and Clyde have no moral compass left, just the hell-for-leather all-American pursuit of happiness.

At the expense of everyone else. The part Jefferson left out.

Clyde brushes up against morality a couple times, but it baffles him. That part of him is broken. Or was never formed.

The story here is not boy meets girl; it's a horror fable, as scary as anything the Grimms Brothers gave us. Which is why we've taken almost all the overt sex out of it. That's not this story. That was the story in La Jolla; not anymore. This version is about how America produced these two monsters and how they would be abandoned by their maker. A socio-economic Frankenstein story. In my opinion, this story is not about underwear or Clyde's abs (as lovely as Jeremy Jordan's were), or about passionate kisses. That kind of adult physical affection works against the show's central conceit, that these are kids, emotionally stunted sociopaths who have been made and broken by the world around them.

Don't get me wrong, New Line loves sex, and we've had a lot of it on our stage, but I don't think this show is about sex, so our production won't be either.

There's so much wrapped up in this story and there are so many choices available to us. Our job is to make the choices that tell the clearest story we can tell. And I think we're doing pretty well in that department. Only the audience can tell me if I'm right.

We open in two weeks, and I couldn't be happier with our progress.

Long Live the Musical!

These Are Things You Take a Chance For

I had a really cool phone conversation yesterday.

Most of my theatre friends' heroes are actors. Most of mine are writers and directors. And there's nothing cooler for me than to talk with the writer(s) of a show we're working on. There are always insights and subtleties that I can get from the writers, which may not be immediately obvious to me otherwise.

I've had very cool email correspondence and/or phone conversations with the writers of High Fidelity, Hands on a Hardbody, Next to Normal, Passing Strange, The Wild Party, Hair, Songs for a New World, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Floyd Collins, The Nervous Set, The Robber Bridegroom, Night of the Living Dead, Love Kills, Cry-Baby, Bukowsical, and other shows. And we've gotten visits from Amanda Green (for both High Fidelity and Hands on a Hardbody), Mark Savage (The Ballad of Little Mikey), Adam Schlessinger (Cry-Baby), Annie Kessler (Woman with Pocketbook), and Gary Stockdale and Spencer Green (Bukowsical).

And yesterday afternoon, I got to talk with Bonnie & Clyde bookwriter Ivan Menchell (in the picture at the top), who was nice enough to give me an hour of his time. After I gushed a bit about how much I love this show, he told some really interesting things, and I got to ask some questions about my core assumptions. It turns out he's been reading this blog and really loves what I've been writing, so that's a good sign!

(I always worry a little what the writers will think when I'm blogging all about how we're gonna go in a different direction. Apparently, that hasn't freaked Ivan out.)

I was glad to find out that he really loves Matt Reedy's poster design for the show. He said it's the only poster he's seen for this show that emphasized fame over violence, and he liked that.

I didn't know until today that Bonnie & Clyde started out as a song cycle about the greatest couples in history, including Samson and Delilah, and Laurel & Hardy. Sounds kinda cool, doesn't it? Then director Jeff Calhoun suggested to composer Frank Wildhorn that he turn the project into a book musical about just Bonnie and Clyde; and Calhoun also brought Menchell into the process. Meanwhile, separately, director Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal, If/Then) and one of the screenwriters of the 1967 film were trying to crack the same nut but couldn't figure it out.

Here are some other tidbits Ivan shared with me...

He really thinks the scene in which Bonnie breaks Clyde out of jail is the show's "obligatory moment," the moment toward which everything before it leads, and from which everything after it results. Without that moment, there is no story. Once he said that, I realized how right he is. That moment is when Bonnie becomes a criminal, her point of no return, when she makes the decision that locks in her tragic destiny, hitching her wagon to Clyde's decidedly fucked-up star.

Bonnie and Clyde were as notorious, maybe more so, for living and sleeping together "out of wedlock" than for their crimes. People just didn't cohabitate openly like that. And technically, she was still married to someone else.

Being in jail or having a prison record was not the stigma then that it is today. So many people, who we'd probably consider innocent, were jailed for debt, for stealing food, for petty robbery – those crimes the result of the crippling poverty and despair of the Depression and the Dust Bowl.

Bonnie really was a good girl, a straight-A student, before she met Clyde. When Ivan made a point of mentioning that, it hit me that that Bonnie is the one Ted loves, which makes that subplot even sadder. It's almost like there are two Bonnies – one pre-Clyde, and one post-Clyde. Ted loves a Bonnie that is no more; she's been changed and now she's the Bonnie Clyde loves. These men's big duet, "You Could Do Better Than Him," is really a battle for Bonnie's soul. Will she stay with Clyde and be the wild, dangerous Bonnie, or will she go with Ted and be the Good Bonnie again?

Is it even possible for her to return to her former self and life?

Ivan noted the horrors Clyde suffered in jail, not just back-breaking work on a labor farm, but savage beatings and rapes. As often happens today with non-violent drug offenders, it seems quite likely that though Clyde may have had the predilection, it was prison that made him into the killer he became. Ivan also wondered out loud if Bonnie and Clyde would have become these people if they hadn't met. Did they bring out the "worst" in each other? Would Bonnie have stayed a good girl if not for Clyde? Would Clyde have been the flamboyant show-off without Bonnie as audience? Would Clyde have become famous without Bonnie's poems published in the newspaper?

Ivan also told me that Emma Parker's book about Bonnie and Clyde, Fugitives; The Story of Clyde Barrow & Bonnie Parker, includes a lot of letters and diary entries.

Ivan also told me about some interesting staging ideas they tried. In the show's out-of-town tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse, Act I ended with Clyde's first kill and a dead cop laying onstage. Then they left the "body" onstage throughout the entire intermission, bleeding all over the stage. Then Act II started, the other cops arrived, moved the body, someone cleaned up the blood, etc. But then the writers realized they needed to hold off Clyde's first kill till Act II. Now the show ends Act I with our heroes on top of the world. Everything's awesome. And then it slowly falls apart in Act II.

A local critic once said to me the reason he doesn't like Sondheim shows is that Sondheim gives us everything we want in Act I (love, happiness, family, whatever), and then tears it all apart in Act II. I thought about it and that is true of most of his shows. But it's also true of Camelot, The Fantasticks, Fiddler on the Roof, even Anything Goes and No, No, Nanette, among other shows. And Bonnie & Clyde. And a lot of Shakespeare's plays. It's a common convention of dramatic storytelling. But it's not about giving and taking away; it's about establishing characters and situation, and then throwing it all out of balance, because that's how drama works. By the end, either balance is restored, or the characters adjust to a new normal (which is also a kind of balance).

Maybe that all feels more pronounced in musicals because too many of us still reflexively think of musicals as happy and innocuous. Well, that was true in the 1920s, but not today.

Ivan told me that in the Korean production, we actually saw (sort of) Clyde raped in the shower by Ed Crowder (which is only referred to obliquely in our script), and in the Act II opening, Clyde actually ran out into the house and robbed members of the audience, took their wallets, etc. I gotta say, that's kinda cool. Though we do fuck with our audiences sometimes, I don't think we'd wanna go that far...

So many new things to think about now. I've already thought of some small moments I want to change in the staging...

This is such rich material, book, music, and lyrics, and it's such a blast to work on. Now that we're running the whole show at every rehearsal, I have no doubt there are many new revelations in store for me, probably all the way through closing night, if past shows are any indication.

And eventually, I'll massage all my blog posts about the show into a coherent chapter for my next book. But in the meantime, I can't wait to get back to rehearsal. This is my favorite part of the process!

Long Live the Musical!

I Got Some Moves That I'd Love to Show Ya

We've finished blocking Bonnie & Clyde.


This was a hard show to figure out, particularly since we're going in a somewhat different direction from the original Broadway production.

