Ain't Nothin' I Can't Do With a Gun

There are so many interesting phenomena at play during our run of Bonnie & Clyde. First off, and perhaps strangest, we seem to be alternating every night between audiences that laugh a lot, and audiences that laugh only occasionally. Yet almost every night, our curtain call has been greeted with a standing ovation and cheering, even when the audience hasn't been all that vocal during the show.

I'm guessing here, but I think it's because it's an incredibly serious story, but there are also a considerable number of laughs in the show. I think sometimes the audience decides collectively to take the story very seriously, and other nights they take it less seriously (at least until the second half of Act II, when shit gets real). And I think it's connected to something I said last night at a cast party – that this show essentially has the content of a rock opera, very big emotions, very high, life-or-death stakes, but it takes the form of a musical comedy.

Maybe that's because the show changed so drastically between its tryout in La Jolla and its opening on Broadway, from love story to cultural tragedy. But maybe it's just a function of the story; like Sondheim says, content dictates form. Bonnie and Clyde were carefree kids who didn't really appreciate the gravity of their actions until it was too late, so it makes sense that the "carefree" form of musical comedy would tell their story, intentionally at odds with this dark narrative, exactly the way Bonnie and Clyde were at odds with the society around them.

And let's not forget that musical comedy was one of the America's dominant entertainment forms in the 1920s and 30s. Much of the pop music of the times came from musicals.

Interestingly, no matter the mood of the audience, once we get well into Act II, the laughs essentially dry up. The situation gets very serious very fast, starting with Clyde's murder of a cop in the second scene of the act. And as we might expect from good writers, the form of the show morphs somewhat and becomes more rock opera than musical comedy, with far more music in Act II than in Act I, more use of musical themes, and more ominous underscoring.

I was shocked when Bonnie & Clyde closed so quickly in New York (33 previews, 36 performances). I was glad I had gotten to see it. The night I was there, the audience leapt to their feet at the end, cheering for the show. Everybody as far as I could see absolutely loved it.

And then it closed. Just like The Scottsboro Boys, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and other outstanding recent shows.

I've been thinking a lot, especially since we've been working on Bonnie & Clyde, about why it didn't do better on Broadway. It's definitely more adult than many more commercially successful shows. I think the particular curse of Bonnie & Clyde is that in its La Jolla Playhouse version, it was very good but perhaps a bit too bland to be commercial. After all, that story (their love story) has been told many times. The writers worked on the show a lot, they did an interim production of the new version in Florida, and they ended up with a vastly more interesting show, darker, smarter, more adult, more sociopolitical, but most significantly, morally ambiguous.

And that means not commercial. But also, in its final form, it's not the story we've seen before.

Now personally, I love moral ambiguity, because that's life. But I also know the tourist audiences at New York's commercial theatres may not agree with me. They certainly couldn't handle the moral ambiguity of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or The Scottsboro Boys.

Like Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins, Bonnie & Clyde doesn't judge these criminals; and it doesn't root for them either. There are plenty of voices of morality and reason in the show. What makes this show so fascinating – and so not commercial – is that it makes no moral judgment whatsoever. In "Made in America," the Preacher makes the case for strict morality, even in the face of starvation poverty; but then the People make the opposite case, that in some cases, morality must be fluid, that Bonnie and Clyde's crimes are understandable, if not entirely excusable.

To that end, when they rewrote the show, Bookwriter Ivan Menchell was very shrewd in waiting until Act II for Clyde to shoot someone. There is one killing in Act I (of inmate Ed Crowder, who's been raping Clyde) but it's an offstage beating by Clyde. Because Menchell holds back the shooting, the audience isn't forced to confront the deadly side of Clyde's amorality in the first half of the story. It's easier for us to side with these charming outlaws in Act I, to not judge them, because "outlaws" seem less scary than murderers.

And we seen them fight and argue like spoiled children all through Act I, so how scary can they really be...?

Throughout the show, we're forced to choose between Bonnie and Clyde's amoral Mad Max view of the world, on the one hand, and the dark, gray, miserable world of those who Play by the Rules, on the other. Of course, we choose Mad Max. It's just more fun! And then in Act II, we're presented with the repercussions of our choice. Like the public of 1933, we get seduced by Bonnie and Clyde.

I've always searched for a solid definition of what a concept musical is. I'm pretty sure the term was first used to describe Company. But everybody kind of has their own definition of what that means and which shows qualify. I think if the one-sentence central thesis of the show is directly about people, it's not a concept musical. If that one sentence is about culture, politics, art, war, or any other idea, then it's a concept musical.

