Bonnie & Clyde Shoot Up America in the Great Depression





12-13-11

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Bonnie & Clyde
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
 236  W. 45th Street
New York, N.Y.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited the Newsmuseum in Washington, D.C.  We saw an exhibit on crime in America.  The exhibit had memorabilia from all of the major criminals in U.S. history, but the item everybody gathered around and photographed was Bonnie and Clyde’s death car. I was astounded that the pair was so famous. How did that happen?

There is a moment shortly into the second act of Bonnie & Clyde, the new musical about those 1930s outlaws, when Clyde Barrow holds up a bank.  He flies into an angry rant about how the banks had foreclosed on the homes of hundreds of thousands of families and taken their land away from them.  He screeches that he had to live in a tent under an overpass for three years and all of that was the bank’s fault.

It is at that moment, his gun drawn, fedora yanked down on his forehead, when Bonnie & Clyde crystallizes as both a musical and historical story.  Just how did criminals like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone and others became folk heroes in America during the Depression?  People should have hated them for their lives of crime.  Instead, they loved them.  The country considered bank robbers not only heroes, but stars, even asking for their autographs during robberies.  The nation’s newspapers treated them like modern-day crusaders for justice and splattered their pictures all over their front pages.  The pair reigned in an era when Hollywood glamorized gangsters in hit films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar.

Bonnie and Clyde were American Robin Hoods.

The smart new musical Bonnie & Clyde, with Jeremy Jordan as a very dapper Clyde and Laura Osnes as a young, love-struck Bonnie, which opened in New York last week, explains all of that.  It’s a good musical but an even better historical treasure chest.  The characters talk and sing about every aspect of the Great Depression, from high unemployment to bread lines to foreclosed homes to starving kids.  The future for America is bleak.  And so Clyde and his newfound girlfriend, the pugnacious Bonnie, start a career of robbing banks that makes them more famous than any movie star.

The musical is not at all like the award-winning 1967 movie Bonnie & Clyde starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.  Clyde is not impotent or bisexual, as the film suggests, and there are no gas station attendants who join their gang (nor do they kidnap a nebbish Gene Wilder).  Here, there is no photo with the pair and a captured police officer that, as the movie suggest, sparked the anger of the nation’s police at the pair.  There is also no betrayal by a gang member that leads to the duo’s massacre.

The musical starts out with Clyde as a child singing about how much he admired outlaw Billy the Kid and wanted to grow up to be just like him.  Bonnie, as a child, sings of how she wants to be a Hollywood movie star.  Nothing else will do for either.

The first act of the musical traces the early lives of the pair and how they fell for each other.  Act two covers their violent and blood soaked crime career in the Midwest.  Director Jeff Calhoun has done a fine job of keeping the story moving along at a fast clip while at the same time letting the actors playing Bonnie and Clyde develop their complicated characters.  Jordan is a good-looking and determined Clyde, full of tough guy magic in his performance.  Osnes is a superb Bonnie.  She is a gifted actress and fine singer and plays Bonnie as a lovable sociopath who sees tough guy gunslinger Clyde Barrow (he killed thirteen men on their crime spree) as the star to throw her lasso around.  Calhoun also gets good performances from Leslie Becker as young Clyde and Kelsey Fowler as young Bonnie, Clayborne Elder as Buck Barrow, Melissa Van Der Schyff as Blanche Barrow, and Joe Hart as Sheriff Schmid.

The well-staged musical does has some problems.  The music by Frank Wildhorn helps tell he story, especially when sung by Jordan, but it’s not memorable.  The end of the first act is sluggish.  Everybody in the audience knows the story of the machine-gun crossed lovers and snatches of “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” Parker’s lengthy poem that was reprinted in just about every newspaper in the country.  They don’t need to know so many details about how the pair met and fell in love.  A good twenty minutes could have been cut out of act one.  Clyde’s  brother, Buck, is a muddle.  You don’t know where he stands in relations to his wife or his brother.

Despite these small drawbacks, Bonnie & Clyde is rat-a-tat theatrical shootout and an historical winner.

The play takes place on a unique and wonderful set designed by Tobin Ost.  It has hundreds of slats that flip up and down as fences and serve as screens on which photos, diner menus and newspaper headlines from the ‘30s are shown (eerily, the Depression headlines look just like today’s).  The set has a forest, bedroom interiors and a beautifully designed prison.  Several real 1920s cars add to the play’s authenticity.

The musical tells a truer story of the shotgun-toting pair than the Warren Beatty film, but it has its historical omissions, too.  The musical has the Barrow gang as just Bonnie and Clyde and Buck and his wife Blanche.  The gang actually had two or three more men.  The famous photo from the film is not in the musical, nor is the fabled photo of Bonnie smoking a cigar.  In play and movie, the Barrows are seen as prolific bank robbers, but they actually held up more stores than banks.  The murderous personalities of Bonnie and Clyde are sugarcoated here, too.  In reality, they were butchers.  The Barrow gang killed nine police officers and four civilians, a gruesome toll, and were sought after in half a dozen states.

The romantic meeting of Bonnie and Clyde is wonderful in both movie and play, but it’s not the truth, either. They probably met at a friend’s house in Texas.  The portrayal of Bonnie in the play is far more accurate than it was in the movie.  Faye Dunaway played Bonnie as the cigar-smoking, gun-toting moll, but she was not.  Here, on stage, Osnes plays her as a woman who carries a gun and takes part in the numerous stickups, but still she does not kill anybody.

The play gets the legend right.  People venerated the couple no matter what state they shot their way through.  When the pair was gunned down in Louisiana, thousands of locals stood on long lines to see their bodies, laid out publicly.  It was farewell fit for a president or a movie star.

Bonnie and Clyde, just 24 when they died, were criminals that the bank-hating public and headline-starved media of the 1930s turned into folk heroes.  Americans hated the banks and saw bandits like the duo as heroes just because they stuck it to the banks and the other entrenched interests.  Historically, the Texas lovers went down with both guns blazing.

Only in America……………..

PRODUCTIONS:  Producers: Kathleen Raitt, Jerry Frankel, Jeffrey Richards, Barry Satchwell Smith, Michael A. Jenkins, others. Sets: Tobin Ost, Lighting: Michael Gilliam, Sound: John Shivers, Production Design: Aaron Rhyne.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


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