I've developed a really nice system for myself over the years, when it comes to blocking. I'm not someone who likes working under pressure or deadlines. I remember freshman year in college, doing an all-nighter to finish a paper the night before I came home for Christmas break. And I hated how it made me feel! I decided then and there that I would never do an all-nighter again, and in order to keep that promise, ever since then, I plan to finish everything ahead of schedule. Everything. Grant applications, program notes, blocking, press releases, all the things I have to do in my job.

So first, as soon as we've decided that we're definitely doing a show, I photocopy the script (so it's one-sided) and get it coiled-bound at Kinko's. Then the script sits on my piano for a long time. My first job is to figure out the style and tone of the show – how does it look, how does it move, will we acknowledge the audience, will we place any action out in the audience, is this a full-front, presentational show or an intimate, ignore-the-audience show, will we have full-out choreography or less dance-oriented "Millerography" musical staging, will our set and props be very realistic or more cartoony or a mix of the two, is the acting naturalistic or heightened realism or full-out cartoony, is this a high-energy, fast-paced show or a more moderately paced, moodier show for which we'll really use pauses and silence...?

So many questions to answer before I can do anything else.

Also, I have to make sure I know the central theme of the show, the one sentence that summarizes the point of the story. Not the plot; the point. For example, Cabaret tells us that not doing nothing is also a political choice. Fiddler tells us that we must balance tradition with the ever-changing world around us. Company tells us that being in a relationship is really hard and frustrating, but it's better than being alone. So what does Bonnie & Clyde tell us?

I think this is a harder question with this show than with many others, because this show fundamentally changed what it was about between its out-of-town tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse and its opening in New York. At La Jolla, the show was about these two kids falling in love during difficult times. But on Broadway the show was completely transformed. They cut seven songs (including some great songs that just didn't belong in the revised show) and wrote six new songs, including many of the songs that define the show now – "Picture Show," "When I Drive," "Raise a Little Hell," "Made in America," "Too Late to Turn Back Now," and "That's What You Call a Dream." If you look at the two song lists, you'll see that they took the songs away from the lawmen and Bonnie's mother – these are not characters (at least in the revised show) that need exploration. Instead we get songs that lay out the socio-political themes for us (something almost completely missing in the earlier version), and go deeper into the central characters.

So what is the central point of Bonnie & Clyde? To be honest, I'm still wrestling with that. I'm close to it, but I don't think I've nailed it yet. It's certainly related to that socio-political context, and most directly related to "Made in America." It's something along the lines of A broken country creates broken people with broken values. I'm in the right neighborhood here, but I don't know if I'm knocking on the right door yet. The answer is in this lyric:
We may be in debt,
Wake up in a sweat,
But let's not forget
We were made in America.

Yes, let's not forget that. America is a big part of this story.

I think it's easy to imagine that without the Depression and the Dust Bowl, Clyde and Bonnie might have had less awful childhoods, more loving, attentive families, more stable upbringing, and maybe they wouldn't have ended up this way. If the Barrows and Parkers weren't suffering so profoundly, would Clyde and Bonnie have fantasized about being Clara Bow and Billy the Kid? Probably, but it would've stopped there. Clyde's "Bang! Bang!' probably would have stayed make-believe.

And thinking about all that led to my biggest decision as director of this show, and that is to bring the ensemble – the community – onstage periodically as backdrop to and comment on Clyde and Bonnie. I'm putting "America" onstage, in the show's opening and closing (which were both just Bonnie and Clyde on Broadway), and also for a few other scenes.

I try to make sure I work through all this stuff before I start blocking, but sometimes the answers only come as we're working. I create "rules" for each show, guidelines about how we will physically use the theatre space, what will and won't be part of this world we're creating, including many of the questions I ask above.

So for a long time, the script and score just sit on my piano, and the show percolates in the back of my mind.

Every once in a while, over the next weeks or months,  I'll have a revelation about how to stage a moment in the show, or about character, style, etc. When that happens, I grab the script, write my new idea(s) in, and put it back on the piano. Over time, I get a lot of big and/or complicated moments figured out.

Then as we being music rehearsals, the ideas start coming faster and more frequently, and I keep adding them to my script.

Finally, when it's time to block the actors, I work my way through the script and fill in between the ideas I've worked out. Sometimes that's easy; sometimes it's really hard. It was harder with Bonnie & Clyde because it's very cinematic in its writing, which calls for much cleaner, tighter, more economical blocking. And it means using cinematic techniques, like pans, zooms, split-screens, focus pulls, over-the-shoulder shots, etc.

My big secret (which really isn't very secret) is that I mostly block my shows stoned. I discovered years ago that marijuana mostly disables my internal critic, so that crazy and/or impossible ideas don't get dismissed automatically. And some of those crazier ideas are great!  And some of those impossible ideas seem less impossible if I just think through them and picture them in my head. Which means I come up with much more interesting, more adventurous, more unexpected, and often a lot more insightful staging if I've smoked a little of God's Goofy Green Goodness first.

Am I stoned now? What an impertinent question.

Usually, I try to get all of Act I blocked before our first blocking rehearsal, but I don't try to block the whole show that early. I want to see if my ideas for Act I work first, if it all feels cohesive, if our storytelling is clear, if the rules I've set up ar good ones, etc. If I'm feeling good about all that, I go ahead and work on Act II. If I'm feeling iffy about Act I, I try to figure out why before I go on to Act II.

I used to worry a lot as I worked if it was good, if it was funny, if it was powerful in all the right places. It drove me nuts because you just can't tell that stuff without an audience. But during our first production of Hair (we've done it three times) in 2000, I learned a really valuable lesson. When I focus on whether my work is good or not, I'm thinking about me; when I focus on whether we're telling the story clearly and well, I'm thinking about the story. I'm not trying to be impressive or funny or shocking or brilliant; I'm trying only to unlock each scene so that I fully understand it, and the actors understand it, and therefore the audience will understand it.

I read an interview with Sondheim, in which he said that he doesn't really care if an audience likes his show – since that's a matter of individual taste and every person will react differently – as long as they understand what he's saying, as long as the show is clear.  As long as you're working on really good material, and we always are, all you have to do is tell the story. Clarity is everything. Without it, a show may be diverting, but it won't be good.

Of course, even now that I've finished blocking the show and staging the actors, things will still change a lot. As I've mentioned on this blog many times, I see making comic book art as a good metaphor for my idea of directing – I do the pencil sketch, together and the actors and I ink in the lines, and then the actors fill in all the colors, with me on the sidelines as editor to make sure we're all drawing the same story in the same style.

We've run both acts separately. That's when we start to shape the show. I guess this would be the part of my comic book art metaphor where the actors and I, together, ink in the lines. We do a lot of stopping and starting, trying different ideas, different staging, different emotions behind lines. This is almost always the stage where we put some good fights into the show. Confrontation is one of the pillars of drama, so writers love to write fights (and the great writers write amazing fights), but most actors are afraid (or at least, hesitant) to really fight onstage, to get furious, to scream (or its musical equivalent), to Fucking Lose It. Luckily, all I have to do is ask, and they run with it. It's fun for an actor to have a fight onstage, so once I give them permission, they really find it.

We've got some humdingers in Bonnie & Clyde.

Now we'll just run the whole show at every rehearsal, and over time, things will settle, evolve, and find their final form. Everything will make more sense to our actors and they'll have time to fashion their characters' interior lives. Now is when our actors do their hardest and most important work. I've given them their exterior life; now they have to access the deepest corners of these characters' interior lives. They have to live fully and honestly in this non-naturalistic world I've given them. They have to add the color.

Sometimes I think many non-actors think that acting is, after all, just pretending, right? Well, yes and no. It's a very specific, meaningful, and complicated kind of pretending that communicates something of value to an audience. Pretending doesn't need an audience, but acting without an audience is just rehearsal.

