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!

That Girl's Got Somethin'

The song "Bonnie" in Act II of Bonnie & Clyde is a fascinating number. This is one of those private, honest, unguarded moments between our heroes, no bravado, no bullshit, no showing off. (And no, Clyde won't be naked in a bathtub in our production, like he was on Broadway. This is not a show about sex or getting actors to take their clothes off.) In the previous scene between these two, Bonnie reads Clyde her poem about them. This song is sort of Clyde's response. The book Go Down Together says that Clyde carried a guitar with him much of the time, and he loved to play and sing.

The song is essentially built in three sections: the first two verses, then the more expansive middle section, and a final verse that bookends the song. The number starts with only Clyde playing onstage, no orchestra, which also adds to the honesty of the moment – there's no artifice here, no musical theatre conventions. Clyde's just fooling around, making it up as he goes. At first his images are standard ones, not far from actual period songs like "You're the Cream in My Coffee."
I start thinkin' 'bout my Bonnie
From the minute I wake up;
And that feelin' is the best I ever had.
She is in my shavin' mirror;
She is in my coffee cup;
I must be in love or else I'm goin' mad.

It's interesting that he doesn't know he's in love; he concludes that he is. Also, we find here an ongoing theme in American popular music, of love being or causing sickness. The same idea shows up in a lot of 50s rock and roll songs, and, not surprisingly, Grease's finale, "All Choked Up." It's also interesting that the word love doesn't show up again until the very end of the song when it's used to mean the act, not the feeling. Maybe Clyde isn't entirely comfortable with the idea of love, maybe out of emotional self-defense?

The second verse continues in the same vein, but Clyde reveals a telling detail: as much as he loves driving (he got a whole song about it in Act I), he loves Bonnie more.
I would like to write to Bonnie,
Tell the girl the way I feel,
But I'm better with a car than with a pen.
Used to be I'm only happy when I'm set behind a wheel;
Now I don't care if I ever drive again.

That last line is a hell of a statement. Back in Act I, he told us that he only feels alive when he's driving. Not anymore. Now there's Bonnie.

And then the songs morphs into something else. No longer a lark, the number changes from a diegetic, onstage song into a musical theatre monologue, like in any other musical. The music changes drastically, but the lyrics change more subtly. In those first two verses, Clyde's thinking in concrete images (mirror, cup, car, pen, wheel), but when the music changes, that changes too. As the music goes deeper emotionally, his images go inside, into what he feels.

The first two lines of this middle section are the most potent in the song:
That girl's got somethin' –
Nothing scares her.
Only piece of luck that's ever come my way...

Finally, Clyde tells us his secret. He isn't articulate enough to name it – a rare strong use of the word something in a lyric, because Clyde actually does not have the words – but it's Bonnie's fearlessness that he loves most, that he needs most. Everyone else is afraid of him (for good reason), everyone else sees him as a monster, irredeemable, dangerous. But that doesn't bother Bonnie. Nothing scares her. She wanted an adventure and now she's got one. You might say she's hooked up with the personification of adventure. What other girl would not only accept Clyde's violence and lawlessness – or more to the point, his fearlessness – but would embrace it, love him for it? In a world that hates him, that's out to get him, Bonnie is his safe harbor, a place of no judgement, and a fellow sociopathic adrenaline junkie. (Boy, that takes all the romance out of it!) Clyde is so grateful to her, though he might never be able to put that into words.

And we also get a taste of Clyde's worldview here – the world is against him, fate is against him, everyone he knows is against him (except Buck) to one degree or another, and Bonnie is the one good thing (?) that's happened to him, the "only piece of luck that's ever come [his] way." This isn't love song hyperbole; this is Clyde's perception of his life and it shapes every tragic moment in our story. He feels he's owed some payback by society for the considerable shit he and his family have taken. The only bright spot, the only piece of luck in his whole gray life, has been Bonnie.

We know he means it, because Frank Wildhorn's aching music tells us that.

The act of singing is more honest in the first two verses, but the emotional content is more honest, more unguarded once this middle section starts. We go deeper. And that difference is due in large part to Wildhorn's expressionistic music. Because music is an abstract language it conveys emotion better than words can. (Which is why West Side Story works better than Romeo and Juliet.)  This lush, emotional music changes the fundamental nature of the song; and even though the accompaniment is almost exactly the same for the first two verses and the last verse, the music of this middle section transforms that last verse; we hear that same simple music at the end through different ears.

The middle section continues and Clyde goes on:
Can't wait to tell her
How much I've missed her;
Feel sorry for James Cagney,
'Cause he's never
Kissed her.

Because the music slows down so much at the end of this stanza, it creates a cool, subtle rhyme that wouldn't otherwise be there, with "ne-ver" and "kissed her," but kissed her also rhymes with missed her a few lines earlier. The same line rhymes in two directions. Also notice the parallel construction lyricist  Don Black creates here, with tell her, missed her, and kissed her. That's good lyric writing.

This middle section of the song isn't about shaving mirrors; this is about missing someone you love, about Clyde's interior emotional life. We all know this feeling and it humanizes the "monster." It's the parallel of that moment in Frankenstein when we start to feel empathy for the creature. It's subtle. You don't notice it. The creature happily accepts the flower from the little girl and you think, He's not a monster, after all, is he?, and then he kills her. Holy shit.

Biographers tell us 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. Mentioning Cagney in the lyric is both a great character detail – of course that's the movie star that would first come to Clyde's mind, the guy who played Al Capone! – but it's also a funny and sweet compliment, that even a movie star like Cagney doesn't have it all – if he doesn't have Bonnie...

Clyde's quite the charmer. And what's more, we know he means it.

And then the song returns musically to the simplicity of the first two verses for one final verse. At the beginning of the song that simplicity is about Clyde's amateurism and his improvisation. Now it's about direct, honest emotion, no ornaments, no embellishment, no "help" from the music, just his real feelings, unadorned. There's a peacefulness, a zen-like contentment in these last few lines.
I start dreamin' 'bout my Bonnie
Just as soon as I'm asleep;
They're the kind of dreams that keep you in your bed:
I am makin' love to Bonnie,
And that sure beats countin' sheep;
Got a feelin' there are good times up ahead...

Yet they both know they're probably going to end up dead. Later on, Bonnie will even end her poem with their deaths. But until then, they will live for today.

Or does Clyde only have that optimistic feeling in his dreams?

The lyric to this song is part diegetic (i.e., the character is aware he's singing within the action of the story), and part non-diegetic (i.e., singing is just the language of storytelling, and the character is not aware he's singing, as in most musicals). It's really interesting storytelling and really interesting songwriting. It's as if Clyde needed some fucking around, some "ironic detachment" from his feelings in those first couple verses, to open the door for him to a fuller, less guarded expression of his emotion.

In Bonnie's poem, some of the language and structure is awkward, her amateurism on full display (because the show uses Bonnie Parker's actual poem, though cut down), but in Clyde's song, there's a mix of amateurism and high-level lyric-writing craft. The first two verse show us what Clyde chooses to reveal about himself; the rest of the song is what Don Black chose to reveal about him.

We just started rehearsing a couple days ago, so we have miles to go before we sleep, and I'm sure we'll find much more richness in this and the other songs. This is the part of making musicals I love the most, digging into really rich, subtle, detailed writing, exploring it as fully as I can, and then bringing it to life onstage with amazing actors.

So happy to be back in rehearsal again!

Long Live the Musical!

Bonnie & Clyde

I saw Bonnie & Clyde on Broadway in 2011 and really loved both the material and the production. I wrote a blog post about it when I got back to my hotel that night. I later saw a bootleg video of the show at the LaJolla Playhouse in 2009, before coming to Broadway. Now digging into the show as we start rehearsals, something occurs to me.

