Theater archives

Bonnie and Clyde: Robbers, Killers, Power Ballads


I’ve thrown out most of my review of the new musical Bonnie & Clyde (Schoenfeld Theatre). The daily press has already delivered the bad news, leaving me to say only that I feel sorry for everyone involved—except Jeremy Jordan, who makes a strong impression playing Clyde Barrow, and who, if the show closes quickly, will probably go on to do some news-delivering himself in another upcoming Broadway production.

I suppose what puzzles me most is why anyone would produce Bonnie & Clyde. Historically, its main characters were neither very likeable nor very interesting people, and they don’t come off any better onstage, despite all the efforts of Jordan and his Bonnie, Laura Osnes. The show is quite loud: Apparently composer Frank Wildhorn thinks a good belted high note, suitably overamplified, is the cure for all theatrical ailments. I am used to closing my ears at fusillades of theatrical gunfire—always noisier than the real kind—but at Bonnie & Clyde, what drove me to it most often was the indication that yet another “power ballad” was reaching its climax. (The “power ballad” is a stupid contradiction in terms anyway; a ballad is the song of someone powerless.)

People who like Wildhorn’s music—the phrase suggests an aberration discussed on talk shows—have called this his best score. A competent musical hack, Wildhorn is able to grind out pastiche on cue. Set in the early ’30s, Bonnie & Clyde gets its relatively high status in their eyes from the few minutes of imitation ’30s pop and ’30s country that he supplies here and there for atmosphere. But they merely make his score less painful to sit through, not better.

And once you leave out the moments of power-ballad screech, non-painful is the evening’s central quality. Wildhorn’s colleagues, perhaps striving to meet the music on its own level, have all trudged through the work with the same plodding efficiency. Ivan Menchell’s book touches the bases you’d expect in a musical treatment of this story, over-romanticized and over-simplified, salting it with a few mild laughs and a few mild frissons, but with zero depth or surprise. Don Black’s lyrics, prosy and flat, make you think he was trying to avoid any striking phrases to keep the characters just plain folks. Jeff Calhoun’s direction, on a blandly tidy set by Tobin Ost, puts every moment on a par with every other. Only Aaron Rhyne’s projections add occasional splashes of visual excitement: In this musical, the news headlines offer more thrills than the songs.

During the early months of their crime spree, those headlines made Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow popular heroes, but that popularity took a rapid nosedive while they were still at large: Their constant willingness to shoot down anyone, law officer or civilian, who got in their way killed their folk-hero status. They weren’t Robin Hoods; they were just hoods, accompanied by a gaggle of riffraff to match. (The show omits all mention of their gang, except for Clyde’s brother Buck and his wife, Blanche, the latter apparently a reluctant recruit.)

Contrary to the legend, which lingered in areas far from their trail of crimes, they mostly robbed small grocery stores and gas stations, not banks; their victims were generally hard-working people struggling to get by. Hounded by the law from place to place, they lived uncomfortably as well as unglamorously.

Still, a long succession of works has imprinted the legend, in variously tidied-up forms: Edward Anderson’s novel, Thieves Like Us (1937) and its two film versions; Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1938); Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950); and, most notably, Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, with its unforgettable design, editing, and iconographic moments.

Following barrenly in the footsteps of these classier, or more stylishly tawdry, legend-makers, the musical has no magical touch to transmute this story full of sordid lead into mythic gold. The actors, as usual, throw themselves on the line for it; besides Jordan and Osnes, one should mention Claybourne Elder and Melissa Van Der Schyff, as Buck and Blanche. But the creators don’t even seem to have thought about the difficulties of building a show around two people who said, “We rob banks,” in an era when, far more frequently, banks seem to be robbing us.