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.

WHAT...???

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!
Scott

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