First, this isn't a love story. At LaJolla, it was a very good show, but it was a love story, including a killer love duet called "This Never Happened Before." But on Broadway, they didn't have to tell the audience that Bonnie & Clyde loved each other; it was assumed. And that made the show more a dark adventure, a interrupted hero myth story, in which our heroes don't get enough time to learn anything of value.

It's a story about America and all its institutions failing a generation of Americans. And it's a story that doesn't pass judgment on its protagonists, which may be part of why it didn't run very long in New York. This show doesn't comment on Bonnie and Clyde; it just presents them. It explores the zeitgeist that helped create them but doesn't draw any conclusions.

We can't condone what Bonnie and Clyde do, but maybe we understand it – and again, maybe that makes an audience uncomfortable. We feel the shame that permeates Depression-era America, particularly in the Dust Bowl. We feel the despair that comes from losing your dignity. And we see these vibrant kids brimming with life, refusing to succumb to the shame and the despair, refusing to live by any of the rules our institutions have imposed. You can see where these kids might wonder why should they adhere to those failed norms? When the bank can take your house, why can't you take the bank's money?

In his book Go Down Together, Jeff Gunn writes, "Every city had its slums, but in all of Texas, West Dallas was recognized as the worst. Its fetid air and swarming bugs, open sewers and garbage-strewn blocks bisected by narrow dirt streets contributed to dozens of deaths annually from tuberculosis and pneumonia. Even a few drops of rain turned those dirt street to mud: West Dallas was know as The Bog because it often was. . . Many families, some thought most, supplemented the little they could earn honestly with shadier income. People in the camp generally didn’t steal from each other – they had so little, what was the point? But across the river, other families’ chickens, knick-knacks, and even cars were considered fair game."

To some extent, this is an American horror story.

The second thing that occurs to me is that the 2009 LaJolla production was very good but very conventional, very Rodgers & Hammerstein in its structure and form. The show opened with an "I Want" solo from Bonnie, then one from Clyde, then one from their antagonist, the Sheriff, then from the second female lead, Blanche. All well written but really conventional.

By the time they got to Broadway, the opening was a long form contemporary musical theatre opening, like High Fidelity, Lippa's Wild PartyNext to Normal, Hands on a Hardbody, Spelling Bee, and one of the best, Ragtime. It was a tapestry of two songs, one for Bonnie, one for Clyde, about their mutual lust for fame and its promises, as well as about Clyde's lifelong propensity for violence. By the time we finish the opening number, we know Clyde's criminal past, we understand the social forces at play, and we know the central theme of the story. It does a shit-ton of exposition and gets it out of the way really fast, all the while giving us all the information we need and entertaining us with this pair of high energy, but creepy songs. This is economical writing.

The artistic team did pretty massive rewrites, cutting and adding songs, and also integrating many of the songs more fully into the script, overlapping scenes, finding interesting, even shocking transitions. The show I saw in 2011 was an interesting mix of a R&H book show with a Hal Prince (or Bob Fosse or Tommy Tune) concept musical. There were still Stand-Here-And-Sing songs, but the show was much darker, but also much more cinematic, much more about "perpetual motion," and much more inventive in its storytelling. Director Jeff Calhoun (who staged the brilliant Deaf West production of Big River) came up with some really striking, really thrilling visual moments.

In our production, I think I want to more fully make that transition into the concept musical. I think even the Stand-Here-And-Sing songs should be staged more conceptually, and I already have ideas (or at least, questions) about some of them. For instance, do we have to stay in the living room for "When I Drive"? Can't we get out on the road – or on the road in Clyde and Buck's minds?

The script has Clyde's father leave the stage right before Clyde sings, "What Was Good Enough for You," to his father. And then Bonnie sings a section of the song to her mother, but Bonnie's alone in her room. Sure, I can see maybe a little extra pathos from the parents' absence, but how much more dramatic for these kids to finally tell their parents this stuff, face to face? As it's written, Bonnie and Clyde are bored kids; but put the parents onstage across from them, and they become kids just starting to feel their way toward becoming adults, finding their own paths – and considering the end of the story, that's really fucking sad.

