They Stole – Wouldn't You?

Maybe you could make this argument with some other shows too (Grease, Cry-Baby, Hair, Rocky Horror), but more so than in most, in Bonnie & Clyde, the times, the zeitgeist, is a character in the show. Not only do the writers spend a lot of time on this character, but it affects every other character in the show.

As I've said in other posts, I think the Big Picture point of the show is A broken country makes broken people with broken values. And if I'm right about that, the "broken country" part of that is the times – the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and Prohibition.

This wasn't true of the show's original incarnation at the LaJolla Playhouse. There the story was a love story, and though there was some attention to socio-political context, that wasn't the point. In the revised Bonnie & Clyde that played Broadway and now plays our stage, you couldn't tell this story without this context.

From the very beginning, the show's opening number has several short dialogue scenes interspersed throughout the song, and each of these scenes tells us something about these difficult times. Significantly, we're told in these scenes that Clyde is 12 and Bonnie is 10; we meet them at this age because this is where they will both remain, trapped forever at this age emotionally and socially.

When young Clyde asks why they have to move to West Dallas, his father answers, "I don't own the land. And it ain't worth it for them to have me work it no more." Wow. And then there's the less direct scene in which Clyde's mother is upset because he's shot their only chicken. For fun. At first the scene is a joke:
CUMIE: Clyde Barrow, look what you've done! I hope you know how to lay eggs.
YOUNG CLYDE: I hope you know how to fry chicken.

It is funny, but it also subtly reminds us that the chicken could have provided them with food (eggs) for some time, while Clyde's recklessness has cost them that. It also shows us there is no respect for authority or age here; this is a world turned upside-down. The Depression hovers over everything in the story, and that gets set up in this song and the scenes within it. We find out Bonnie has married some guy named Roy (who we never meet) because she thought that would get her out of her oppressive life (it doesn't). We find out Bonnie and her widowed mother have lost their home because her father died. There's no Social Security yet. We see Clyde and Buck arrested and imprisoned. And all this darkness is set up throughout the up-beat, period perkiness (and shallow immaturity) of the opening number, "Picture Show," juxtaposing Bonnie and Clyde's childish dreams against the harsh realities of living in the Dust Bowl.

The earlier version of the show set up Bonnie as a good girl who chooses the wrong guy. In this revised version, Bonnie is beat up by the times, though not as badly as Clyde is, and it's this dark social context that now propels her motivations and our story.

It's a grim life.

But not for our cluelessly upbeat heroes. We then get more social and political context is Clyde's "I Am" song, "This World Will Remember Me." He sings:
The men in this town
Live and die and are forgotten,
And it doesn't seem to scare ‘em;
I can't wait to get away...

Away from the drought,
And the homeless and the hungry,
Where they talk about foreclosures
Every hot and dusty day.

Once again, what a grim, horrible existence. No wonder Bonnie and Clyde want to bust out of there. Clyde paints this (arguably accurate) picture of the adult men in his orbit, whose lives mean literally nothing. They live, they die, and they're forgotten. Clyde will return to a similar theme in "What Was Good Enough for You."

But let's also pause to look at the craftsmanship in that lyric. There's the alliteration of seem to scare 'em; wait to get away; homeless and the hungry; and dusty day. There's not a lot of rhyme here because this is more an emotional statement than an intellectual one. Clyde's not really a deep thinker; this is just his visceral response to the world around him.

In the song "You're Goin' Back to Jail," we discover that all these women have husbands in jail – it's a pretty sobering situation if you think about it. This song establishes important socio-political context, though again, very subtly. Lots of men were jailed during the Depression, many of them for debts. Just as today the idiotic War on Drugs has incarcerated millions of black men, back in the 1930s the economic collapse threw so many of the working poor into jail.

But this song also delivers the theme of abstract, idealized morality bumping up against the harsh reality of 1930s America, the same theme explored in Blanche's and Bonnie's signature songs, "What You Call a Dream" and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad." The other point in this scene is that these women have found independence, which American women wouldn't taste again till World War II, and not again after that till the 1960s. These women are doing better without their men. But Blanche rebels against their proto-feminism – she really does want to be an old-fashioned housewife, and you can see it in her imagery in "What You Call a Dream."