I have such powerful respect for actors. They are magnificent beasts. (And I don't use that noun carelessly.) I really, really love watching each actor work, create, evolve, explore, take risks, succeed and fail, incorporate ideas and discard ideas, blend into the other performances being created, and slowly, skillfully create this amazing, detailed, complex character. One of the hardest parts of my job is that every actor needs something different from me, but I'm getting better and better at delivering it. Sometimes they frustrate me (and I know I frustrate them), but they dazzle me just as often. I still remember being an actor and I don't know that I could jump back into it at this point. There's so much more to it than pretending.

So now we run.

For the first few run-throughs, I try not to give them too many notes. I want them to have the freedom to explore, to fail and try again, to take risks. Then Dowdy and I will start shaping the show, cleaning things up, making sure it all works together to make a unified piece of art.

This is the fun part for me.

I can't wait to see this creature take shape. There's so much awesome on the way.

Long Live the Musical!

Jesse James Had Much More Fun

There are several songs in Bonnie & Clyde that I think should be handled substantially different from the original Broadway production, as much as I did love it. I've already blogged about "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" and the different direction I want to take that in. The other song I've somewhat rethought is "What Was Good Enough for You."

In this number, first Clyde and then Bonnie tell their parents that they really don't want to end up like them. I love you too, son. In the context of this story, in the middle of the Dust Bowl, in the midst of the Depression, this is really a cruel thing to say to parents who (like many others) are already swimming in shame because they can't adequately support their children. And here come these childish, selfish kids to insult them.

Maybe you can argue that Bonnie and Clyde are damaged by their Times, or their upbringing, or the Dust Bowl, or that no one would want to end up like these folks, but let's just lay it out there – Bonnie and Clyde are assholes. Charming, attractive assholes, but assholes just the same. As Chess taught us, "Pity the child, but not forever, not if he stays that way."

Of course, there's no reason a musical can't revolve around an asshole; after all, there's Pal Joey, How to Succeed, The Music Man, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park, Bukowsical... I'm sure I'm missing some.

Imagine telling your parents that you reject everything about them, everything they've taught you and believe in, that you condemn them merely for being the victims of powerful forces. Clearly, Bonnie and Clyde see themselves as superior to their parents because the kids have found a way to beat the Depression. As Lt. Goren once said on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, "Bad guys do what good guys dream." Sure, if you don't mind that it's illegal and deadly, but our heroes neither suffer guilt or feel the least bit of shame, and they carry no responsibilities. The game is rigged, so why follow the rules?

Now, as to staging...

In the script, Clyde hands his father an envelope full of money right before the song "What Was Good Enough For You" starts. Talk about pouring salt in the wound! Then the stage directions say that his father goes back to work and Clyde observes him from a distance. But, as it with "Dyin' Ain't So Bad," if Clyde is singing to his father, wouldn't it make more sense to keep the two together onstage? Why separate them so that Henry can't hear his son's cutting words? That lets the audience off the hook; they don't have to deal with the impact of Clyde's words on his beaten father.

Clyde sings:
What was always good enough for you, Pa,
Hate to say, ain’t good enough for me;
Plowin' fields and plantin' seeds
'Til your mind and body bleeds,
No way!

Wow! Fuck you, Clyde! Imagine busting your ass so your family can eat, and your smartass kid tells you your life isn't good enough for him. Lots of kids have thought it; only the assholes say it. There's such visceral poetry here, in the idea of Henry's mind bleeding. What a potent description of the effects of the Depression on the Forgotten Men, although this image in invoked without any empathy from Clyde.

It's also worth noting that there's a lot of alliteration in this song and a lot of rhyme. Notice plowin' and plantin', followed by body bleeds. There will more of that.

Clyde goes on:
Up before dawn,
And you stop
When you drop;
Then you ask your god to forgive.
Prayin' for rain;
Without rain
There's no crop.
This ain't no way to live.

First of all, what a potent description of life for many people during the Great Depression. Clyde's phrase "your god" tells us Clyde has checked out on religion too. And again, notice the craft in the lyric here, the interior triple rhyme of stop, drop, and crop; and the outer rhyme of forgive and live. And then Clyde makes it even worse. Not only does he condemn (dismiss?) his father, on top of that, Clyde's role model is a murderous criminal.
What was always good enough for you, Pa,
Will not satisfy your wayward son.
Jesse James had much more fun
Buildin' dreams with just a gun;
That's how the west was won.

No one will ever convince Clyde that life doesn't guarantee you either fun or dreams realized. He is yet another in a long line who think the Declaration of Independence promises us happiness, when in reality, it promises us only the pursuit of happiness. We can see just how much Clyde has romanticized The Outlaw, when he sings of "buildin' dreams with just a gun." Really? What "dreams" did Jesse James build? These are the perceptions and the understanding of a twelve-year-old. After all, how much fun did Jesse James have getting killed? And is fun really the only goal in life? It is if you're twelve.

The song continues, as Bonnie then plays a parallel musical scene with her mother. Well, sort of. Though Bonnie directly addresses her mother in the lyric, Emma is nowhere to be found  in the script. In fact, Bonnie is by herself, sitting at her vanity in a negligee.


I know the Broadway production tried to strip its leads down to their underwear as often as possible (not something we will do), and that repeatedly baffled me. This is a show about two emotionally stunted kids who see the world only in primary colors. The action of the show is watching these fucked-up kids choose and then travel down a terrible, tragic road, because they don't have an adult understanding of the world around them. Why the original production worked so hard at sexualizing them and their relationship makes no sense to me. Maybe it was the remnant of the earlier version of the show, which was strictly about their love story, without any of the political and social context added later in rewrites.

While Bonnie sings her section of the song, Clyde comes home with a gift box, she opens it and finds a new dress, and she puts the dress on.

Again... WHAT...???

Why is she dressing during this song? (Why was she undressed?) What's that got to do with this lyric? And why is Clyde a part of Bonnie's conservation with her mother-who-isn't-even-there? Yeah, I get that the present represents the Good Life or something, or at least a life better than before. But this isn't a song about what Bonnie and Clyde want – it's about what they don't want, what they reject. They reject their parents' lives and they reject America, its institutions, its laws, its decency. Everyone has failed them, so they're screaming "Fuck you!" at the world.

Whatever the authors' and/or director's reasons to the contrary, I think Emma should be onstage for Bonnie to sing to. It's more dramatic and it's better for Larissa, who plays Bonnie, to have an acting partner onstage; it raises the stakes. And it will hurt us more to see Emma hear it. Like Clyde does, Bonnie thoughtlessly insults her mother over and over. How much more potent that is when Emma's right there to take the abuse:
What was always good enough for you, Ma,
Gotta say, ain’t good enough for me;
Makin' punch and bakin' pies,
Paintin' barns and swattin' flies...
Oh, no.

Again, such a shallow view of life, which makes it so easy to dismiss. And again, beyond content, the craft is still outstanding here. Notice the interior, unstressed rhyme of makin' and bakin', and the alliteration of punch, pies, and paintin'. Bonnie goes on:
Writin' a diary
Is tough around here,
Boring as hell… sorry, Ma…
I want to wear diamonds,
One stud for each ear,
Bright as the morning star.

Yes, it's all about Bonnie, about recording every detail of her crazy life, about wearing jewels. And again, we have two rhymes, here and ear, and the (close) rhyme, ma and star. And on the first and fourth lines, the only lines without rhyme, lyricist Don Black still gives us alliteration, with diary and diamonds; and also want, wear, and one. Bonnie finishes her section:
What was always good enough for you, Ma,
Will not satisfy your little girl.
More to life than pottin' plants;
I don't wanna miss my chance;
I'm lookin' for romance.

Again, just as shallow and naive as Clyde. On the other hand, at least Bonnie and Clyde are active, while their parents are all passive. Do the kids have a point?

Then we get the most nihilistic statement yet from them. Clyde sings:
This country's had its day;
Depression and bread lines
Are all that tomorrow will bring.

America's ascendance is over. There's nothing good ahead. That sure makes it easier to ignore the moral questions involved. And in case we were wondering if Bonnie is also this nihilistic, she chimes in with, "Tell 'em, Clyde!" He goes on:
The Bible has got it wrong;
Just look at the poor, babe –
The meek don't inherit a thing.

