Interview: Composer Frank Wildhorn on the Evolution and Enduring Appeal of BONNIE & CLYDE

The cult musical opens tonight at the Garrick Theatre

By: Mar. 08, 2023
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Interview: Composer Frank Wildhorn on the Evolution and Enduring Appeal of BONNIE & CLYDE
Photo Credit: Frank Wildhorn

If you've been paying attention to the London theatre world at all the past year, then you've certainly heard of Bonnie & Clyde. The hit, which was only open for a short time on Broadway over a decade ago, returns to raise hell on the West End.

Starring Francis Mayli McCann as Bonnie Parker and Jordan Luke Gage as Clyde Barrow, the musical tells the story of the two young lovers who travelled across the United States in the 1920s and 30s, committing crimes until their grisly demise.

BroadwayWorld had the chance to sit down at the Garrick Theatre and talk with Frank Wildhorn, the composer of Bonnie & Clyde. We discussed the evolution of the show, audience reactions around the world, and why the show is so relevant today.

How did you first get involved in writing Bonnie & Clyde's music?

So I had a bunch of shows on Broadway already, and it was late 90s, early 2000s. I also ran a division of Atlantic Records, Atlantic Theater, which I created. My ex-wife, Linda Eder, was the big star of that label - I wrote Jekyll & Hyde for her. And we had an idea of doing a new project called The Romantics. It was just going to be song cycles based on famous couples. I was using it as a laboratory to birth new shows and also to work with writers I really loved without having to commit them to doing a whole show! Stephen Schwartz and I did "Anna Karenina", David Zippel I did "Anthony and Cleopatra", Maury Yeston and I did "Adam and Eve", and Don Black picked, from the list that I gave him, "Bonnie and Clyde". And we wrote three or four Bonnie and Clyde songs, we demoed the songs and everybody who heard them said, "Well, don't stop! They're so interesting and bigger than life that there's a show here!" And so we gathered the troops and here we are, talking.

What is that collaborative process like with writers in creating songs?

Well, it's always different. The music usually comes first with my shows, and there's forty of them around the world. I'm a lyricist. And in my pop world, I write the lyrics to most of my pop stuff. I never wanted to do that in the theatre because I don't want to spend that much time alone! [Laughs] So I just do the music, but most of my shows are my ideas and a lot of the places the songs come from are my ideas. But you work with Don and the book writer, Ivan Menchell, and you come up with situations that the songs could come out of and that's where it starts from.

Bonnie & Clyde started years before this version of it. David Newman, who wrote the movie with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, was doing the original book. And while we were working on it in the early 2000s, he passed away. And so we put the show away for a while, then it was picked up again later by my friend Jeff Calhoun, a Broadway director, who introduced me to Ivan. And that's how we got back into it. And it hasn't stopped since!

What has it been like seeing the show grow for so long?

It's amazing. It's like the little train that could, this particular show. We did play Broadway! Unfortunately, on Broadway, we had a group of producers where a couple of them came through with the financial backing that they said they were going to come through and some of them did not and left us in a tough position in a tough winter. And it didn't last, though it was nominated for Best Score, Laura Osnes was nominated for Best Actress, and Jeremy Jordan became a star because of Bonnie & Clyde! So there was some good things. But what happened was that MTI, which does the licensing of the shows, picked up the show and then licensed it as if it was a big giant Broadway hit. And that's from Australia to China, from Japan to Korea to Germany. So it has this wonderful licensing out there.

Interview: Composer Frank Wildhorn on the Evolution and Enduring Appeal of BONNIE & CLYDE
Jordan Luke Gage & Frances Mayli McCann
in rehearsal
Photo Credit: Darren Bell

And then this young producer from London named Dan Looney came over to America and he had a vision and an idea. He rolled the dice, and God bless him! We did it at The Arts Theatre last year and it caught fire, so that's why we're here talking today. There's something that's going on with this show, and I have a lot of experience in this, there's a wonderful chemistry between the London audiences and Bonnie & Clyde. Maybe it's their love for American culture and American outlaw culture? It's the music that they seem to have taken to. It's the performances of these kids who are starring in it that have become stars, Francis and Jordan.

The stars have to align when those kinds of things happen, and you can't predict it. You just kind of thank God for it, don't analyse it too much! It's like dating, it's like chemistry - You don't know. You put two people in a room, what's going to happen? You put an audience and a show in a room and sometimes nothing happens, you know? But this has been the opposite of that. We had our first preview the other night and it was like a rock concert, which was pretty cool.

What has it been like seeing the different audience reactions around the world?

Even on Broadway, the problem was never the audience. It was a combination of producer stuff on Broadway that just didn't come up enough to support the venture that it was. You have to have the deep pockets, especially in the winter months when it's tough times. The audiences were always great! I've seen the show in other countries and I can say their audiences have been great there. But this has been special. For whatever the reason is, it's been special. And I hope it keeps going.

Have you had any favourite moments with connecting with people over the show?

Just the passion! The overall passion that people that are hanging on and see it over and over and over again . . . I've been very fortunate in my career to write a lot of shows where there's an enormous amount of repeat business. In Jekyll & Hyde, they call them the "Jekkies". You can't be a Jekkie unless you've seen the show at least 40 times! In Scarlet Pimpernel, they call them "The League". I don't know what they call them yet here. Maybe "The Posse" or something like that.

But I see it happening again. Yeah, that's cool. It becomes a part of somebody's life, and it becomes important to them, and they want to be around, and that's neat!

How does it feel to know that you have helped create that?

It feels great! It's nothing I take for granted. I've been very lucky about that and hope it continues. Music has an enormous amount of power. Music heals, music takes us back to places in our lives, music does all of this. Whether people hear "This Is The Moment" from Jekyll & Hyde or they hear Whitney Houston's "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" that I wrote, they're powerful things in people's lives. And I love that I've been able to create that.

What do you hope audiences take away from Bonnie & Clyde?

Interview: Composer Frank Wildhorn on the Evolution and Enduring Appeal of BONNIE & CLYDE
Dom Hartley-Harris and company
in rehearsal
Photo Credit: Darren Bell

Well, first of all, a slice of life of America in that time. Bonnie and Clyde did some bad things, but they were desperate kids trying to get out of a tough situation. They made mistakes, no question about it. But I think the success of the show is that people are not rooting for them to fail or die at the end - they want them to live. And of course, that doesn't happen. Ivan has done such a wonderful job on the book of creating these two kids in a desperate time trying to get out and unfortunately, make mistakes, and the snowball gets bigger and bigger. But that's America today. There is so much desperation and whether people do it through alcohol or drugs, or going to crime, they're looking for ways out. And I think that's another reason why the show is doing very well - it's so relevant today. And it's relevant in this country, too.

And how would you describe Bonnie & Clyde in one word?

One word . . . how would you describe your life in one word? Chaos? Bonnie & Clyde in one word . . . I don't know! I have to think about that for more than five seconds. It's something about a dangerous journey that started with hope. There's a lot of words in there, I know that's more than one word!

You can hyphenate all that!

You can! But again, it's two kids trying to get out, sharing an adventure to get out, and then making some wrong turns that cost them their lives. They live by the gun, they die by the gun.

Bonnie & Clyde is running at the Garrick Theatre from 4 March.


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