The second act opens with the most overt characterization of the zeitgeist, "Made in America," in which the ensemble stands in for the American people. This is the song that complicates the story, that moves the simpler morality of Act I into more moral gray area. The Preacher starts the song with a straight-forward statement of morality, and the rest of the song ultimately makes that statement seem silly and shallow. Not only does this song characterize the times, but also American organized religion, which never did figure out how to grapple with the moral and social destruction of the Great Depression.

The number starts with a sermon from the Preacher.
I don't care how hard the hardship,
No one has the right to steal.
And you cannot buy your soul back;
God don't make that kind of deal.

Morality is black and white, good and evil, saved or damned. The Preacher is Bonnie & Clyde's answer to Inspector Javert. Neither the Preacher nor Javert would be caught dead within ten yards of nuance. The Preacher continues. He knows that religion is not serving these people, is not improving their lives, is not offering them solace, so all he can preach is some far-off, future salvation. Not now, not even soon, but someday, probably not till you're dead.
When your prayers all go unanswered,
And the dust is getting worse,
And you live near open sewers
With just pennies in your purse.

That is when the good Lord
will become your Savior;
He will lead you to the light.
We are all God's children,
His arms always open.
We must all do what is right!

But remember, you don't get that far-off, future salvation unless you "do what is right." And who gets to decide what's right? Javert? The scores of idiots who passed the Eighteenth Amendment, creating Prohibition and a national crime wave? The men who wrote the Christian Bible? The many men who interpreted the Christian Bible to suit their own (often financial) needs?

As a final reminder – and a sort of call-and-response (brainwashing?) – the Preacher repeats:
You may be in debt,
Wake up in a sweat,
But let's not forget
You were made in America!

America does what's right. America had made the world safe for democracy in the first World War. Americans are the Good Guys. But what does any of that mean to someone living in a tent who can't provide for for his children because there are no jobs?

When the Preacher sings "Let's not forget, you were made in America," he means you're strong and resilient, immigrant and pioneer stock, rugged individualists, and you can withstand these trials. But when the people in the breadline then repeat those four lines, now in the first person, the sentence takes on a darker color; when they sing, "Let's not forget we were made in America," it now means everything that's wrong with us was forged in the broken clusterfuck that is America right now. By the end of the song, the lyric will change slightly and they'll sing instead, "How can we forget we were made in America?" Wow.

Then there's a short scene with underscoring, with Clyde and Bonnie discussing Bonnie's first holdup. It's played mostly for laughs; Bonnie's nervous and Clyde's impatient. What a cute young couple, right? Now it's the people's turn:
You can't blame 'em, who could blame 'em?
Ain't their fault they turned to crime:
A bar of soap's a luxury;
Don't get much change from a dime.

You can't blame those kids for wantin'
To fill up their shopping bags.
City Hall is low on kindness,
But it don't run out of flags.

They both grew up hungry,
They were heading nowhere,
Thanks to good old USA.

Almost in response to the people's defense of Bonnie and Clyde, the Preacher steps back into the song before the people can finish their verse, steering them back toward the straight-and-narrow. He sings, with the people dutifully echoing behind him:
All who sin must answer,
And these two will answer;
They will face a Judgment Day.

It's an interesting meta-moment, because everyone in the audience already knows that Bonnie and Clyde will indeed face their Judgment Day. In fact, the show itself begins by reminding us that they will face their Judgment Day. The Preacher is right, but he's not the one the people are siding with. They are torn between understanding and judgment. They think they believe what the Preacher is preaching, but on the other hand...

As Buck says to his parents about Clyde in a short scene with underscoring, "Folks are callin' him a hero!" The people continue:
Sure they robbed some men.
And they will again.
Poor kids, ah, but then,
They were made in America.

They had holes in every shoe.
No dream can come true.
They stole - wouldn't you..?