In "Dyin' Ain't So Bad," Bonnie really wants Blanche to understand this – this explains everything about Bonnie. But the script has Blanche walking out of the room after the first four lines of the song. I think Blanche staying and listening would give Bonnie's very complicated, childish (?), arguably scary emotions more weight, more respect – and more or less tragedy depending on how much you agree with her.

Maybe some of the original staging is just a product of the expectations of the tourist audience on Broadway. Maybe New York commercial producers and directors think their audiences want American Idol moments. And maybe they do. But the rewritten show as it opened on Broadway feels to me like a full-on concept musical, and I think we can discard those R&H devices entirely. Wicked needs those devices because it's essentially a Rodgers and Hammerstein show. Bonnie & Clyde doesn't and isn't.

Connected to that, the set on Broadway was extremely cool and pretty minimalist, but it still concretely represented every stick of furniture, etc. I've asked Rob, our scenic designer, for a more dreamlike, more surrealistic set, almost as if we're inside Bonnie and Clyde's heads.

I think we're gonna focus less on underwear (the two Broadway leads were undressed a lot during the show) and more on these socially and emotionally under-developed kids, playing at being adults and murdering innocent people in the process. This is one of those American social tragedies, like Death of a Salesman or American Idiot. We can see the forces and events that shaped young Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, we can understand the stifling oppression of poverty and hopelessness; but even if we do understand in some way, we can't ignore the brutality of their crime spree. Is society is to blame? Maybe, but if so, then isn't Hoover really at fault for not averting the Depression, or the Congress and state legislatures that voted for Prohibition, destroying the authority of law enforcement across the country...? But you can't put the country in prison, and who knows how many more people Clyde and Bonnie would have killed if they hadn't been stopped..?

There are no answers here, just questions.

Is that why Americans love this story, in whatever form it takes? It's both romantic and brutal. Bonnie and Clyde are both guilty as hell and sort of innocent, the cops are both the good guys and the bad guys (for killing our heroes). This is one of those stories that always reappears during times of great change and great struggle in our country. It reassures us with two contradictory messages – that you can fight back against The Man when he's crushing you, but also, that when the monsters come, the government (police, army, etc.) will protect us.

In a way, Clyde, and to a lesser extent I think, Bonnie, are America's Frankenstein's monsters, created by bad economic policies, failing democracy, ecological disaster (the Dust Bowl), a culture of celebrity, and indifferent or cruel parents; in fact, by the breakdown of almost every American institution. And because of that breakdown, Clyde's role model is the gangster media hound Al Capone, more a father figure to him than his own father; and Bonnie's role model is the silent film sex symbol Clara Bow, both iconoclasts representing not just celebrity and its advantages (freedom from want and rules), and also the rejection of conventional morality. Following the rules wasn't working.

Clyde finds Capone's violence attractive, and Bonnie finds Bow's overt sexuality attractive. While Bonnie no doubt saw Clara Bow on screen many times, Clyde probably saw King Vidor's 1930 film Billy the Kid, which paints the infamous outlaw as a romantic, avenging vigilante, part Lone Ranger, part Batman. He also surely saw the 1932 film Scarface, a thinly veiled biography of Al Capone. It's eerie now, watching these two films, because it almost feels like Clyde used them as blueprints for the life he and Bonnie led until their deaths.

While today's kids grow up watching Sesame Street, Bonnie grew up watching the open sexuality of Clara Bow; and Clyde grew up watching Billy the Kid and Al Capone solve problems and accumulate wealth and power with guns and charm.

All these social forces came together, no doubt combined with a strong predisposition, to create the monster, one unique to the 1930s, maybe even unique to the early 1930s, in the early days of the Great Depression. But once created, Frankenstein's monster can never live among us. He can't control his destruction. So what does the monster do?

If you've read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, you know the answer – he walks among us.

