Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were barely in their 20s when they started robbing and killing. They were on the run for three years before the law inevitably caught up with them. In 1934 they died dramatically in an ambush in Louisiana, fired on by a posse of police. Bonnie and Clyde’s car was riddled with bullets – more than 100 of them.
They died famous, their exploits widely publicised in newspapers eager for sensation. Jeff Guinn, author of Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, says they became “the first two modern icons created by the media in America”. Their fame was such that on hearing about the ambush, people rushed to the scene to get souvenirs. The car was towed into a small town with the bodies still inside and later the vehicle was put on display. It’s a tourist attraction to this day at a casino in Nevada.
The story was given even more oxygen when Arthur Penn made his 1967 film starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the doomed lovers.
The names passed into common usage to describe renegade behaviour and interest has never slackened. In 2019 the movie The Highwaymen, with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, told the story from the perspective of lawmen hunting Barrow and Parker and before that there was a musical, with music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Don Black and a book by Ivan Menchell.
The musical had a short run on Broadway in 2011 but, as with so much of Wildhorn’s output, has been popular elsewhere. A production opened on the West End in April this year and Sydney sees a new production at Hayes Theatre Co from 17 June. Tegan Wouters and Blake Appelqvist star as Bonnie and Clyde.
Speaking to Limelight from his home in Hawaii, Wildhorn says that Barrow and Parker were driven by impulses that are still very much evident in the US today. They wanted to be somebody. To be noticed. To be famous. Parker had dreams of going to Hollywood and being like Clara Bow.
“They were very much products of the time and situation they were born in, and America today is in the worst shape that I’ve ever known,” Wildhorn says. “You have a desperation, a sense of deprivation, even for younger people.”
Guinn told US radio network NPR in 2009 – the 75th anniversary of the duo’s death – that Parker and Barrow came from one of the worst slums in all of America. “They not only had nothing growing up, but it was clear to them they’d never have anything because this was an era in America where law-abiding poor people remain just that – poor.” They started their life of crime “at the exact moment so many Americans saw banks as the enemy, the government as the enemy and wanted any kind of entertainment to take their minds off their troubles”.
Parker and Barrow rebelled against authority. The media was hooked.
Many, including Wildhorn, would say that situation hasn’t changed. He thinks his musical Bonnie & Clyde is more relevant than ever.
The producer of the Sydney Bonnie & Clyde, Joshua Robson, calls it “a massive origin story”. The two were idolised. They may have been dangerous criminals but, says Robson, “this want and need to be close to them is a common theme we see today, especially in the Trump era. People get sucked into this mindset of this powerful person. It will forever be a theme and this is where it originated.”
“Their dangerous passion for each other was thrilling and the music matches that. There’s a music theatre-pop rock-folky vibe. It’s going to be so exciting in that intimate space [of the Hayes].”
Robson knows the space well, having previously produced Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights there. It went on to have a season at the Sydney Opera House. (He knows big spaces too. The Victorian College of the Arts Graduate is also a performer, most recently seen and highly acclaimed as the Phantom in Opera Australia’s Phantom of the Opera on Sydney Harbour.)
Bonnie & Clyde has come together under testing circumstances. It was to have been performed in 2020 and then in 2021. COVID-19 put paid to that. “The cast that we’ve got has been accumulated from three years of auditions since 2019. Some have joined as little as two weeks before rehearsals starts,” Robson tells Limelight.
The version that Joshua Robson Productions is staging is unique. Robson and the show’s director and choreographer Sam Hooper always kept in mind that the production needed to work for the specific people who had been cast. There would be diversity but it needed to be used creatively rather than just tick boxes.
Hooper was fortunate enough to be able to spend time in London with book writer Ivan Menchell when Bonnie & Clyde opened on the West End and Menchell agreed to some changes being made. There is no alteration to the text but some lines have been reassigned.
For instance, Robson and Hooper felt one character, a female investigator, was underwitten. “We’ve given her some more dialogue throughout the show that’s strengthened her character and her authority,” Robson says. “Ivan Menchell has been generous from the get-go. We gathered a lot of intel into the creative process which you don’t normally get, particularly at the independent level. Something like that was really helpful for the dramaturgy. Musically [the show is] contemporary and thrilling and exciting. It’s about marrying that with an ability to get some modernisation into the story.”
Wildhorn integrates a wide range of popular musical styles into the Bonnie & Clyde score to suit the place and time in which it’s set. There are flavours of rockabilly, blues and gospel as well as pop rock and conventional musical theatre. The ease comes from Wildhorn’s background as a musician in his native Florida in the 1970s at a time when live-music venues flourished.
“There were so many places to play up and down the coast. It was before technology and DJs took over. You were able to play at a Doobie Brothers or Eagles cover band on Monday and on Tuesday you’d play an Earth Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder thing. The music was incredibly eclectic.” Primarily a pianist, he played salsa, Cuban music and jazz and “my teachers for the most part were old African-American musicians who kind of took me under their wing”, he tells Limelight.
Bonnie & Clyde may not have set Broadway on fire but it has had quite a life elsewhere, being staged in Japan, Korea, Sweden, Poland, Belgium, Germany and now Australia, among other places.
“Why is it a hit?” Wildhorn asks rhetorically. He thinks it’s because it tells the story of two young people in desperate situations who have dreams of something better. “The young people who turn up every night root for Bonnie and Clyde. It touches a nerve.”
Bonnie & Clyde plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, Potts Point, Sydney from 17 June – 17 July.