Let's test that.

The central theme of Grease is that rock and roll and cars forever changed sex in America, and Sandy stands in for America. Over the course of the show, Sandy goes from the repressed early 1950s (Sandra Dee) to the more sexually (and otherwise) adventurous 1960s, just as America did. The central theme of Rocky Horror is that the Sexual Revolution (personified here by Frank) was met with equal parts enthusiasm (Janet) and terror (Brad). The central theme of Fiddler on the Roof is that tradition is important but it must change and adapt to changing times. The central theme of Cabaret is that doing nothing is also a political choice.

Bonnie & Clyde is the same. Bonnie and Clyde stand in for a beat-up America. It's not a rose-colored vision of America; instead, it's a rough, tough, uncompromising look at the damage and destruction of those times, much of which could have been avoided if only different choices had been made by our leaders. The central theme of this show is that a broken country creates broken people with broken values.

Yup, all concept musicals.

These are the things I think about as I sit up in the back of the theatre and watch our beautiful, rowdy, intense, deeply moving show every night, as I watch the characters get subtly deeper and richer every night, as I watch our audience connect so powerfully to our story every night and then thank us with a standing ovation.

There are other places in town to be entertained, but we'll give you that and a whole lot more. Just three shows left – come join us!

Long Live the Musical!

They Stole – Wouldn't You?

Maybe you could make this argument with some other shows too (Grease, Cry-Baby, Hair, Rocky Horror), but more so than in most, in Bonnie & Clyde, the times, the zeitgeist, is a character in the show. Not only do the writers spend a lot of time on this character, but it affects every other character in the show.

As I've said in other posts, I think the Big Picture point of the show is A broken country makes broken people with broken values. And if I'm right about that, the "broken country" part of that is the times – the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and Prohibition.

This wasn't true of the show's original incarnation at the LaJolla Playhouse. There the story was a love story, and though there was some attention to socio-political context, that wasn't the point. In the revised Bonnie & Clyde that played Broadway and now plays our stage, you couldn't tell this story without this context.

From the very beginning, the show's opening number has several short dialogue scenes interspersed throughout the song, and each of these scenes tells us something about these difficult times. Significantly, we're told in these scenes that Clyde is 12 and Bonnie is 10; we meet them at this age because this is where they will both remain, trapped forever at this age emotionally and socially.

When young Clyde asks why they have to move to West Dallas, his father answers, "I don't own the land. And it ain't worth it for them to have me work it no more." Wow. And then there's the less direct scene in which Clyde's mother is upset because he's shot their only chicken. For fun. At first the scene is a joke:
CUMIE: Clyde Barrow, look what you've done! I hope you know how to lay eggs.
YOUNG CLYDE: I hope you know how to fry chicken.

It is funny, but it also subtly reminds us that the chicken could have provided them with food (eggs) for some time, while Clyde's recklessness has cost them that. It also shows us there is no respect for authority or age here; this is a world turned upside-down. The Depression hovers over everything in the story, and that gets set up in this song and the scenes within it. We find out Bonnie has married some guy named Roy (who we never meet) because she thought that would get her out of her oppressive life (it doesn't). We find out Bonnie and her widowed mother have lost their home because her father died. There's no Social Security yet. We see Clyde and Buck arrested and imprisoned. And all this darkness is set up throughout the up-beat, period perkiness (and shallow immaturity) of the opening number, "Picture Show," juxtaposing Bonnie and Clyde's childish dreams against the harsh realities of living in the Dust Bowl.

The earlier version of the show set up Bonnie as a good girl who chooses the wrong guy. In this revised version, Bonnie is beat up by the times, though not as badly as Clyde is, and it's this dark social context that now propels her motivations and our story.

It's a grim life.

But not for our cluelessly upbeat heroes. We then get more social and political context is Clyde's "I Am" song, "This World Will Remember Me." He sings:
The men in this town
Live and die and are forgotten,
And it doesn't seem to scare ‘em;
I can't wait to get away...

Away from the drought,
And the homeless and the hungry,
Where they talk about foreclosures
Every hot and dusty day.

Once again, what a grim, horrible existence. No wonder Bonnie and Clyde want to bust out of there. Clyde paints this (arguably accurate) picture of the adult men in his orbit, whose lives mean literally nothing. They live, they die, and they're forgotten. Clyde will return to a similar theme in "What Was Good Enough for You."

