The Depression-era saga of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow does not seem an obvious choice of subject matter for musical theater. After all, the pair were murderers and bank robbers. But Frank Wildhorn thinks today's audience can relate to their story.
"One of the interesting things about this play is how those two transcend their time, and young kids today can relate to them,'' said Wildhorn, composer of Bonnie & Clyde. "With the economy the way it is, and the banks foreclosing on houses, people are restless. I think this story is contemporary.''
Wildhorn's musical opens this week at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, following its premiere a year ago at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. That was about the same time another Wildhorn musical, Wonderland, was having its premiere at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
"Bonnie & Clyde is more intimate,'' Wildhorn said. "Wonderland, by its very nature, being so phantasmagorical, gives you the freedom to go to all of those crazy places. With this show, you're re-creating the Dust Bowl, so you have to be true to that time in America and why these two kids did what they did.''
Wonderland — from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass — opens on Broadway in April, following a two-week preview at the Straz in January. The Asolo has touted Bonnie & Clyde as a pre-Broadway production, but Wildhorn is not looking beyond Sarasota. "If it goes well, then, please God, we'll keep going with it,'' he said. "But it still is a work in progress.''
Wildhorn's shows tend to come in bunches. In 1999, he had three shows on Broadway: Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War.
In many ways, having Bonnie & Clyde at the Asolo is deja vu all over again for the prolific composer. In 1991, he staged another musical at the Sarasota venue, Svengali, a Gothic potboiler that starred his then-wife, Linda Eder, and was directed by Gregory Boyd, the director of Wonderland.
Svengali, though it never made it to Broadway or became a regional theater staple, drew well in Sarasota, and it was a technically innovative show, with striking scenic design by Jerome Sirlin and the kind of powerhouse pop-rock score that characterizes later Wildhorn shows.
"That was a time when you could mix something that was commercial and accessible for the audience and also be kind of experimental and take chances on new technologies for the theater,'' Wildhorn said. "A lot of the sampling technology we were using in Svengali showed up on Broadway 10 years later.''
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Wildhorn's Bonnie & Clyde started out about 10 years ago as a song cycle, with lyrics by Don Black, performed by Eder and Michael Lanning, who is now in the cast of the musical. At one point, Wildhorn and Black were working on expanding the cycle into a musical with David Newman, co-screenwriter of the movie Bonnie & Clyde. The project went on the shelf when Newman died in 2003.
The musical got back on track when Wildhorn sent song samples to director Jeff Calhoun. "The three songs Frank gave me were amazing,'' said Calhoun, whose credits include Deaf West's compelling production of Big River and the tour of 9 to 5. "You'd never know it was a Frank Wildhorn score.''
Calhoun enlisted Ivan Menchell to write the book of the musical. Menchell has mainly worked in TV and film, as a writer-producer for The Nanny and screenwriter of The Cemetery Club, adapted from his play about three Jewish widows.
Wittily, Menchell at first said he was the wrong writer for the musical. "I can write Jews on a shopping spree,'' he told Calhoun. "I can't write gentiles on a shooting spree.''
But Calhoun persisted, and Menchell threw himself into the project. "I must have read 15 books on Bonnie and Clyde,'' he said. "Everyone they aimed a gun at wrote a book, unless they were killed.''
Like others connected with the musical, Menchell took pains to distance himself from the 1967 Arthur Penn movie, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. "I did not watch the movie, though I saw it a long time ago,'' he said. "The movie is iconic, but we're interested in something that goes deeper into who Bonnie and Clyde were and how they relate to America today.''
Of course, the movie is what most people know about the murderous duo. "So much of the movie takes place with them in a car, on the open road, that kind of stuff,'' Wildhorn said. "It doesn't make any sense to try to replicate that on stage.''
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Bonnie & Clyde had a good reception at La Jolla, winning its share of local theater awards and getting decent reviews. "The diversity of Wildhorn's score . . . is undeniably impressive,'' wrote Charles McNulty, theater critic of the Los Angeles Times, who especially praised the performance of Laura Osnes as Bonnie.
"We got a lot of it right in La Jolla,'' said Calhoun, but there have still been extensive changes for the Sarasota production. Osnes, who played Nellie Forbush in the Broadway revival of South Pacific recently, continues with the show. Clyde is being played by Jeremy Jordan, who was Tony in the Broadway revival of West Side Story. He replaces Stark Sands, the original Clyde who is now in American Idiot on Broadway.
Wildhorn and Black wrote at least a half-dozen new songs for Bonnie & Clyde since La Jolla. One of them addresses a crucial aspect of Clyde's character that was missing in the first staging. "The poverty of the 1930s made Clyde a criminal, but it was his experience in prison that made him a killer,'' Black said.
"I'm Ready is a tour de force for Clyde when he's in jail,'' said Wildhorn about the song that was completed during rehearsals in Sarasota. "I think we're attacking some of the edgy qualities of the story. That time he spent in prison was unbelievable, the stuff that happened there. So that changed him. He was a different guy when he came out of prison. We wanted to write a song that could show that change. We did not have that in La Jolla, and we have it now.''
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Wildhorn's score is a mix of country, blues and pop. He compares it to the music in another show of his. "Like The Civil War, it's very Americana,'' he said. "It has that Southwest sound, the Texas two-step and rockabilly, a little dobro and steel guitar.''
The music of Bonnie & Clyde sounds very different from the pop-rock of Wonderland. Wildhorn said he didn't have any trouble going between the two musicals when both were being created last year.
"In each show, when I'm sitting down to write, my hands go to such different places on the piano,'' he said. "If you work on one thing all the time, and the same kind of harmonic changes, with the same kind of rhythms, I would get stale. Going between the different vocabularies, to me, is what keeps it fresh.''
Significantly, Bonnie & Clyde has no choreography, though Calhoun is a former dancer and has choreographed plenty of musicals. "There is violence on the stage, there is blood,'' he said. "The hardest thing was to capture the tone of the material, and we decided to eliminate choreography. Still, the whole thing is kind of balletic.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.