Not only America is finished, but so is Christianity. The whole foundation of the Christian worldview, the reward for living a good life, is in rubble. This is such a new, dystopian world, Clyde's telling us, that nothing from the past matters anymore, and none of the old rules apply.

And let me pause here for a moment to note how well Frank Wildhorn's music fits what I just wrote about. "What Was Good Enough for You" is almost a period waltz, but it's full of dissonance, clashing harmonies, and bluesy jazz notes; and with all that "wrong-ness" in it, the music seems to morph into a scary, grotesque circus music. And that makes Clyde and Bonnie's callous words even uglier, meaner.

As the song climaxes, they both sing.
There ain't nothin' good enough for us, kid,
We deserve all we are gonna get…
This world should be notified:
It'll be a bumpy ride,
Thanks to Bonnie and Clyde!

How freakishly self-congratulatory. Yes, they do deserve what they're gonna get. And Bonnie has a pretty good idea what that is, even if Clyde is sill in denial.

This song comes right after Blanche's "What You'd Call a Dream," and the juxtaposition is powerful. As much as we can see in this song that Bonnie and Clyde are a perfect fit, we can also see, in its opposition to "What You'd Call a Dream," how opposite Bonnie and Clyde are from Blanche, and how strong the tug-of-war over Buck's heart and soul really is. This is a story about two impossible triangles – Clyde-Bonnie-Ted, and Clyde-Buck-Blanche.

The writing is good enough (if the acting is good enough) that we never know which way Buck will ultimately turn, toward the warm domesticity of Blanche's world, or the heart-pounding adventure of Clyde's world – the world of adults or the world of children. Blanche sings to Buck, in "What You'd Call a Dream,"
These dreams of yours
Make no sense at all;
It's what's inside,
Not what's out there.
We both could have a perfect life,
And not go anywhere.

You miss a lot
When you ask too much;
You're all I need,
Not one thing more.
Buck, all I ever wanted
Is on this side of that door.

It's a warning from Blanche not to be seduced by Clyde. Blanche just wants connection; Clyde wants adrenaline. This is the life Blanche paints for Buck – in a way, I guess this functions as a companion piece to Clyde's "When I Drive" – whose vision will Buck choose? In Blanche's last verse of "What You'd Call a Dream," she paints the most vivid picture yet, and you'll notice that while Bonnie and Clyde's vision of the future is all about themselves, Blanche's vision of the future is all about the people she loves. It's a choice between self-gratification versus family.
Children playin' in the barn,
Buck is rockin' in his chair,
In the house the candles gleam;
Now that's what you call a dream.

Later in Act II Bonnie will sing, "I don't need to end up in a rocking chair." Bonnie doesn't like Blanche's rocking chair, but also, Bonnie sees herself in the chair, while Blanche sees Buck – self versus family. Ivan Menchell's script and Don Black's lyrics are so seamlessly integrated, and the show's central themes weave so artfully throughout the show that all the songs play off one another, and pairs of opposites (songs, characters, themes, etc.) can be found everywhere.

And maybe that's why my ideas for staging are (in some cases) pretty different from the original. Maybe it's because this is really rich, nuanced material, and that invites multiple readings of what's most important.

So to return to where we began... staging...

Because I think that idea of self vs. family – and it's parallel, self vs. community – is a central one in the show, I'm also bringing in the Others, all the other characters, to move through the expressionistic song-scene, "What Was Good Enough for You," with Bonnie and Clyde. This is a song about the Times, about stealing or going without, and about all the people who lived lives of quiet desperation, like Henry and Cumie Barrow, and Emma Parker. I want to put onstage in this song the Americans that Bonnie and Clyde are condemning -- and who worship them. I think the contrast will be potent.

It occurs to me as I type this, that what Bonnie and Clyde felt was probably much like what the people felt who turned to the American Communist Party in the 1930s. As far as they were concerned, "This country's had its day; Depression and bread lines are all that tomorrow will bring." Millions of people believed that Democracy and Capitalism had failed.

Why wouldn't Bonnie and Clyde?

There's just so much here to explore...

Long Live the Musical!

When I Drive

This is a weird time in our process for me.

We've blocked all of Act I, and I've got a good start in figuring out Act II, having already solved several of the tougher spots.

But what's hard for me right now is that I don't have any real feedback on my work, and I won't get any for a while. We're taking the show is a fairly different direction (at least, in its staging), so I have nothing to measure my ideas against. I've done a lot of very expressionistic staging, and I think I'm on the right path, but most of it is the kind of staging that won't really look right until it's under lights, on a set, in costume, with fully developed characters from the actors. And we're not gonna get any of that for a while yet.

I remember when Alison and I directed The Wild Party, the show's unusual, presentational form and its almost continuous music (I think I'd called it a jazz-rock opera) led me to staging that was essentially very expressionistic choreography for 90% of the show. Maybe ten minutes of the show was staged naturalistically.

It was scary at the time, because I hadn't seen the original at all, and had seen only a college production on video, and our actors really didn't see where we were going. So I had no concrete guidance as to what I was doing, just instinct. But it ended up being one of the coolest productions we've ever done. It's taken me a while to acknowledge it (perhaps for fear of the trap of hubris?), but my instincts are pretty good at this point. They'd better be, after all these years.

The other problem with shows like this is that doing this kind of staging in a rehearsal hall inevitably looks lame. When we were blocking Rent last season, I used a staging device several times during the show of the ensemble just walking back and forth all the way upstage behind the action. We nicknamed it "the foot traffic." The actors hated it because they felt like idiots in the rehearsal hall walking back and forth, but on Rob's gorgeous urban set and under his subtle lighting, they weren't just walking back and forth; they were walking the streets of New York. There was an active city behind the leads. In production, it changed the show subtly from being about eight fucked up kids to being about the community, partly because the community was so present, even when they weren't the focus of the scene.

But I did have one ace up my sleeve during both Wild Party and Rent – I had already directed Hair three times. And there's no musical I've ever encountered quite as strange. Luckily, I met folks from the original Broadway production online, and they told me just to trust it. So I did. And it worked. And opening night, we finally understood how and why Hair affects an audience so powerfully. So ever since Hair, I know that if I trust the show, it will take us where we need to go.

Even if I don't feel confident, even if I am in doubt, the text and music will lead us. Plus, I've developed a strong visual language over the years from working on so many unconventional shows. I've learned the primal power of circles, the honesty of a straight line across the front of the stage, the power of an actor turning his back on the audience, the power of up-right, the power of using film language onstage, the audience's ability to follow any story, with or without naturalistic sets, as long as the actors fully believe in their world.

Now, working on Bonnie & Clyde, I do feel a little nervous, but I also know intellectually that I have this. Not only am I good at this kind of anti-R&H musical, but so are all our New Line veterans. We know how to do theatre that's pretty far out of the mainstream but still totally accessible to our audiences. I think one of the show's problems in New York may have been that they didn't realize just how far out of the mainstream Bonnie & Clyde 2.0 had gotten in rewrites.

As I've staged the first act and thought about Act II, I realize part of what I'm doing with the big songs is making them into Busby Berkeley numbers that have gone wrong, that have been beaten up by the Depression. I'm doing to the musical theatre forms of the time what the times did to the people, I'm using Berkeley's language to some extent, but distorted, heavy, angry, fucked up. I'm using the Charleston in the opening to give us the giddy fun of Hollywood in Bonnie's fantasy, and then I'm using it again to open Act II in "Made in America," but now it's heavy and ugly and angry. It makes sense intellectually but will it work onstage? We'll find out...

I consciously waited to work hardcore on Act II staging until after we had put Act I up on its feet, to see if things worked the way I expected, to see if any of my ideas seemed obviously wrong. So far, nothing seems terribly wrong-headed.