But let's also pause to look at the craftsmanship in that lyric. There's the alliteration of seem to scare 'em; wait to get away; homeless and the hungry; and dusty day. There's not a lot of rhyme here because this is more an emotional statement than an intellectual one. Clyde's not really a deep thinker; this is just his visceral response to the world around him.

In the song "You're Goin' Back to Jail," we discover that all these women have husbands in jail – it's a pretty sobering situation if you think about it. This song establishes important socio-political context, though again, very subtly. Lots of men were jailed during the Depression, many of them for debts. Just as today the idiotic War on Drugs has incarcerated millions of black men, back in the 1930s the economic collapse threw so many of the working poor into jail.

But this song also delivers the theme of abstract, idealized morality bumping up against the harsh reality of 1930s America, the same theme explored in Blanche's and Bonnie's signature songs, "What You Call a Dream" and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad." The other point in this scene is that these women have found independence, which American women wouldn't taste again till World War II, and not again after that till the 1960s. These women are doing better without their men. But Blanche rebels against their proto-feminism – she really does want to be an old-fashioned housewife, and you can see it in her imagery in "What You Call a Dream."

The second act opens with the most overt characterization of the zeitgeist, "Made in America," in which the ensemble stands in for the American people. This is the song that complicates the story, that moves the simpler morality of Act I into more moral gray area. The Preacher starts the song with a straight-forward statement of morality, and the rest of the song ultimately makes that statement seem silly and shallow. Not only does this song characterize the times, but also American organized religion, which never did figure out how to grapple with the moral and social destruction of the Great Depression.

The number starts with a sermon from the Preacher.
I don't care how hard the hardship,
No one has the right to steal.
And you cannot buy your soul back;
God don't make that kind of deal.

Morality is black and white, good and evil, saved or damned. The Preacher is Bonnie & Clyde's answer to Inspector Javert. Neither the Preacher nor Javert would be caught dead within ten yards of nuance. The Preacher continues. He knows that religion is not serving these people, is not improving their lives, is not offering them solace, so all he can preach is some far-off, future salvation. Not now, not even soon, but someday, probably not till you're dead.
When your prayers all go unanswered,
And the dust is getting worse,
And you live near open sewers
With just pennies in your purse.

That is when the good Lord
will become your Savior;
He will lead you to the light.
We are all God's children,
His arms always open.
We must all do what is right!

But remember, you don't get that far-off, future salvation unless you "do what is right." And who gets to decide what's right? Javert? The scores of idiots who passed the Eighteenth Amendment, creating Prohibition and a national crime wave? The men who wrote the Christian Bible? The many men who interpreted the Christian Bible to suit their own (often financial) needs?

As a final reminder – and a sort of call-and-response (brainwashing?) – the Preacher repeats:
You may be in debt,
Wake up in a sweat,
But let's not forget
You were made in America!

America does what's right. America had made the world safe for democracy in the first World War. Americans are the Good Guys. But what does any of that mean to someone living in a tent who can't provide for for his children because there are no jobs?

When the Preacher sings "Let's not forget, you were made in America," he means you're strong and resilient, immigrant and pioneer stock, rugged individualists, and you can withstand these trials. But when the people in the breadline then repeat those four lines, now in the first person, the sentence takes on a darker color; when they sing, "Let's not forget we were made in America," it now means everything that's wrong with us was forged in the broken clusterfuck that is America right now. By the end of the song, the lyric will change slightly and they'll sing instead, "How can we forget we were made in America?" Wow.

Then there's a short scene with underscoring, with Clyde and Bonnie discussing Bonnie's first holdup. It's played mostly for laughs; Bonnie's nervous and Clyde's impatient. What a cute young couple, right? Now it's the people's turn:
You can't blame 'em, who could blame 'em?
Ain't their fault they turned to crime:
A bar of soap's a luxury;
Don't get much change from a dime.

You can't blame those kids for wantin'
To fill up their shopping bags.
City Hall is low on kindness,
But it don't run out of flags.

They both grew up hungry,
They were heading nowhere,
Thanks to good old USA.

Almost in response to the people's defense of Bonnie and Clyde, the Preacher steps back into the song before the people can finish their verse, steering them back toward the straight-and-narrow. He sings, with the people dutifully echoing behind him:
All who sin must answer,
And these two will answer;
They will face a Judgment Day.

It's an interesting meta-moment, because everyone in the audience already knows that Bonnie and Clyde will indeed face their Judgment Day. In fact, the show itself begins by reminding us that they will face their Judgment Day. The Preacher is right, but he's not the one the people are siding with. They are torn between understanding and judgment. They think they believe what the Preacher is preaching, but on the other hand...

