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!
Scott

1 comments: