And You May Lose Your Heart

Why do we all know the names Bonnie and Clyde?


Bonnie and Clyde weren't particularly good criminals. They made a lot of mistakes. They left a lot of robberies with nothing to show for it. They only rarely robbed banks; mostly, it was little mom-and-pop grocery stores (they sound less like Robin Hood now, don't they?), leaving jobs with as little as five or ten dollars.

So how did these half-assed kid-criminals get to be as famous as Al Capone or John Dillinger, maybe even more famous? The media. There were two ways to be famous in America in the 1930s. You had to get in the papers or on the screen. In the opening number of Bonnie & Clyde, Bonnie chooses the screen, and Clyde chooses the papers. As it turned out, what really did the trick was Bonnie's poems – the newspapers published anything she gave them, and that's what made them stars.

At first, the public was on their side, seeing them as rebelling against the establishment power structure that was oppressing everyone, but that pretty myth kept getting punctured, as they repeatedly robbed the working poor. In real life, the public largely turned against them eventually.

Personally, I think the main reason they became more famous than the other gangsters is that they were Just Two Wild Kids in Love. None of the other outlaws of the period had a story like that. You can just see Mary Sunshine from Chicago writing about them.

I've read in several sources that most of the lawmen were referring to them as Clyde and Bonnie, but once the poems were published, everyone began calling them Bonnie and Clyde. The order of their names is a recurring joke in the show, Clyde objecting for obvious reasons, and Bonnie always holding the trump card that nothing rhymes with Bonnie.

Imagine Bonnie and Clyde in today's uber-saturated media environment. They'd both be in hog heaven. They'd be uploading videos to YouTube twice a day and live-tweeting their robberies. And the FBI would be tracking the GPS on their car because Clyde hadn't thought about that...

I've discovered as we work on this show that everybody knows their names, but nobody knows anything about them, except if they've seen the 1967 film, most of which is fictionalized.

I recently found a Bonnie & Clyde History group on Facebook, and the things they share there have been really helpful. I posted in the group about our show, but as I was typing, I realized I had to explain this show – it doesn't adhere to so many of the details of these events, and leaves out a lot of things and people. And then I understood – this isn't historical biography; this is fable.

And the moral of the fable is: A broken country creates broken people with broken values.

Just as Bonnie's poems and a willing press turned their real story into a romantic adventure, the 1960s film turned their story into a counter-culture thriller about the individual fighting back against America's failing establishment; and the stage musical turns the story into a fable about how a broken country can break its people and its values.

This is a show like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson that is its own animal. We can't try to force it into some other form. Sort of like Assassins, this is a show not about historical accuracy, but about emotional authenticity instead. And after all, as Voltaire famously said, "History is a pack of lies we play on the dead." Documentaries can focus on details; this show is about the emotional state of our country during these dark times. Clyde and Bonnie stand in for America in our show.

The musical's opening number gives us the story's emotional circumstances (of both our heroes and America), and "How 'Bout a Dance?" is the show's subtle (subliminal?) statement of theme. Look at the lyric as metaphor and it all jumps out at you. It's Bonnie's agreement to commit to Clyde's adventure, and though the characters aren't aware of it, the song essentially describes the arc of the entire show. By the end of the song, these two are now a couple and they are taking this journey together. With the confidence of only the very young, they carve their own path.

And almost everyone in the audience knows the adventure ends with their deaths in eighteen months.

With all that in mind, here's the lyric. Translate this lyric of images into the thoughts and emotions of these characters at this moment. Think of "dance" as adventure; "music" as the magic of Clyde and Bonnie's attraction (she twice mentions his looks), and/or maybe the allure of celebrity; "the blues" as the despair and shame of the Depression, particularly there in the Dust Bowl; and read "lose your heart" any number of ways...
How ‘bout a dance?
It’s always fun –
Come over here,
Let me get to know ya.
Can’t beat a band
To lift your spirits, hon.
You look so handsome…

How ‘bout a dance?
Let’s make a start.
Music like this
Can really throw ya.
You’ll lose the blues,
And you may lose your heart.

