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!