The good news is that every actor, veterans and new folks alike, is being super-cooperative and they all take my direction without ever looking at me like I'm crazy. I don't mind if they think it, but it's disconcerting when they show it...

I think the pictures in my head are going to match our show pretty closely. And even though it's really early, the acting is already really interesting. Our actors have clearly been working hard. At the next rehearsal, we run all of Act I, so that'll give me my best idea yet what we've got, but I still won't really be able to see it. That's just the nature of the beast.

All this used to bother me, but not anymore. I know now that if I stay on the path, if I trust the material, if I make the best choices I can, we'll end up with a really wonderful show. After twenty-three years of New Line, I know our process works and our artists are top-notch.

The control freak is me has weakened over the years, so it gets easier and easier to say to myself, The destination will take care of itself; just focus on the journey.

We're having such fun with this show, and I can't wait to share it with our audience.

Long Live the Musical!

He's Wild and He's Reckless

Starting tonight, this is the part of our process that is the hardest and loneliest work for me: staging the show. This is when I have to create rather than just judge. Luckily, the writing in Bonnie & Clyde is first-rate, so I have an excellent template and a good, clear story to tell.

Hal Prince once said the job of a director is to set everyone on the same path, make sure we all stay there, let the actors create, and then edit. I love that. I often use the metaphor of comic book art: I do the initial pencil sketch, the actors and I together ink in all the lines, then the actors add the color inside those lines. Whatever the metaphor, it's about collaboration. Our actors and musicians don't work for me; they work with me.

I think one of the reasons I'm so often let down by productions of great musicals is that when a director is working on a play without music, there's so much more time in rehearsal to work on the interior lives of the characters, their relationships, their path through the story; but when a director is working on a musical, there's so much else to deal with, and so often the interior work doesn't get done or gets done only perfunctorily.

Though there are exceptions, still generally speaking, it's a lot easier to stage a play than a musical, partly because most musicals are more complex, but also because musicals have an entirely different energy and a different kind of reality onstage. I'd like to think that directing plays and musicals are the same, but it's not really true. I pride myself on treating musicals the way most people treat plays, with respect and seriousness of purpose, but the two forms are fundamentally different. Many of the same rules apply, but many other rules are very different. (Musicals and Shakespeare's plays are much closer.)

I'll never forget seeing a truly terrible local production of Working a number of years ago, and what struck me was how un-musical it was; no one on the production staff had worked on a musical before, so they didn't understand the energy, the size, the complexity, the special reality; and they just didn't take the acting and directing as seriously as they would have with a non-musical play. I don't care if you're directing Anything Goes or Next to Normal, if you're not putting the same effort and thought into it that you'd put into a non-musical play, then you're not doing your job as a director.

As I've been blogging, I'm rejecting some of the staging choices in the Broadway production of Bonnie & Clyde but in all fairness, I can't imagine the pressure of opening a Broadway show, with millions of dollars in the balance. Especially when the team is doing massive rewrites between the out-of-tryout and Broadway, which is what happened with Bonnie & Clyde. That the Broadway production turned out as great as it was is something of a miracle. Not only did the team have to write and stage this musical – which is a herculean task all by itself – but then they completely reconceived the show, and then rewrote half of it.

It's like running a really long marathon. With an elephant on your shoulders.

In contrast to that, we New Liners have the incredible luxury of a finished, proven script and score, and oceans of time to think about it. So perhaps it's inevitable that we will find things in the music and text that the original team didn't find, or maybe didn't have time to focus on. We may even find things the writers didn't realize they had put there. I've found over the years that a lot of writers often unconsciously use imagery, metaphor, etc., not because they're looking for images or metaphors, but because that kind of device just feels right to them; it feels like good storytelling.

But it's not just about staging. It's about focusing the show, figuring out what it's about at its core, and making sure every moment serves that central theme, whether overtly or subtextually. I think Bonnie & Clyde is a story about two morally and emotionally stunted kids escaping from the despair and shame of the Depression through the chase for fame, down the only path they can see. And by implication, it's also about the other choices other people made, those who tried to enforce the law in a lawless era, those who stoically accepted the indignity and survived anyway, and those who gave into the moral chaos of the times.

There are three freakishly intense relationships in the show, all connected by Bonnie, with Clyde, Blanche, and Ted. Her relationship with Clyde is a dark mirror image of Billy and Hope in Anything Goes (1934), the quintessential musical comedy lovers, but with guns. Bonnie's relationship with Ted is also a familiar one of unrequited love, but complicated here by the two of them living on opposite sides of the law. And Bonnie's complex relationship with Blanche is as central as any other in the show.

Bonnie and Blanche are set up as opposites from the beginning, but there's also another pair of opposites – Clyde and Ted Hinton, both in love with Bonnie, but as opposite as they can be. And just as Bonnie and Blanche get their "opposites" song, "You Love Who You Love," so too do Clyde and Ted get an "opposites" song, "You Could Do Better Than Him." The difference between these two pairs is that Bonnie and Blanche meet and do battle throughout the show, but Clyde and Ted only meet in passing, with no real scenes together. Both pairs of opposites define Bonnie.

And it bears noting that all this means that Bonnie must be this story's protagonist, not Clyde. Clyde doesn't really change over the course of the story, doesn't really learn much, or come to any realizations, but Bonnie sure does.

There's some amazing writing from bookwriter Ivan Menchell and lyricist Don Black between Bonnie and Blanche. There's so much going on there. They have an uncomfortable bond over their powerful love for their bad boys, but they are polar opposites on everything else.

Their big power duet in Act I, "You Love Who You Love" lays all that out for us, and we watch as it develops over the course of the show. During the verses we see how opposite these women are in most regards, but in the choruses of the song, they sing the exact same words, and they harmonize, which any musical theatre lover knows means they belong together. It makes me think of "I Like Your Style" in Barnum. It's weird in this case because it's sung by two women who really don't like each other much.

In this song, the two characters are in two different locations unaware of each other, unable to hear each other, except thanks to the magic of musical theatre, they come together vocally.
Bonnie: I know my heart
Don’t care what people say.
All I know is that I never felt like this.
And besides, I wouldn't change him if I could.
No man’s all good.

Of course, we might be tempted to argue that there's quite a distance between "all good" and "bank robber." Note that Bonnie "wouldn't change him if [she] could." In opposition to that...
Blanche: I always knew
What I was takin’ on;
But I always felt that I could change his ways.
Even if my man will never fall in line,
Glad he’s mine.

But despite these opposite views of living with a bad boy, there's one thing they agree on:
Both: ‘Cause you love who you love,
And you can’t help how you’re made.
You don’t have no say;
You’re heart decides;
It’s that simple I’m afraid.
Yes, you love who you love;
Common sense may say it’s wrong.
There’s a part of him you know is wild.
Maybe that’s what made you love him all along.

Both of them admit it's the wildness in these men that that attracts even the solid Christian Blanche. And that wildness is the subject of the next song in the show, the other "opposites" song, between Clyde and Ted. It's unusual for a book musical to line up two songs in a row like this, but they are companion pieces, two sides of the complicated relationships swirling around Bonnie.

But more than that, the central points of these two songs are opposite as well. In "You Could Do Better Than Him," Ted wishes that Bonnie would not just accept Clyde's antisocial behavior, but would instead choose the solid, respectable Deputy Ted. But we already know this won't happen, partly because the title of the show isn't Bonnie & Ted, and partly because Bonnie just told us in the last song that "you love who you love." Nothing's changing here.

Ted starts the song by listing all the reasons Clyde is the wrong choice, but not why Ted is the right choice. Ted presents himself here only as the anti-Clyde.
I give you fair warnin',
He's no bed of roses, sweet Bonnie.
I can't see him findin'
The time to raise children, hell no.
He's wild and he's reckless,
Ain't nothin' but trouble;
You're better without him
You think hard, sweet Bonnie
And then you should think once again.

Ted's problem is that he doesn't understand Bonnie – she doesn't want children; she wants to be a movie star.
We both know
You can do better than him.
Why, you deserve someone
Who's there all the time,
Someone who thinks crime
Don't pay.

Sure, but what's "better"...? And then we find out Ted's great Shakespearean flaw. He fell in love with Bonnie years ago, and in his head, she hasn't grown up since then:
I still see
That snowy white dress you wore,
Playin' the angel
In some dumb school play;
For a while, I thought
That you would
Fly away...

I still see
The apple-cheeked girl you were,
Yep, hiding in treetops
And feeding the birds,
Makin' up rhymes;
How you loved
Pretty words...

But now Bonnie's pretty words – part of what Ted fell in love with –  are put in service of telling the tale of the outlaw Clyde Barrow. And maybe Ted didn't really even know Bonnie when she was younger. As we know from the prologue, Bonnie has always coveted fame as an escape from life in the Dust Bowl. It's likely that she has never wanted children or rocking chairs.

Though Clyde, Ted, and Bonnie are all in separate spaces here, not able to hear each other within reality of the story, Clyde does seem to respond to Ted's lyric:
You could find someone
That people respect,
A man who is rich and smart;
Someone who's known in
All the right places,
And knows the Good Book by heart.

It's interesting that though this description doesn't sound like Clyde, it's also pretty much what Clyde intends to become, for both Bonnie and himself. As he told us in "The World Will Remember Me," He intends to be rich and famous. He already thinks he's pretty smart, and brought up as he was in a uber-Christian home, he probably does know the Good Book by heart, even if he has no interest in following its rules.

Musically, under the word smart we hear an instrumental quotation of "How 'Bout a Dance?" and though we already recognize this leitmotif as the music of Bonnie and Clyde's love (it also starts the show); at the end of the show, it will become the music of their death. What a cool connection that is, for their "love" theme to also be their death theme. It subtly reinforces everything Bonnie told us in "Dyin' Ain't So Bad." And its subtle appearance here reminds us that Ted doesn't have a chance. Bonnie and Clyde belong together, so much so that they even have their own love theme.

Notice that Clyde doesn't say Bonnie deserves that kind of upstanding man (as Ted did in an earlier verse), only that she could find a respectable, upstanding guy like Ted; BUT, as they both sing at the end...
But I know
You won't do better than me...
No, not when it comes down
To love that is true.
There's no man who
Could love you
Like i do.

Notice the quadruple rhyme here that gives the end of the song real momentum, as it builds to its finish. There's often a romantic triangle in a musical, but almost every other time, the Nice Guy wins the girl by the end. Not this time.

I've blocked about two-thirds of Act I, and I'm pretty confident I've found the right visual vocabulary for the show, more stylized, more expressionistic than the original, to match this very expressionistic script and score. Lots of work ahead, but I can't wait to see this show on its feet. Our read-through was so cool, and we make this show live.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

Mine Will Be Too

I have a confession to make. I hate stage directions. I do my best to ignore them.

Much of the time, stage directions are descriptions of the original production. Of course, when you read a script, there's no way to know which stage directions come from the writers and which come from the original director's staging. I guess I use stage directions the same way my father used to use the assembly instructions that came with my toys – they're the last resort after you've tried everything else. I'm only half kidding. In fact, I use the stage directions so sporadically that when I do want to use them, I have to put a star next to them in my script, to remind myself.

Otherwise, fuck 'em.

So I'm hard at work figuring out the staging for Bonnie & Clyde. I mentioned in an earlier post that I intend to change substantially the original staging of the songs "What Was Good Enough for You" and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad." But not just the staging; I think these songs should be approached differently, as acting scenes, rather than soliloquies. On Broadway, Laura Osnes as Bonnie got all Broadway-verklempt (i.e., showing extreme emotion, but not "earning" it) during "Dyin' Ain't So Bad," and by the end, she could barely finish the song through her stage tears. And the Tony goes to... not her. I'm not sure if it's the fault of Osnes, the director, the writers, or simply a casualty of the massive changes they made in the show between the La Jolla production and Broadway. I remember when I first saw the show, this moment felt a little weird to me, but I wasn't conscious of why I felt that way.

Now I know.

It's because the verklempt Bonnie who was falling apart during "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" wasn't the same tough Bonnie we had known through the rest of the show. I think sometimes actors automatically assume that their own natural reaction to something is also their character's natural reaction. But Laura Osnes isn't Bonnie Parker. Laura Osnes doesn't live in the Dust Bowl during the Depression, and she doesn't live in extreme poverty and hopelessness. Why should we assume that life on these terms is better than death for this fucked up kid? Who are we to make that assumption?

Is this song about the Depression as much as it is about Bonnie?

Jeff Gunn writes in Go Down Together, “On the day she met Clyde Barrow, nineteen-year-old Bonnie Parker’s life was also in complete shambles. Everything that could be wrong in it, was. She’d lost her job and couldn’t find another. The handsome young husband she’d expected to make all her romantic dreams come true was gone for good. After years of predicting she’d be a famous star on Broadway, or perhaps a renowned poet, she was still a nobody in the Dallas slums. It was enough to make her cry, and she frequently did.”

Look at the character in the show – Bonnie succeeds in escaping that life, and she has no illusions about the price she'll pay. In Act II, Bonnie reads Clyde her finished poem about them, and it ends with their deaths. In Go Down Together, Gunn writes, “Bonnie told her mother that it was inevitable that Clyde would die and, when he did, she wanted to die with him. For a change, she was matter-of-fact instead of dramatic.”

She was matter-of-fact instead of dramatic.

I think the key to "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" is Bonnie's conviction. We know she's been thinking about this. I think she fully believes what she's saying. She's concluded that being with Clyde till-death-do-them-part is a far better fate than leaving him, waiting for him to be killed by the cops, and living the rest of her life without him. I'm sure there are older couples who've been together all their lives, who feel similarly, that living without the other would be worse than death. I think my mom feels that way about my stepfather. She's actually said she hopes she dies before he does, and I bet you've heard people in your family say the same thing. Bonnie's hopelessly immature and intense love (remarkably like Shakespeare's Juliet) gives her that same conviction. And crying throughout the song completely undermines that and shortchanges the character.

The lyric takes on new meaning if you approach it my way, no tears, no telescoping of the tragic ending, just a straightforward statement of belief, just an honest attempt to make Blanche understand how Bonnie feels. I told Larissa, who's playing Bonnie for us, to practice the song smiling. Not that we necessarily want that in performance (maybe...), but it will help fend off the urge to let it go weepy.
Dyin' ain't so bad,
Not if you both go together;
Only when one's left behind
Does it get sad.
But a short and lovin' life,
That ain't so bad.

If this is a simple statement of fact, rather than a frightened rationalization, the lyric makes more sense, and it gets a lot deeper. If we take the lyric at face value, that she really believes this, then we automatically ask ourselves: is she crazy or would I feel the same way? If Bonnie doesn't really believe this and is just covering up her sadness, that question never gets asked.

She goes on:
I only hope to god that I go first.
I couldn't live on memories;
I'm sorry but I'm not that strong.
There are some things in life
You can't replace;
A love like ours don't happen twice.
When all his days are through,
Mine will be too.

On a purely technical level, notice how little rhyme there is here. This score as a whole is overflowing with interior rhymes, double- and triple-rhymes, and alliteration. But not here. Sondheim has a rule that rhyme equals intelligence and/or presence of mind. So the less intelligent, the more emotional, or the more panicked a character gets, the less they rhyme (look at the verses of "Getting Married Today" in Company). The more intelligent, more intellectual, more analytical a character is, the more they rhyme (look at "Now" in A Little Night Music). This lyric in "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" is pure emotion, so only two words rhyme in the first verse, and only two at the very end of the second verse. More rhyme would get in the way of what she's saying.