As Buck says to his parents about Clyde in a short scene with underscoring, "Folks are callin' him a hero!" The people continue:
Sure they robbed some men.
And they will again.
Poor kids, ah, but then,
They were made in America.

They had holes in every shoe.
No dream can come true.
They stole - wouldn't you..?

This stanza finishes with an instrumental phrase. We don't hear the lyric and yet we do. We hear the melody and our minds fill in the now familiar words. They were made in America. Just like me. Now its your thought. These last seven lines lay it all in our lap, in a direct challenge to our own comfortable morality – what would we do in that situation? – and the instrumental phrase makes us fill in the blank. Yes, they had all this damage, and yes the world of the Depression and Prohibition in the middle of the Dust Bowl did it to them, or at least, did much of it to them. Can we really know that we would act differently in the same situation?

Aren't we too made in America?

So what does all this mean? What are we to take away from "Made in America"? Are Bonnie and Clyde's crimes okay then, because they've had shitty lives; or to paraphrase West Side Story, are Bonnie and Clyde depraved on account o' they're deprived? As those questions hang there, the song climaxes to a Big Finish...

...But as it gets to the final chord, we're left unsettled. Not only does it end on a dissonant, unresolved chord (an E♭m6+9, for our musician friends), but it hangs there a cappella until an ominous, Jaws-type beat appears in the bass, and the scene has changed and Clyde is robbing a general store, and the ensemble are now customers in that store. The show's writers have taken the phrase "made in America" and literally connected it to Clyde's robbery. This scene will end with Clyde's first shooting fatality, so there's no mistaking the point here – his criminality and his violence were "made in America."

There are even more examples of the times as a character in the story. When Clyde and Bonnie rob a bank, they find it's out of money because the bank has repossessed all the local farms and houses, but no one's left with any money so no one can buy them. But you can't steal farms. At least not easily. This is also the scene where a customer asks our heroes for an autograph and Bonnie happily complies (as they often did in real life).

All in one short scene here, we see the gloomy economic context, the pop culture that embraced the couple as folk heroes (at least, for a while), the big institutions that were failing all around us, and also the continued immaturity of the emotionally stunted Bonnie and Clyde, as they argue about whose name should go first. It's clear that these are still just cocky amateurs.

We find out later in the show about the Sheriff's budget problems, not having enough money to stake out the parents' homes and the necessity of "three deputies sharing two shotguns." The other problem law enforcement faced in the 30s was outdated technology when it came to cars, and no money to do anything about that. As Capt. Hamer explains in the show, "That's 'cause Clyde steals the fastest cars out there while you drive the heaviest cars built. Your police cars weren't built for speed, they were built for back roads. Which is why even if you caught him you couldn't catch him." Most sheriffs just didn't have the ability to do anything about that, so for much of the 30s, the gangsters had the cool cars and so they usually got away.

Many older musicals are at their core about community; maybe this is true because many of those shows were written by immigrants. In most classic musicals of the so-called Golden Age, the central conflict boils down to whether or not the Hero will assimilate into this established community or be removed from it. In Carousel, Pal Joey, and West Side Story, the outsider is removed because he or she can't (or won't) fit into the community. In The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, and Hello, Dolly!, the protagonist successfully becomes part of the community. South Pacific managed to do both: Nellie is assimilated into this exotic island community, but Lt. Cable can't overcome his prejudices and he is removed through death. The same is true of The King and I, in which the King is removed but Anna is assimilated. We also get both outcomes in Show Boat and Fiddler on the Roof.

In Bonnie & Clyde, our heroes can't assimilate so they must be removed. But here, that's not really the point. After all, that's how the show starts. No, in this case, that assimilation conflict is backstory, part of the given circumstances. Bonnie flirts with assimilation a couple times, but Clyde slaps and charms that our of her. Buck tries to choose assimilation, but Clyde won't let him.

After all, what is there to assimilate into? Misery and despair? As Bonnie says to Blanche, "Take a look around, Blanche. God's good Earth is dried up. It's dead." In other words, their choice is death or assimilation and death. That sucks.

This classic assimilation plot device has been refashioned for our times. Just as Hair short-circuited the Hero Myth story, by killing off the Hero just as he receives enlightenment; so too Bonnie & Clyde short-circuits the American myth of assimilation, by choosing a hopelessly broken community (Depression-era America) which our heroes must choose (or not) to join.