This stanza finishes with an instrumental phrase. We don't hear the lyric and yet we do. We hear the melody and our minds fill in the now familiar words. They were made in America. Just like me. Now its your thought. These last seven lines lay it all in our lap, in a direct challenge to our own comfortable morality – what would we do in that situation? – and the instrumental phrase makes us fill in the blank. Yes, they had all this damage, and yes the world of the Depression and Prohibition in the middle of the Dust Bowl did it to them, or at least, did much of it to them. Can we really know that we would act differently in the same situation?

Aren't we too made in America?

So what does all this mean? What are we to take away from "Made in America"? Are Bonnie and Clyde's crimes okay then, because they've had shitty lives; or to paraphrase West Side Story, are Bonnie and Clyde depraved on account o' they're deprived? As those questions hang there, the song climaxes to a Big Finish...

...But as it gets to the final chord, we're left unsettled. Not only does it end on a dissonant, unresolved chord (an E♭m6+9, for our musician friends), but it hangs there a cappella until an ominous, Jaws-type beat appears in the bass, and the scene has changed and Clyde is robbing a general store, and the ensemble are now customers in that store. The show's writers have taken the phrase "made in America" and literally connected it to Clyde's robbery. This scene will end with Clyde's first shooting fatality, so there's no mistaking the point here – his criminality and his violence were "made in America."

There are even more examples of the times as a character in the story. When Clyde and Bonnie rob a bank, they find it's out of money because the bank has repossessed all the local farms and houses, but no one's left with any money so no one can buy them. But you can't steal farms. At least not easily. This is also the scene where a customer asks our heroes for an autograph and Bonnie happily complies (as they often did in real life).

All in one short scene here, we see the gloomy economic context, the pop culture that embraced the couple as folk heroes (at least, for a while), the big institutions that were failing all around us, and also the continued immaturity of the emotionally stunted Bonnie and Clyde, as they argue about whose name should go first. It's clear that these are still just cocky amateurs.

We find out later in the show about the Sheriff's budget problems, not having enough money to stake out the parents' homes and the necessity of "three deputies sharing two shotguns." The other problem law enforcement faced in the 30s was outdated technology when it came to cars, and no money to do anything about that. As Capt. Hamer explains in the show, "That's 'cause Clyde steals the fastest cars out there while you drive the heaviest cars built. Your police cars weren't built for speed, they were built for back roads. Which is why even if you caught him you couldn't catch him." Most sheriffs just didn't have the ability to do anything about that, so for much of the 30s, the gangsters had the cool cars and so they usually got away.

Many older musicals are at their core about community; maybe this is true because many of those shows were written by immigrants. In most classic musicals of the so-called Golden Age, the central conflict boils down to whether or not the Hero will assimilate into this established community or be removed from it. In Carousel, Pal Joey, and West Side Story, the outsider is removed because he or she can't (or won't) fit into the community. In The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, and Hello, Dolly!, the protagonist successfully becomes part of the community. South Pacific managed to do both: Nellie is assimilated into this exotic island community, but Lt. Cable can't overcome his prejudices and he is removed through death. The same is true of The King and I, in which the King is removed but Anna is assimilated. We also get both outcomes in Show Boat and Fiddler on the Roof.

In Bonnie & Clyde, our heroes can't assimilate so they must be removed. But here, that's not really the point. After all, that's how the show starts. No, in this case, that assimilation conflict is backstory, part of the given circumstances. Bonnie flirts with assimilation a couple times, but Clyde slaps and charms that our of her. Buck tries to choose assimilation, but Clyde won't let him.

After all, what is there to assimilate into? Misery and despair? As Bonnie says to Blanche, "Take a look around, Blanche. God's good Earth is dried up. It's dead." In other words, their choice is death or assimilation and death. That sucks.

This classic assimilation plot device has been refashioned for our times. Just as Hair short-circuited the Hero Myth story, by killing off the Hero just as he receives enlightenment; so too Bonnie & Clyde short-circuits the American myth of assimilation, by choosing a hopelessly broken community (Depression-era America) which our heroes must choose (or not) to join.

It brings back that line from "Made in America": "They stole – wouldn't you?"

No wonder this show didn't run longer on Broadway. It's way too cool and way too honest.

The more times I watch this show, the more I learn from it. As it should be. The adventure continues. Two more weeks!

Long Live the Musical!