It begins at the end, with a burst of gunfire and flashing lights, and then a grisly tableau: the blood-soaked, bullet-riddled bodies of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow collapsed in an open-roofed car. The scene is grim yet oddly alluring, the perfect expression of the legend of these two Texas outlaws, who famously met their deaths in a police ambush in 1934 in rural Louisiana. But soon the Broadway production Bonnie & Clyde, which opened last month at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, in Manhattan (after tryout runs at the La Jolla Playhouse, outside San Diego, and the Asolo Repertory Theatre, in Sarasota), flashes back fourteen years. From opposite sides of the stage, a young Bonnie (Kelsey Fowler) and Clyde (Talon Ackerman) launch into an upbeat power-pop number called “Picture Show,” in which these as-yet-unacquainted tweens sing about their desire for celebrity. She wants to be like Clara Bow. He fancies himself a modern Billy the Kid. The audience, for its part, can only look on in puzzlement: Has one of the most upsetting of all Texas sagas—a bruising story of desperation, feckless murder, and tabloid sensationalism—really been transformed into a sunshine-suffused show about outsized ambition and misunderstood youth, like Legally Blonde: The Musical, except with bullets?
When the legend becomes fact, the famous dictum states, print the legend—and few legends are as rich as the one of Bonnie and Clyde. She was a bored West Dallas waitress. He was a ne’er-do-well hoodlum. They led a gang of robbers, including his brother, Buck, on a two-year crime spree, breathlessly followed by the press. But when the legend becomes shopworn, and the movies have all been made (1937’s You Only Live Once, starring Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda, followed by 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) and remade (1992’s made-for-television Bonnie & Clyde: The True Story, featuring Dana Ashbrook and Tracey Needham), well, an enterprising producer has to figure out a way to freshen things up. The Broadway Bonnie & Clyde is hardly the only recent stage production that’s better known as a movie: adaptations of Sister Act, Ghost, and Catch Me If You Can have all been mounted in the past few years. It’s not even the only current show that sets a famous Texas drama to song; a musical based on Edna Ferber’s Giant premieres this month (see “Truly Epic”). These are large-scale, high-dollar efforts that may very likely tour the world. But even as Bonnie & Clyde illustrates the endurance of the Parker and Barrow mythology, this silly, soapy show also serves as a cautionary tale: some Texas legends really shouldn’t be messed with.
In this version of the story, the adult Bonnie (Laura Osnes) and Clyde (Jeremy Jordan) meet just after he and Buck (Claybourne Elder) have busted out of prison. (The show’s book is by Ivan Menchell. Frank Wildhorn and Don Black, the team behind 2004’s Dracula, the Musical, wrote the music and lyrics, respectively.) The creators might have followed the model of Stephen Sondheim, whose Sweeney Todd (1979) and Assassins (1990) boldly reckon with our collective fascination with sociopaths and deviants, or John Kander and Fred Ebb, whose Chicago (1975) uses a real-life twenties murder as the springboard for a diamond-sharp satire of our lust for fame. Instead, Bonnie & Clyde just plays it nice. Here a pair of murderers are reconfigured as decent but misguided kids, the one overly trusting, the other endearingly incorrigible, neither of whom can really be blamed for yearning for a better life. And whereas so much of the Bonnie and Clyde lore relates to the idea of “lovers on the run”—and the American fantasy that one can find transcendence on the open highway—the musical keeps its characters stuck in West Dallas for most of the first act. Buck goes back to jail. Clyde gets caught by the cops. Buck gets released for good behavior. Bonnie tries to bust Clyde out. As all this goes on, a fundamentally unnerving story becomes a strangely soothing one, a tale of young love triumphing against the forces that labor to keep them apart, à la Romeo and Juliet or even Twilight. Talk about missing the point.
Wildhorn’s score only sinks the show deeper. When I first heard about Bonnie & Clyde, I imagined a moody variation on the T Bone Burnett–produced sound track to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with its sometimes jaunty, sometimes elegiac mix of folk, roots, and bluegrass. Alas, a pop-country ditty titled “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail” is about as groundbreaking as the show gets. To be fair, there are a couple of other standouts, such as Bonnie’s climactic lament “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.” Most of the numbers, though, draw on obvious commercial influences, from the gospel-tinged “God’s Arms Are Always Open” to the country crossover title “You Love Who You Love.” They seem to have been written not for expressing the psyches of these purportedly tortured characters but for easy production and mass consumption. Sondheim, Kander, and Ebb created almost virulently catchy songs that wormed their way under the skin. The music in Bonnie & Clyde, by contrast, floats in one ear and out the other.
What makes all of this so disappointing is that the timing would seem to be ripe for a more penetrating look at the real Bonnie and Clyde. You Only Live Once was one of several “public enemy” movies of the thirties, gangster dramas that appealed to an impoverished audience’s frustration with playing by the rules. The Beatty-Dunaway Bonnie and Clyde used Depression-era despair to explore the alienation and antigovernment rage among young Americans in the late sixties. Those anxieties—a sense of economic defeat, a feeling of betrayal by the previous generation—are swirling once again, in Occupy movements and unemployment offices around the country. Meanwhile, the brand of tawdry fame that Bonnie and Clyde helped invent is now our dominant form of celebrity. Morally reprehensible behavior, whether it’s Nadya “Octomom” Suleman’s family planning or