I'm guessing here, but I think it's because it's an incredibly serious story, but there are also a considerable number of laughs in the show. I think sometimes the audience decides collectively to take the story very seriously, and other nights they take it less seriously (at least until the second half of Act II, when shit gets real). And I think it's connected to something I said last night at a cast party – that this show essentially has the content of a rock opera, very big emotions, very high, life-or-death stakes, but it takes the form of a musical comedy.
Maybe that's because the show changed so drastically between its tryout in La Jolla and its opening on Broadway, from love story to cultural tragedy. But maybe it's just a function of the story; like Sondheim says, content dictates form. Bonnie and Clyde were carefree kids who didn't really appreciate the gravity of their actions until it was too late, so it makes sense that the "carefree" form of musical comedy would tell their story, intentionally at odds with this dark narrative, exactly the way Bonnie and Clyde were at odds with the society around them.
And let's not forget that musical comedy was one of the America's dominant entertainment forms in the 1920s and 30s. Much of the pop music of the times came from musicals.
Interestingly, no matter the mood of the audience, once we get well into Act II, the laughs essentially dry up. The situation gets very serious very fast, starting with Clyde's murder of a cop in the second scene of the act. And as we might expect from good writers, the form of the show morphs somewhat and becomes more rock opera than musical comedy, with far more music in Act II than in Act I, more use of musical themes, and more ominous underscoring.
I was shocked when Bonnie & Clyde closed so quickly in New York (33 previews, 36 performances). I was glad I had gotten to see it. The night I was there, the audience leapt to their feet at the end, cheering for the show. Everybody as far as I could see absolutely loved it.
And then it closed. Just like The Scottsboro Boys, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and other outstanding recent shows.
I've been thinking a lot, especially since we've been working on Bonnie & Clyde, about why it didn't do better on Broadway. It's definitely more adult than many more commercially successful shows. I think the particular curse of Bonnie & Clyde is that in its La Jolla Playhouse version, it was very good but perhaps a bit too bland to be commercial. After all, that story (their love story) has been told many times. The writers worked on the show a lot, they did an interim production of the new version in Florida, and they ended up with a vastly more interesting show, darker, smarter, more adult, more sociopolitical, but most significantly, morally ambiguous.
And that means not commercial. But also, in its final form, it's not the story we've seen before.
Now personally, I love moral ambiguity, because that's life. But I also know the tourist audiences at New York's commercial theatres may not agree with me. They certainly couldn't handle the moral ambiguity of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or The Scottsboro Boys.
Like Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins, Bonnie & Clyde doesn't judge these criminals; and it doesn't root for them either. There are voices of morality and reason in the show, but they are weak. What makes this show so fascinating – and so not commercial – is that it makes no moral judgment. In "Made in America," the Preacher makes the case for strict morality, even in the face of starvation poverty; but then the People make the opposite case, that in some cases, morality must be fluid, that Bonnie and Clyde's crimes are understandable, if not entirely excusable.
And we've seen them fight and argue like spoiled children all through Act I, so how scary can they really be...?
Throughout the show, we're forced to choose between Bonnie and Clyde's amoral Mad Max view of the world, on the one hand, and the dark, gray, miserable world of those who Play by the Rules, on the other. Of course, we choose Mad Max. It's just more fun! And then in Act II, we're presented with the repercussions of our choice. Like the public of 1933, we get seduced by Bonnie and Clyde.
I've always searched for a solid definition of what a concept musical is. I'm pretty sure the term was first used to describe Company. But everybody kind of has their own definition of what that means and which shows qualify. I think if the one-sentence central thesis of the show is directly about people, it's not a concept musical. If that one sentence is about culture, politics, art, war, or any other idea, then it's a concept musical.
Let's test that.
The central theme of Grease is that rock and roll and cars forever changed sex in America, and Sandy stands in for America. Over the course of the show, Sandy goes from the repressed early 1950s (Sandra Dee) to the more sexually (and otherwise) adventurous 1960s, just as America did. The central theme of Rocky Horror is that the Sexual Revolution (personified here by Frank) was met with equal parts enthusiasm (Janet) and terror (Brad). The central theme of Fiddler on the Roof is that tradition is important but it must change and adapt to changing times. The central theme of Cabaret is that doing nothing is also a political choice.
Yup, all concept musicals.
These are the things I think about as I sit up in the back of the theatre and watch our beautiful, rowdy, intense, deeply moving show every night, as I watch the characters get subtly deeper and richer every night, as I watch our audience connect so powerfully to our story every night and then thank us with a standing ovation.
There are other places in town to be entertained, but we'll give you that and a whole lot more. Just three shows left – come join us!
Long Live the Musical!