Music Like This Can Really Throw Ya

We have opened Bonnie & Clyde. And so far, the response has been incredible. People are so surprised by the beauty of the score and the power of the drama. So many say, "It's not at all what I expected." It never is.

Several people have joked to me that they never thought New Line would do a Frank Wildhorn musical (neither did I), and the more I've thought about it, the more I've figured out why this Wildhorn show is different.

The more I work on Bonnie & Clyde, the more I think Wildhorn is a lot like Andrew Lloyd Webber, both unparalleled melodists (and Wildhorn's harmonies are as rich as his melodies, which is usually not true of ALW), who too often collaborate with lesser lyricists and bookwriters who not only sabotage the show they're writing, but who also require less from their composers. So though Wildhorn wrote beautiful music for Jekyll & Hyde and his other shows, he wrote that music to clumsy, awkward, generic lyrics – and significantly, I don't think he was ever challenged artistically in the way he was with Bonnie & Clyde. Lloyd Webber's gorgeous melodies were also more sophisticated and accomplished when the brilliant Tim Rice was his partner; but Lloyd Webber never again found a lyricist as strong as Tim Rice. With the possible exception of (the less acerbic) Don Black (Tell Me on a Sunday), who coincidentally has written the lyrics for Bonnie & Clyde.

As Tim Rice always did for Lloyd Webber, Black does for Wildhorn, challenging him with literate, subtle, rich, character-driven lyrics, to write some of his best theatre music yet, as beautiful and tuneful as his other scores, but much richer, more complex, more dramatic.

One of Bonnie & Clyde's real successes is Wildhorn's choices of musical languages. There's still that pop sensibility there which Wildhorn's fans love, but this time the music is so much more organic to the characters, the story, and the story's sociopolitical context. In this score, Wildhorn and Black write everything from haunting ballads to ironic social commentary, and Wildhorn's music always fits Black's lyrics perfectly, maybe most obviously in the angry, ironic "Made in America," every bit as catchy as any other Wildhorn tune, but even without the lyrics, you hear the emotions at play in the music and complex harmonies.

One of the devices Wildhorn uses throughout the score is the blues note, generally the 3rd, 5th, or 7th degree of the scale lowered a half-step. Back in the early days of jazz (and ragtime and blues), blues notes were a rebellion, a rejection of the mainstreaming and aligning of pitch in Western music, "wrong" notes that changed the color of the melody from major to minor (and happy to sad), even when (or precisely because) that creates a dissonance with the major chords underneath. (You'll be surprised to learn that even though we associate this with American jazz, blues notes had already appeared long before in English folks songs and then American folks songs.)

Jazz and then rock and roll were the languages of sex and of rebellion – against melody, against beauty of tone, against The Beat. That's why rock and roll had to be the language of teenage rebellion in the 50s and 60s (and the language of Jesus Christ Superstar, the story of a political subversive battling the establishment). The reason jazz and rock are so syncopated is that they're about freedom (often sexual freedom), spontaneity, and rebellion.

After all, syncopation is freedom from the rule of the beat.

It's why so much of the music in Bonnie & Clyde is syncopated. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that Frank Wildhorn sat down and thought to himself, Hmmm, I need a rebellious musical language for this story, and syncopation and blues notes have historically been cultural markers of rebellion, so I think I'll use syncopation in this score. I'm just saying this language felt right to him because it embodies the spirit of these characters, their period, and their story.

In fact, we're finding that in the majority of songs in the score, the beat has a decided swing to it, partly because there's a lot of country flavor to the score, including some gorgeous country waltzes, but because Clyde and Bonnie feel syncopated. Wildhorn always writes in his pop-rock vocabulary, but this score is far more syncopated than any of his others, and more interested in storytelling through the music.

Jeffery Carter, our new music director, luckily agrees with my rule for pop-rock scores: even when you're not singing the exact rhythms on the page, if it's written syncopated, syncopate it; and if it's not, don't. When we're working on a Sondheim or Adam Guettel score, I insist they sing every rhythm and note as written on the page. But when we're working on pop and rock music, it wouldn't work to do that. There has to be a freedom to a rock or jazz performance. So for pop-rock scores, I tell the actors they have to learn to sing what's on the page, as written, then they can have some freedom.

No bullshit American Idol vocal pyrotechnics, though, thank you. Jeremy Jordan's masturbatory performance on the cast album of "Raise a Little Hell" makes me want to slap him. Hard.

On the other hand, once the actors have learned a melody the way Jason Robert Brown, Andrew Lippa, or Tom Kitt wrote it, they don't usually want to change much. These guys notate really accurately a free, syncopated singing style. The Bonnie & Clyde score is that way too. Some composers write a more straightforward melody, expecting that the performers will make it their own, add ornaments, stretch or delay rhythms, etc., like pop singers do. The scores for Rocky Horror, Forbidden Planet, and Hedwig are like that.