So, is Bonnie nuts, wanting to die? Or do you understand how she feels? Bonnie's lived life without Clyde and with Clyde, and being with him has been infinitely better. Notice her lyric in the song's bridge:
I've met boys who talk 'bout farms and horses,
And they don't do much for me;
I don't need to end up in a rocking chair.
Seems you get to live your life just once;
If that's how it's gotta be,
I'd rather breathe in life than dusty air.

Notice that rhyme has returned. These lines aren't expressions of pure emotion; they're analytical. Bonnie is comparing her dreams to Blanche's, and each of us in the audience will draw our own conclusions about which fate we'd rather have. But weirdly, in the script and in the Broadway production, Bonnie sang the first four lines, and then Blanche left the stage. That doesn't make any sense to me. See why I ignore stage directions?

Look at the dialogue leading up to this song:
BLANCHE: The two of them [Clyde and Buck] are out doin' God knows what and you can just sit there like that.
BONNIE: Yes I can.
BLANCHE: You're as crazy as he is.
BONNIE: You keep talkin' like that and you just might be the first person I kill.
BLANCHE: (pause) The two of you deserve each other.
BONNIE: Yes we do.
BLANCHE: I don't understand. You're an attractive woman. I'm sure you could have any man you set your sights on. Why are you here?
BONNIE: Why are you here, Blanche?
BLANCHE: I am tryin' to stop my husband from getting himself killed. For some stupid reason, he feels obliged to be here.
BONNIE: Maybe there's just not enough excitement to keep him at home.
BLANCHE: Our life would be perfect if it wasn't for you and Clyde.
BONNIE: You just think you're so much better than everybody, don't you?
BLANCHE: I am just trying to be the best person I can be in the eyes of the Lord.
BONNIE: And has that been fun, Blanche? You enjoyin' life?
BLANCHE: I am grateful for every day I spend on God's good Earth.
BONNIE: Take a look around, Blanche. God's good Earth is dried up. It's dead.
BLANCHE: You are so completely and utterly lost, all I can do is pray for you.
BONNIE: Don't waste your time, Blanche. I have everything I want.
BLANCHE: (pause) You know, they're going to kill Clyde when they catch him.
BONNIE: If they catch him.
BLANCHE: And they're probably going to kill you, too.
BONNIE: They better.
BLANCHE: You can't tell me you ain't scared.

The music comes in and Bonnie replies, "Dyin' ain't so bad, not if you both go together. Only when one's left behind does it get sad. But a short and lovin' life, that ain't so bad." After all that, Blanche just walks out...??? No.

This song isn't an interior monologue; this is a continuing conversation. Bonnie is making the case to Blanche for her worldview. I don't see any other way to read this dialogue, and the song is a direct response to Blanche's last line of dialogue. So what reason does Blanche have for leaving in the middle of Bonnie's answer? None, really. Also in the original production, in the middle of the song, Bonnie picks up her poetry notebook and starts writing this lyric in her book, as she sings it. But why? Has her conversation with Blanche turned into poetry? Is she formulating these thoughts for the first time? Is she trying to convince herself? Is this a poem or is this (musical) dialogue?

I assume you've already figured out that I think there's a better solution. We're gonna leave Blanche onstage and let Bonnie sing the entire song to Blanche. I think Bonnie has thought about all this a lot. I think she's known her own mind about all this she first met Clyde. Why take away Bonnie's scene partner? Why not give Larissa someone to play off of? Why not give more stage time to Bonnie and Blanche's relationship, which is clearly the most interesting after Bonnie and Clyde's?

From the beginning we've seen that in some ways, Bonnie and Blanche are in the same position and feel the same things, but they are also polar opposites in certain ways (wanting a rocking chair, wanting to change their man). In fact, their signature songs in the show are polar opposite – Bonnie's lust for fame in "The Picture Show" versus Blanche's dreams of a quiet home life in "That's What You'd Call a Dream." In their duet, "You Love Who You Love," the sentiments in their verses are totally opposed to each other, but they sing the choruses together because they both love their men very deeply – and they harmonize, which of course is musical theatre proof that they are connected. (More on that in another post...)

Our new music director Jeffrey and I keep discovering new details and new depth in both the music and lyrics, which is such fun! The actors have learned the score, and tonight we have our read-through-sing-through, so everyone can get a sense of the adventure ahead.

Then it's my turn. Blocking and some inevitable Millerography...

Can. Not. Wait.

Long Live the Musical!

Made in America

As I've written about here before, I love research.

And I thought it might be interesting for my blog readers to get a sense of what I've been doing the last few weeks to prepare for Bonnie & Clyde. I've found some really cool books and DVDs that are giving me so much insight into this time and place, and into the characters themselves.

These are the DVDs I'm working my way through...

The Great Depression was the first video I watched. I knew a lot about this period (from research on The Wild Party and The Cradle Will Rock), but this four-part documentary from the History Channel was a nice refresher course. And seeing it all now through the lens of Texas, the Dust Bowl, and how it affected the Barrow and Parker families, really made their world and their struggles concrete for me. Such poverty, such hopelessness, such shame and despair. No wonder our fucked-up heroes wanted a way out.

Ken Burns' Prohibition is an excellent three-part documentary about what led to Prohibition and all its unintended consequences, most notably making the act of law-breaking not just common, but kind of cool. The word scofflaw emerged during this time to refer to someone who openly scoffs at the law (usually Prohibition). This is the culture that led to the many rampant crime sprees in the early 1930s. The cheerful disregard for the law we see in Bonnie and Clyde (and Capone and Dillinger and all of them) is learned behavior. This is interesting both for its insights into the culture that birthed Bonnie and Clyde, but also for that period's lessons about (drug) prohibition in our own time, especially at this very moment in our history, when marijuana prohibition gets chipped away more each day.

Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl was a revelation for me. I never knew more about this topic than what I got from The Grapes of Wrath. I never understood that this was entirely an accidental, man-made ecological disaster. And this ecological disaster surrounds Bonnie and Clyde for most of their youth, bringing with it death and poverty. You can see how this long nightmare would change a person's perspective on what's right and wrong, how it might lead to a justification for stealing from corporate America and its banks. It makes me wonder what I would've done in similar circumstances. It makes Bonnie and Clyde seem less like monsters and more like the inevitable unintended consequence of American greed and gluttony. Monstrous, sure, but only because they're the cultural offspring of monsters.

Some of this documentary was hard to watch. Such misery, such poverty, such shame. I've never known anything like that. I'm the guy won't go camping because there's no AC or cable. I can't imagine the weight of growing up in the middle of all that. It's the same setting as the opening of one of the most brilliant of the cable dramas, Carnivale if you haven't seen this show you must), a story that revealed an ongoing battle between a being of pure good and a being of pure evil which must be fought once a generation. It wasn't hard to see the 1930s zeitgeist in those metaphors. The trick is that Evil comes in the guise of Good...

And that's the world in which Bonnie and Clyde set off on a two-year crime spree.

When The World Breaks is an extremely cool collection of intercut interviews with people, some famous, who lived through the Great Depression, talking about our country's emotional life, our psychological life, and our artistic life, during this crisis. Lots of period footage and very some very emotional stories. It really brings home the reality of the Depression for those of us who just can't imagine going through that. The others docs are great, but this one places it all on such a personal level.

In one interview, comedian and actor Jerry Stiller talks about his childhood. He remembers this kindly shop owner who always treated him so well. Until one day, when young Jerry shows up to find the shop closed. Why? Because the owner was so deep in debt and so bereft of any hope that he hanged himself. Stiller started crying as he told the story. Very powerful stuff that brings home the point of the song "Made in America" in horrifically stark terms.

I'll admit it, I'm a documentary junkie.

But the other half of my research is the culture that shaped Clyde and Bonnie and their times, especially the films they probably saw. We know from biographers that Clyde saw James Cagney in the title role of the 1931 film The Public Enemy (one of many thinly veiled biopics about Al Capone), and Clyde no doubt saw this fictionalized version of Capone as a role model, alongside Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (also 1931) and Paul Muni in Scarface (1932), both also essentially about Capone.