Now, reading the script instead of watching the show, it seems to me the show is primarily a horror Romeo and Juliet story, about two "children" (at least, emotionally) failing at being adults because they take the wrong lessons from life: that fame is security, sex is freedom, and violence is power. You can argue that Romeo and Juliet were largely passive in their tragic trajectory, while Bonnie and Clyde took an active role in their own destruction. But maybe that ignores the why, and at our peril. Maybe West Side Story put it best: "Hey, I'm depraved on account I'm deprived!"

It's a half-joke in West Side Story, but research is proving it true. I read a really amazing book a couple years ago, Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain, that summarizes recent brain research (and there's been a ton of it since the invention of the real-time MRI) in an attempt to understand the differences between conservatives and liberals. And it turns out there are actual physical differences between the average conservative brain and the average liberal brain. In the average liberal brain, the anterior cingulate cortex is larger, the part of the brain that processes complexity, conflicting information, nuance, tolerance for uncertainty, and empathy. It's also the part of the brain where curiosity and openness to new ideas come from.

Take away empathy and it's easy to kill someone without feeling bad about it, which means it's easy to do it over and over again. And research is also tentatively showing us that a lack of physical affection in a child's early years may well lead to an under-developed frontal lobe and therefore an absence of empathy and impulse control -- and that absence inevitably leads to crime. Considering the crappy upbringing Bonnie and Clyde had, it makes me wonder what their frontal lobes looked like...

In the average conservative brain, the amygdala (the most primitive part of the brain and the location of our fear center) is larger. Mooney says, "The amygdala plays the same role in every species that has an amygdala. It basically takes over to save your life. It does other things too, but in a situation of threat, you cease to process information rationally and you’re moving automatically to protect yourself.” But what if your whole life is essentially a threat, or at least seems that way?

(Now to be fair, the amygdala is also where loyalty and tribal bonding come from. And research doesn't tell us yet whether conservatives are born with bigger amygdalas, or if a conservative environment causes the amygdala to develop more.)

In one study, "Conservatives showed much stronger skin responses to negative images, compared with the positive ones. Liberals showed the opposite. And when the scientists turned to studying eye gaze or 'attentional' patterns, they found that conservatives looked much more quickly at negative or threatening images, and then spent more time fixating on them." Mooney concludes that this "new research suggests that conservatism is largely a defensive ideology – and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments." And it might explain why Clyde was often fast on the trigger, if he was preconditioned to suspect a threat...

No, you can't get all this into a musical and conveyed to an audience. But that's not really the point. The point is to let all this help us paint the clearest possible picture of who these kids are, and what happened. The more we know, the better picture we paint.

Again perhaps for commercial reasons, the show felt like a romantic story on Broadway, but I think it's more a (not-)coming-of-age story. This isn't a story about them falling in love or the depth of their love; that's all taken as a given here. It's a story about their failed attempt at being adults, a story in which they're doomed from the start – by circumstances, by the times, by destructive messages from the society around them, maybe even by biology. Bookwriter Ivan Menchell knows this and starts the show with Bonnie and Clyde's death. The writers know that we all know the end of this story, so they make the end of the story the point of the show. The narrative isn't what happens; it's why. How did we get here? And to the writers' credit, there isn't only one answer here. Because that's the truth.

This will be such a fun show to dive into, to research time and place, culture forces, political and economic forces. Judy Newmark wrote in her Post-Dispatch review of one of our shows that New Line is studying 20th century American anthropologically over time, and I realize this show fits right in. The action of our story takes place just five years after The Wild Party, and just four years before The Cradle Will Rock, both shows New Line has produced. And coincidentally, Bonnie & Clyde is set the same year our June 2015 show, The Threepenny Opera, first opened (and quickly closed) on Broadway. It's not hard to see similar cultural forces at work.

We've got rich material, a stellar cast, and a crack staff and design team supporting them. A new adventure begins. Stay tuned.

Long Live the Musical!