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?

Also notice that Clyde has just taken us through an entire day, from "the minute I wake up" to "as soon as I'm asleep." Bonnie infuses every moment of his life, awake or asleep.

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!