We know that movies reflect their times. How interesting that in 1930-1932, we got three movies about Al Capone! Guess who had captured the public's – and Clyde's – imagination...

Here are some movies that Clyde and Bonnie almost certainly saw. Watching them now, it's so easy to see how these fucked up kids modeled their lives on these film images.

Scarface (1932) was, according to the TCM website, "without a doubt, the most controversial of the gangster films of the Great Depression (when the genre was beginning to flower). The film was produced before The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, its better-known counterparts, but its release was delayed almost a year by producer Howard Hughes's protracted battles with the Hays Office and regional censor boards." The article goes on:
Unlike The Public Enemy or Little Caesar, which were fictional products of the studio system, Scarface was a renegade independent production that flaunted the codes of decency and drew an obvious parallel between its on-screen anti-hero and his real-life inspiration, Al Capone. According to the trade publication Motion Picture Herald, Capone was so perturbed by the film's thinly-veiled references to his criminal career that he sent gangland emissaries to visit director Howard Hawks in order to arrange a private screening of the film prior to its release. 'The Big Shot will have to lay down his money at the box office if he wants to see Scarface,' was Hawks's alleged response.

TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Gangsters: Prohibition Era is a terrific set, including The Public Enemy (1931), The Roaring Twenties (1939), Little Caesar (1930), and Smart Money (1931). Watching these films, it's easy to see where Clyde Barrow got his role models – not from his family or community, but from fictional accounts of real gangsters. In the first scene of Little Caesar, the Capone doppelganger says, ""Money's all right, but it ain't everything. Nah, be somebody, look hard at a bunch of guys and know they'll do anything that you tell 'em, have your own way or nothin' – be somebody!"

The Mythical Monkey movie blog says this about The Public Enemy:
The Public Enemy starts out with a traditional "good brother-bad brother" conflict, a favorite trope of storytellers ever since Moses penned the fourth chapter of Genesis, but then Cagney, director Wellman and screenwriters John Bright and Kubec Glasmon upset our expectations and with them, societal norms, by making Cagney's Tom dynamic and exciting and the good brother a shellshocked, underemployed sad sack. Part of this was the result of a last minute casting change – Cagney originally had a supporting part until Wellman saw him in rehearsals and switched him with projected lead Edward Woods -- and part is the result of some wicked subversion on the part of all involved, especially Cagney, but in any event, the lesson is clear: crime pays better than a straight job and since either way you wind up dead, what are you waiting for?

When America's fathers (especially those in the Dust Bowl) had lost their their self-respect, their pride, their natural authority, to the indignities of the Great Depression, who could a boy look to for a role model? Herbert Hoover? Of course not. The Police, who everyone knew to be corrupt? Nope. The clergy, who were preaching that poverty was godly and morality was black and white? Nope, Clyde could see that neither of those were true.

After all, the book Go Down Together tells us, “Many local lawmen earned most of their income by claiming rewards for capturing criminals, and the rewards for Clyde in Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri were widely known to cumulatively total around $1,000.” And also, “The Jesus worshipped by Cumie Barrow [Clyde's mother] and her fellow backcountry fundamentalists saved through fear rather than forgiveness. You did what the Bible said because Jesus would send your soul straight to hell if you didn’t. At home, the Barrow children were reminded of this daily. It would have also been pointed out to them in church as well as by their mother that, I fact, their poverty was a plus in their relationship with Christ. The Bible was replete with reminders that Jesus loved poor people a lot more than he did rich ones. Wearing patched clothes and sometimes not having enough to eat were, in effect, evidence of personal godliness. The implication was obvious, if not declared outright: poor people were good, rich people were bad.”

King Vidor's Billy the Kid (1930) is the other obvious influence on Clyde. We know he saw this film, just a couple years before their crime spree, which paints the infamous outlaw as a romantic, avenging vigilante, part Lone Ranger, part Batman. In this movie, mainstream morality isn't equipped for the times, so Billy makes his own morality; it's easy to see Clyde draw the same conclusion.

But the musical Bonnie & Clyde makes twin cases for fucked-up cultural influences. Clyde finds Capone's violence attractive, and Bonnie finds Clara Bow's overt sexuality attractive. It's eerie now, watching these gnaghters films, because it almost feels like Clyde literally used them as blueprints for the life he and Bonnie led until their deaths. But we can also learn a lot about Bonnie by watching Clara Bow's films...

It (1927) was the movie that made Clara Bow famous and gave her the legendary title of "The It Girl." Seeing it for the first time recently, it was mind-blowing, first at what a good movie it is, and second, at how Clara Bow's sexuality was both very aggressive and also very innocent.

So what is "It"?

Well, it's sex, of course, but it's more than that. In the film, we see a shot of a section of text in author Elinor Glyn's Cosmopolitan article, "It," in which Glyn writes, "The possessor of 'IT' must be absolutely un-self-conscious..." That was certainly true of Clara Bow – and now I know that was her secret, completely natural acting, as if no one's watching and there is no camera, yet as alive and vivaciousness, and focused as anyone you've ever seen. I doubt there was a more authentic, more honest, more naturalistic actor in the silent era. But that's not Bonnie. In sharp contrat to her role model, Bonnie (at least in our story) performs her sexuality. And while Clara Bow's appeal was in her authenticity, in how comfortable she was in her own skin, Bonnie wants to be somebody else. Bonnie wants someone else's authenticity.

It doesn't work that way.

Wings (1927) was the first film to get the Oscar for Best Picture, and though Clara Bow isn't in a big part of the movie (which includes the best dogfight footage anybody ever shot up until Star Wars), but her presence is felt throughout. She was a real movie star and everything Bonnie wished she could be. Clara Bow also had a fairly scandalous off-screen life as well, often detailed in movie magazines, and it's a good bet that Bonnie found that element as exciting as her onscreen sexuality.

The Actors: Rare Films Of Clara Bow includes Mantrap (1926) and Dancing Mothers (1926), and The Actors: Rare Films Of Clara Bow Vol.2 includes Free To Love (1925), My Lady of Whims (1925), and the scandalous Hula (1927). Mantrap is the best of these.

And then there's this...

Cartoon Rarities of the 1930s is a collection I picked up, mostly just for fun, but also so the cast could have as full a sense as possible of the culture. The collection includes Betty Boop (modeled at least in part on Clara Bow), Tom and Jerry, and a very early Porky Pig. It's interesting in these cartoons to notice cultural assumptions that we just don't have anymore. It really was a different time and place.

And in case you think I'm just a stoner couch potato watching videos, I've also been reading some great books in prep for the show.

Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn, is such a wonderful book, chronicling in great detail Clyde and Bonnie's upbringing, families, cultural context, and all the details of their relationship and crime spree. Nothing else I've found gives me as complete or as insightful a picture of these two kids.

Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough, is a really cool book about how the FBI was created specifically in response to the Midwest crime wave that included Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and others. So much I didn't understand about all that...

Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn, is a really interesting book about this iconoclastic, convention-busting woman who refused to live the way others wanted. Reading this book makes me wish I could have met her. She seems awesome.

My Life with Bonnie and Clyde by Blanche Caldwell Barrow, is a book that's been recommended to me, but I haven't started it yet. I know our "Blanche" (Sarah Porter) is reading it.

I believe in what Uta Hagen and other actings teachers have taught, that acting is really just understanding the world of the play as fully as possible, then acting naturally. But to do that, you have to have every bit of information you can have about the time and place we're invoking. And all this research does that for me and for the actors. The better they know our world, the more the audience will believe in it. I know that "Clyde" (Matt Pentecost) has already watched both Scarface and Billy the Kid, to get inside Clyde's experience. Stuff like this always helps.

We finish music rehearsals tonight, then we'll have a read-through-sing-through, then we start blocking the show! I have so many ideas about staging, and I can't wait to see what works and what doesn't. Stay tuned.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!