Tonight is the night
I’ve been waiting for;
Even the moon looks just right.
I’m sure the crowd will
Make room on the floor,
When they see you
Look like you do.

So, how ‘bout a dance?
Let’s make a start.
Music like this
Can really throw ya.
You’ll lose the blues,
And you may lose your heart.

When Bonnie sings, "Tonight is the night I've been waiting for," the surface meaning is that she's fallen in love and maybe also, depending on the performance, she wants to have sex tonight. But the next lines are about being in public. This isn't about sex; this is about a man showing up to take her away from her awful life. She's been waiting for the night she could drive away from West Dallas.

And now, when I hear the line, "I'm sure the crowd will make room on the floor, when they see you look like you do," I see the scenes in Act II in which Clyde is robbing a store and then a bank, with the customers all cowering together, hands up, Clyde center-stage.

This song almost seems like a throwaway: Bonnie Sings a Song for Clyde. But it's not a love song, it's more than that. Inside the innocuous dialogue and lyric, Bonnie and Clyde are sizing each other up, and deciding to make a real commitment. They're beginning their joint adventure, with their broken values and broken dreams, and this innocent-sounding song tells them and us what their end will be, before they even get started. They're just not listening because they're falling in love.

They sing this song again, later in the show, in the hideout right before the big shootout with the lawmen. It's this moment of false security, when they think everything is calm and safe, but we know it's not – which creates very cool tension. Bonnie hears this song on the radio and says, "Baby, it's our song!" Yes, it is their song, but in a way they don't understand.

When Bonnie repeats the last two lines of the lyric in the last few seconds of the show, the metaphor hits us: when you turn to crime and murder, you may lose the crippling despair of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, but you'll also lose your soul – and likely, your life – in the process. I know Bonnie understood that; I don't know if Clyde did.

I kinda think he didn't. At least, not in our story.

This isn't a show about them falling in forever-love; that's pretty much a given in the script. This show in its final form is a socio-political fable about the unintended creation of criminals. Which is why we're taking a very different approach to Bonnie and Clyde's relationship from what the original production did on Broadway. The script and the Broadway production were full of passionate kisses, with our heroes in various states of undress. It still looked like the La Jolla production, a tragic love story of two toxic but passionate kids.

But that version of the show is on the cutting room floor, along with half a dozen homeless songs. My whole understanding of the story in its current form is that these damaged kids can see only one path to any kind of happiness or security in this dystopian America, and they're ill-equipped either to legitimately make their own way, or really, even to be all that good at crime. Because they're essentially children. Emotionally, socially, psychologically, morally, everything but physically, they're children. Continually fed a religion that no longer seems relevant, Bonnie and Clyde have no moral compass left, just the hell-for-leather all-American pursuit of happiness.

At the expense of everyone else. The part Jefferson left out.

Clyde brushes up against morality a couple times, but it baffles him. That part of him is broken. Or was never formed.

The story here is not boy meets girl; it's a horror fable, as scary as anything the Grimms Brothers gave us. Which is why we've taken almost all the overt sex out of it. That's not this story. That was the story in La Jolla; not anymore. This version is about how America produced these two monsters and how they would be abandoned by their maker. A socio-economic Frankenstein story. In my opinion, this story is not about underwear or Clyde's abs (as lovely as Jeremy Jordan's were), or about passionate kisses. That kind of adult physical affection works against the show's central conceit, that these are kids, emotionally stunted sociopaths who have been made and broken by the world around them.

Don't get me wrong, New Line loves sex, and we've had a lot of it on our stage, but I don't think this show is about sex, so our production won't be either.

There's so much wrapped up in this story and there are so many choices available to us. Our job is to make the choices that tell the clearest story we can tell. And I think we're doing pretty well in that department. Only the audience can tell me if I'm right.

We open in two weeks, and I couldn't be happier with our progress.

Long Live the Musical!