But there's so much more to this score than just syncopation. Wildhorn's beautiful, sinewy melodies and rich harmonies already communicate emotion well, but in this score he also makes insightful use of musical themes and leitmotifs (musical phrases that connect to an idea or character).

For example...

We hear music I've labeled the Dream Theme several times throughout the show, in connection with Bonnie and Clyde's dreams for the future. We hear it first in the intro to "Picture Show," and it returns in "How 'Bout a Dance," "What Was Good Enough for You," and the finale. Also, at the end of the bank robbery scene, Clyde kills the bank teller, and the underscoring segues into the Dream Theme. as we transition to the hideout where Bonnie is trying to remove a bullet from Clyde's shoulder. The dream is damaged now. The next time we hear this theme, it's beneath the big shoot out in Act II between the gang and the cops. The scene freezes, and Clyde comes downstage to describe for us the act of shooting someone, while underneath the dialogue we hear "What Was Good Enough," which is built musically on the Dream Theme. It becomes the music of death. And just as this Dream Theme opens the show, it also closes it, with a similar tableau onstage. The dream has become death.

The Hell Theme (my label again) is connected with Clyde (or others) making dangerous choices. It's three low, open-fifth chords. We hear it first, in the intro to "Raise a Little Hell," and it shows up all throughout the rest of the show, in the instrumental underneath Clyde and Bonnie's first meeting, into Buck and Blanche's first scene, again transitioning from jail to the beauty salon, again when the Judge sentences Clyde to more jail time,

The Danger Triplets also show up all over the score. It's a musical phrase of three descending sets of triplets that warn us of danger ahead. The first time we hear a close variation of this motif, we probably don't even notice, because it's in the accompaniment of just two measures in the opening song, under Bonnie's lyrics, "...the picture show, like Clara Bow." We'll hear it a lot over the course of the show but we don't associate these triplets yet with danger in this opening number. The first time we hear the motif in its pure from is when Clyde is at Bonnie's house and sees out the window that Deputy Ted has arrived. Here, we recognize it as "danger music." It also shows up in the middle of "Raise a Little Hell," in jail with Clyde and a corrupt guard; at the opening of Act II, introducing "Made in America;" in the underscoring leading out of the robbery that will set off Clyde's first deadly shooting; and into the scene in which Clyde has to tell Bonnie he's killed a deputy.

Then in the next piece of underscoring, under the bank robbery scene, the melody of "What Was Good Enough" gets fractured into two keys at once, making Clyde's bravado less assured as, in the scene, Clyde discovers there's no money in the bank he's robbing. (In real life, they were fairly incompetent criminals.) At the end of the scene, Clyde kills the bank teller, and the danger triplets return, segueing into the Dream Theme. All these musical pieces come together at this incredibly pivotal moment in the story.

The Danger Triplets return to take us into the Sheriff's office, where the Governor shows up to shift the manhunt into high gear. Clyde's days are numbered. The scene ends with another quote of the Dream Theme. Now danger and their dreams are connected.

On top of all that, the beginning of Clyde's big crime spree at the end of Act I re-uses music from "The World Will Remember Me," in which he predicts his success in crime, while here he's beginning in earnest his crime career. Also, the end of Clyde's song "Bonnie" quotes the beginning of "How 'Bout a Dance?" (which is also awfully close to our Danger Triplets), because that's arguably the moment when Clyde falls in love with her, and that memory is inside him as he sings to her.

It's also interesting to note that the last third of Act II is entirely reprises, but they all take on slightly different meanings, colors, moods. For example, when Bonnie and Clyde sing "Picture Show" at the very end, it's lost the exuberance it had at the beginning. They're not those kids anymore, and those kids' dreams just don't cut it any more. It's still uptempo but there's something wrong with it now...

Likewise, the Preacher's "God's Arms Are Always Open" changes its meaning without changing its lyric, underlining a recurring theme of good and bad, light and dark, yin and yang – Blanche and Bonnie, Ted and Clyde, Emma and Bonnie, Henry and Clyde, "That's What You Call a Dream" and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad."

In Act I, the "God's Arms" lyric is about salvation. God's arms are open to Buck because Buck has been baptized and he has been "born again." In Act II, at the end of the show, the same song sung by the same character in a new context is now about God's arms being open to Buck 'cause he's dead. Subtextually, this reprise reminds us that religion hasn't helped any of these people, making a trio of songs about morality, along with "Made in America," that frame this fable.

Context is everything.

God's arms may be open, but we know Buck ain't goin' to heaven.

I'm sure I'll discover even more as we run the show. I always do. It's pretty great that we always get to work on material this rich and interesting. We New Liners are very lucky.

Long Live the Musical!