These Are Things You Take a Chance For

I had a really cool phone conversation yesterday.

Most of my theatre friends' heroes are actors. Most of mine are writers and directors. And there's nothing cooler for me than to talk with the writer(s) of a show we're working on. There are always insights and subtleties that I can get from the writers, which may not be immediately obvious to me otherwise.

I've had very cool email correspondence and/or phone conversations with the writers of High Fidelity, Hands on a Hardbody, Next to Normal, Passing Strange, The Wild Party, Hair, Songs for a New World, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Floyd Collins, The Nervous Set, The Robber Bridegroom, Night of the Living Dead, Love Kills, Cry-Baby, Bukowsical, and other shows. And we've gotten visits from Amanda Green (for both High Fidelity and Hands on a Hardbody), Mark Savage (The Ballad of Little Mikey), Adam Schlessinger (Cry-Baby), Annie Kessler (Woman with Pocketbook), and Gary Stockdale and Spencer Green (Bukowsical).

And yesterday afternoon, I got to talk with Bonnie & Clyde bookwriter Ivan Menchell (in the picture at the top), who was nice enough to give me an hour of his time. After I gushed a bit about how much I love this show, he told some really interesting things, and I got to ask some questions about my core assumptions. It turns out he's been reading this blog and really loves what I've been writing, so that's a good sign!

(I always worry a little what the writers will think when I'm blogging all about how we're gonna go in a different direction. Apparently, that hasn't freaked Ivan out.)

I was glad to find out that he really loves Matt Reedy's poster design for the show. He said it's the only poster he's seen for this show that emphasized fame over violence, and he liked that.

I didn't know until today that Bonnie & Clyde started out as a song cycle about the greatest couples in history, including Samson and Delilah, and Laurel & Hardy. Sounds kinda cool, doesn't it? Then director Jeff Calhoun suggested to composer Frank Wildhorn that he turn the project into a book musical about just Bonnie and Clyde; and Calhoun also brought Menchell into the process. Meanwhile, separately, director Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal, If/Then) and one of the screenwriters of the 1967 film were trying to crack the same nut but couldn't figure it out.

Here are some other tidbits Ivan shared with me...

He really thinks the scene in which Bonnie breaks Clyde out of jail is the show's "obligatory moment," the moment toward which everything before it leads, and from which everything after it results. Without that moment, there is no story. Once he said that, I realized how right he is. That moment is when Bonnie becomes a criminal, her point of no return, when she makes the decision that locks in her tragic destiny, hitching her wagon to Clyde's decidedly fucked-up star.

Bonnie and Clyde were as notorious, maybe more so, for living and sleeping together "out of wedlock" than for their crimes. People just didn't cohabitate openly like that. And technically, she was still married to someone else.

Being in jail or having a prison record was not the stigma then that it is today. So many people, who we'd probably consider innocent, were jailed for debt, for stealing food, for petty robbery – those crimes the result of the crippling poverty and despair of the Depression and the Dust Bowl.

Bonnie really was a good girl, a straight-A student, before she met Clyde. When Ivan made a point of mentioning that, it hit me that that Bonnie is the one Ted loves, which makes that subplot even sadder. It's almost like there are two Bonnies – one pre-Clyde, and one post-Clyde. Ted loves a Bonnie that is no more; she's been changed and now she's the Bonnie Clyde loves. These men's big duet, "You Could Do Better Than Him," is really a battle for Bonnie's soul. Will she stay with Clyde and be the wild, dangerous Bonnie, or will she go with Ted and be the Good Bonnie again?

Is it even possible for her to return to her former self and life?

Ivan noted the horrors Clyde suffered in jail, not just back-breaking work on a labor farm, but savage beatings and rapes. As often happens today with non-violent drug offenders, it seems quite likely that though Clyde may have had the predilection, it was prison that made him into the killer he became. Ivan also wondered out loud if Bonnie and Clyde would have become these people if they hadn't met. Did they bring out the "worst" in each other? Would Bonnie have stayed a good girl if not for Clyde? Would Clyde have been the flamboyant show-off without Bonnie as audience? Would Clyde have become famous without Bonnie's poems published in the newspaper?

Ivan also told me that Emma Parker's book about Bonnie and Clyde, Fugitives; The Story of Clyde Barrow & Bonnie Parker, includes a lot of letters and diary entries.

Ivan also told me about some interesting staging ideas they tried. In the show's out-of-town tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse, Act I ended with Clyde's first kill and a dead cop laying onstage. Then they left the "body" onstage throughout the entire intermission, bleeding all over the stage. Then Act II started, the other cops arrived, moved the body, someone cleaned up the blood, etc. But then the writers realized they needed to hold off Clyde's first kill till Act II. Now the show ends Act I with our heroes on top of the world. Everything's awesome. And then it slowly falls apart in Act II.

A local critic once said to me the reason he doesn't like Sondheim shows is that Sondheim gives us everything we want in Act I (love, happiness, family, whatever), and then tears it all apart in Act II. I thought about it and that is true of most of his shows. But it's also true of Camelot, The Fantasticks, Fiddler on the Roof, even Anything Goes and No, No, Nanette, among other shows. And Bonnie & Clyde. And a lot of Shakespeare's plays. It's a common convention of dramatic storytelling. But it's not about giving and taking away; it's about establishing characters and situation, and then throwing it all out of balance, because that's how drama works. By the end, either balance is restored, or the characters adjust to a new normal (which is also a kind of balance).

Maybe that all feels more pronounced in musicals because too many of us still reflexively think of musicals as happy and innocuous. Well, that was true in the 1920s, but not today.

Ivan told me that in the Korean production, we actually saw (sort of) Clyde raped in the shower by Ed Crowder (which is only referred to obliquely in our script), and in the Act II opening, Clyde actually ran out into the house and robbed members of the audience, took their wallets, etc. I gotta say, that's kinda cool. Though we do fuck with our audiences sometimes, I don't think we'd wanna go that far...

So many new things to think about now. I've already thought of some small moments I want to change in the staging...

This is such rich material, book, music, and lyrics, and it's such a blast to work on. Now that we're running the whole show at every rehearsal, I have no doubt there are many new revelations in store for me, probably all the way through closing night, if past shows are any indication.

And eventually, I'll massage all my blog posts about the show into a coherent chapter for my next book. But in the meantime, I can't wait to get back to rehearsal. This is my favorite part of the process!

Long Live the Musical!