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.”
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.
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.
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!