It brings back that line from "Made in America": "They stole – wouldn't you?"

No wonder this show didn't run longer on Broadway. It's way too cool and way too honest.

The more times I watch this show, the more I learn from it. As it should be. The adventure continues. Two more weeks!

Long Live the Musical!

Music Like This Can Really Throw Ya

We have opened Bonnie & Clyde. And so far, the response has been incredible. People are so surprised by the beauty of the score and the power of the drama. So many say, "It's not at all what I expected." It never is.

Several people have joked to me that they never thought New Line would do a Frank Wildhorn musical (neither did I), and the more I've thought about it, the more I've figured out why this Wildhorn show is different.

The more I work on Bonnie & Clyde, the more I think Wildhorn is a lot like Andrew Lloyd Webber, both unparalleled melodists (and Wildhorn's harmonies are as rich as his melodies, which is usually not true of ALW), who too often collaborate with lesser lyricists and bookwriters who not only sabotage the show they're writing, but who also require less from their composers. So though Wildhorn wrote beautiful music for Jekyll & Hyde and his other shows, he wrote that music to clumsy, awkward, generic lyrics – and significantly, I don't think he was ever challenged artistically in the way he was with Bonnie & Clyde. Lloyd Webber's gorgeous melodies were also more sophisticated and accomplished when the brilliant Tim Rice was his partner; but Lloyd Webber never again found a lyricist as strong as Tim Rice. With the possible exception of (the less acerbic) Don Black (Tell Me on a Sunday), who coincidentally has written the lyrics for Bonnie & Clyde.

As Tim Rice always did for Lloyd Webber, Black does for Wildhorn, challenging him with literate, subtle, rich, character-driven lyrics, to write some of his best theatre music yet, as beautiful and tuneful as his other scores, but much richer, more complex, more dramatic.

One of Bonnie & Clyde's real successes is Wildhorn's choices of musical languages. There's still that pop sensibility there which Wildhorn's fans love, but this time the music is so much more organic to the characters, the story, and the story's sociopolitical context. In this score, Wildhorn and Black write everything from haunting ballads to ironic social commentary, and Wildhorn's music always fits Black's lyrics perfectly, maybe most obviously in the angry, ironic "Made in America," every bit as catchy as any other Wildhorn tune, but even without the lyrics, you hear the emotions at play in the music and complex harmonies.

One of the devices Wildhorn uses throughout the score is the blues note, generally the 3rd, 5th, or 7th degree of the scale lowered a half-step. Back in the early days of jazz (and ragtime and blues), blues notes were a rebellion, a rejection of the mainstreaming and aligning of pitch in Western music, "wrong" notes that changed the color of the melody from major to minor (and happy to sad), even when (or precisely because) that creates a dissonance with the major chords underneath. (You'll be surprised to learn that even though we associate this with American jazz, blues notes had already appeared long before in English folks songs and then American folks songs.)

Jazz and then rock and roll were the languages of sex and of rebellion – against melody, against beauty of tone, against The Beat. That's why rock and roll had to be the language of teenage rebellion in the 50s and 60s (and the language of Jesus Christ Superstar, the story of a political subversive battling the establishment). The reason jazz and rock are so syncopated is that they're about freedom (often sexual freedom), spontaneity, and rebellion.

After all, syncopation is freedom from the rule of the beat.

It's why so much of the music in Bonnie & Clyde is syncopated. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that Frank Wildhorn sat down and thought to himself, Hmmm, I need a rebellious musical language for this story, and syncopation and blues notes have historically been cultural markers of rebellion, so I think I'll use syncopation in this score. I'm just saying this language felt right to him because it embodies the spirit of these characters, their period, and their story.

In fact, we're finding that in the majority of songs in the score, the beat has a decided swing to it, partly because there's a lot of country flavor to the score, including some gorgeous country waltzes, but because Clyde and Bonnie feel syncopated. Wildhorn always writes in his pop-rock vocabulary, but this score is far more syncopated than any of his others, and more interested in storytelling through the music.

Jeffery Carter, our new music director, luckily agrees with my rule for pop-rock scores: even when you're not singing the exact rhythms on the page, if it's written syncopated, syncopate it; and if it's not, don't. When we're working on a Sondheim or Adam Guettel score, I insist they sing every rhythm and note as written on the page. But when we're working on pop and rock music, it wouldn't work to do that. There has to be a freedom to a rock or jazz performance. So for pop-rock scores, I tell the actors they have to learn to sing what's on the page, as written, then they can have some freedom.

No bullshit American Idol vocal pyrotechnics, though, thank you. Jeremy Jordan's masturbatory performance on the cast album of "Raise a Little Hell" makes me want to slap him. Hard.

On the other hand, once the actors have learned a melody the way Jason Robert Brown, Andrew Lippa, or Tom Kitt wrote it, they don't usually want to change much. These guys notate really accurately a free, syncopated singing style. The Bonnie & Clyde score is that way too. Some composers write a more straightforward melody, expecting that the performers will make it their own, add ornaments, stretch or delay rhythms, etc., like pop singers do. The scores for Rocky Horror, Forbidden Planet, and Hedwig are like that.

But there's so much more to this score than just syncopation. Wildhorn's beautiful, sinewy melodies and rich harmonies already communicate emotion well, but in this score he also makes insightful use of musical themes and leitmotifs (musical phrases that connect to an idea or character).

For example...

We hear music I've labeled the Dream Theme several times throughout the show, in connection with Bonnie and Clyde's dreams for the future. We hear it first in the intro to "Picture Show," and it returns in "How 'Bout a Dance," "What Was Good Enough for You," and the finale. Also, at the end of the bank robbery scene, Clyde kills the bank teller, and the underscoring segues into the Dream Theme. as we transition to the hideout where Bonnie is trying to remove a bullet from Clyde's shoulder. The dream is damaged now. The next time we hear this theme, it's beneath the big shoot out in Act II between the gang and the cops. The scene freezes, and Clyde comes downstage to describe for us the act of shooting someone, while underneath the dialogue we hear "What Was Good Enough," which is built musically on the Dream Theme. And just as this Dream Theme opens the show, it also closes it, with a similar tableau onstage.

The Hell Theme (my label again) is connected with Clyde (or others) making dangerous choices. It's three low, open-fifth chords. We hear it first, in the intro to "Raise a Little Hell," and it shows up all throughout the rest of the show, in the instrumental underneath Clyde and Bonnie's first meeting, into Buck and Blanche's first scene, again transitioning from jail to the beauty salon, again when the Judge sentences Clyde to more jail time,

The Danger Triplets also show up all over the score. It's a musical phrase of three descending sets of triplets that warn us of danger ahead. The first time we hear a close variation of this motif, we probably don't even notice, because it's in the accompaniment of just two measures in the opening song, under Bonnie's lyrics, "...the picture show, like Clara Bow." We'll hear it a lot over the course of the show but we don't associate these triplets yet with danger in this opening number. The first time we hear the motif in its pure from is when Clyde is at Bonnie's house and sees out the window that Deputy Ted has arrived. Here, we recognize it as "danger music." It also shows up in the middle of "Raise a Little Hell," in jail with Clyde and a corrupt guard; at the opening of Act II, introducing "Made in America;" in the underscoring leading out of the robbery that will set off Clyde's first deadly shooting; and into the scene in which Clyde has to tell Bonnie he's killed a deputy.

Then in the next piece of underscoring, under the bank robbery scene, the melody of "What Was Good Enough" gets fractured into two keys at once, making Clyde's bravado less assured as, in the scene, Clyde discovers there's no money in the bank he's robbing. (In real life, they were fairly incompetent criminals.) At the end of the scene, Clyde kills the bank teller, and the danger triplets return, segueing into the Dream Theme. All these musical pieces come together at this incredibly pivotal moment in the story.

The Danger Triplets return to take us into the Sheriff's office, where the Governor shows up to shift the manhunt into high gear. Clyde's days are numbered. The scene ends with another quote of the Dream Theme. Now danger and their dreams are connected.

On top of all that, the beginning of Clyde's big crime spree at the end of Act I re-uses music from "The World Will Remember Me," in which he predicts his success in crime, while here he's beginning in earnest his crime career. Also, the end of Clyde's song "Bonnie" quotes the beginning of "How 'Bout a Dance?" (which is also awfully close to our Danger Triplets), because that's arguably the moment when Clyde falls in love with her, and that memory is inside him as he sings to her.

It's also interesting to note that the last third of Act II is entirely reprises, but they all take on slightly different meanings, colors, moods. For example, when Bonnie and Clyde sing "Picture Show" at the very end, it's lost the exuberance it had at the beginning. They're not those kids anymore, and those kids' dreams just don't cut it any more. It's still uptempo but there's something wrong with it now...

I'm sure I'll discover even more as we run the show. I always do. It's pretty great that we always get to work on material this rich and interesting. We New Liners are very lucky.

Long Live the Musical!

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!