Today I write a love letter to Bonnie & Clyde.
I don't generally use this space to for theatrical reviews; I leave that Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld's experienced critic. Reviews are meant to guide readers toward the shows they must see. But Bonnie & Clyde closed this week, which means my thoughts won't – can't – influence anyone in regard to buying tickets. So let's consider this not a review, but a love letter to a show I absolutely adore… which I feel was never given a chance.
Not surprisingly, I've been sad before when a closing notice was posted. I especially mourned the losses of Rent, Spring Awakening, and Hair; I sobbed like a baby at the closing night performance of [title of show]. The main difference here is that each of the first three was a critical hit that had simply run its course; [title of show] was a serious underdog that, simply by opening on Broadway, achieved a major coup.
Bonnie & Clyde, on the other hand, was supposed to be a blockbuster. Instead, this week the show ended its run like a bullet stuck in the chamber of a gun: capable of killing, but without the power and support to propel it.
Did you read the reviews of Bonnie & Clyde? I did. Most were lukewarm, and focused only partly on the show itself. In my opinion, too much attention was paid to the past of B&C's composer, Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Civil War, and the recent blink-and-you-missed-it Broadway flop called Wonderland).
I seriously wonder, if Frank Wildhorn had developed Bonnie & Clyde using someone else's name, if it would have been better received. The only excuse I can see for such an early demise (and the mediocre reviews that preceded it) is a grudge against the show's creator.
Why a grudge? My theory is that it dates back to Wildhorn's introduction of Jekyll in 1995. An early plan to bring the show to Broadway crumbled, and instead of throwing in the towel or abandoning it for another project, he launched a Broadway-scale national tour like the ones that traditionally follow a successful New York run. The tour was hugely successful, running for more than two years before triumphantly opening on Broadway. The critics in NYC panned the show; it still managed to run over1500 performances: a feat I suspect can be credited to a passionate following, one of the first fan-bases to gather and mobilize online. I have always wondered whether Broadway critics, being traditionalists, were bitter that Wildhorn defied their influence by finding success with Jekyll outside of New York City, then having the nerve to return. None of his subsequent shows has ever been a critical success.
Of course, one could argue that the shows that came after Jekyll didn't have the quality to earn positive reviews on their own merit. I can't speak to Pimpernel or Wonderland, but I can say that Bonnie & Clyde stood strong, for its significantly cut-short lifetime, against the other musicals that have debuted in the 2011-2012 season.
Let me say it clearly: Bonnie & Clyde was GREAT.
It takes theatrical magic to get audiences excited about a story when they already know the ending; it's also a true achievement when a director & cast can take sociopaths and make them relatable. Both feats were accomplished in spades in Bonnie & Clyde.
Because the characters are introduced first as "innocent" children, audiences can relate to the motivations that drive them (she wants to be a movie star, he an outlaw "like Billy the Kid"). Both desire fame & fortune, and a way out of their dead-end Texas town; who among us has never had a similar dream? Of course, most of us don't turn to armed robbery and murder to get famous, but that's beside the point. By the time the crime-spree starts, we've already fallen in love with both characters. Plus, we can allow ourselves to cheer them on, because we know they'll eventually get what they deserve.
Bonnie & Clyde boasts the heart-racing narrative of a dodge-and-chase cops-and-robbers classic. It's also a dreamily romantic tale, enhanced by the fact that the heroes' love for each other defies every governmental and moral law.
And the music! I'll say it: Frank Wildhorn's music is fantastic. Each performance treats us to sweet Bonnie ballads, Clyde's dark country crooning, plus stand-out numbers from the supporting cast and ensemble. We all know that catchy tunes are a stalwort of Broadway successes, and this show has 'em. (My favorites: "Raise a Little Hell," "That's What You Call a Dream," and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad"). I saw Bonnie & Clyde five times in its short run, and it only took once before I found myself humming the score everywhere from Macy's to Central Park. Thankfully, the music will live on; a cast album will be recorded and released in early 2012.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the historical figures upon which this musical is based, were criminals who arguably deserved their early deaths. The same cannot be said for Bonnie & Clyde The Musical. The show had the potential to be a dark hit. Instead, it went quietly this week after barely having time to bloom.
During previews, I was sure that I'd be making regular trips to the Schoenfeld to revisit the unlikely heroes Clyde and Bonnie. Instead, I'll have to settle for celebrating the show's short life while blasting the upcoming cast album. And who knows? Maybe in some form, some day, Frank Wildhorn will stage a resurrection.