May 8, 2012

OK – Now you can be the judge. I think Frank Wildhorn and Don Black wrote a great score for Bonnie & Clyde. Some of the most influential critics don’t. Listen and make up your own mind.

The critics savaged it when the show opened last December and it promptly closed. But the evidence is now available on the original Broadway cast recording.

The new label accurately named Broadway Records has issued a first-class CD of this, Frank Wildhorn’s latest score, the one that has just been nominated for a Tony Award for Best New Score for a Musical.

This, mind you, is the score for a show that closed so fast I didn’t have a chance to get to Broadway to see it live. On my next trip to New York, however, I made an appointment at the New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape at Lincoln Center to watch the archival video they made before the show folded up shop.

What I saw was a slick, entertaining show – well designed, very well performed and nicely directed. The score was full of highlights and moved the story along with style and energy, with wit when appropriate and emotion at just the right points.

So, exactly why was it that after only 33 previews before and 35 performances after its December 1, 2011 opening the show closed, becoming Frank Wildhorn’s second flop in as many years? (Bonnie & Clyde had just six more performances than his Wonderland of last season.)

The ultimate answer to that question for any show that closes shortly after opening is, of course, that theater goers weren’t buying enough tickets at a high enough price. In the nine weeks of its run, the box office take averaged just over 40% of the potential gross.

But why? 

Was it poor word of mouth, meaning that people who did see it didn’t have a good enough time and told their friends not to bother? Possibly. But what I saw on video was highly entertaining.

So perhaps it was the impact of the reviews. And some of those reviews included the most vitriolic and caustic put downs imaginable. What was worse, the harshest words came from some of the critics in the most important outlets. 

For example:

– New York Times’ critic Ben Brantley got in cute barbs like “Clyde, honey, t’ain’t nothing you can do to raise the pulse of something that’s as near to dead as the show you’re in.”

– The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout said it was “so enervatingly bland and insipid that you’ll leave the theater asking yourself why you ever liked musicals in the first place.”

Even when being positive, many of the critics used a faint praise phraseology that made their compliments sound like grudging acknowledgements:

– AM New York’s Matt Windman did say it was “the best musical to date composed by Frank Wildhorn” but aded that this is “not saying very much – it’s only barely a compliment.”

– Bloomberg News’ Jeremy Gerard said, as did some other critics, that “Bonnie & Clyde is by far his best score” but can’t resist tying it to the fact that it “has catchy songs … that’s high praise for Wildhorn whose predilection for generic-sounding pop tunes with a high dose of treacle hasn’t won him many fans among the critics.”

Well, he has a fan in this critic and this score adds to my admiration for the man’s output. I ask myself if there ever has been a composer who turned out such great scores to such scorching reviews? I can’t think of one.

Jekyll & Hyde was a gothic pop-opera classic. It ran over three years on Broadway only to be dismissed by “the powers that be.” He followed that with The Scarlet Pimpernel, a pop-operetta that was fabulously enjoyable in any of the three versions that played on Broadway without the compliments for the score it deserved. Then came his country-tinged song cycle The Civil War that thrilled audiences but confounded reviewers.

All three of these shows were playing at the same time on Broadway … the first time one American composer had a trifecta on the Great White Way since Stephen Schwartz accomplished that some 20 years before.

If you sit down for the nearly eight hours it would take to listen to all six his Broadway scores, you would get a tour of their quality, variety and vitality. What is more, you would hear casts delivering the material with an obvious appreciation for the quality of the songs they get to sing.

So – tell me – what is going on here?

One theory is that the scores are in shows that are distinctly inferior to the music he’s provided. There is some truth to that in some instances. Certainly, Dracula with its confusing book and distracting design wasn’t ready for prime time, and Wonderland was disappointing for those who had fallen in love with its infinitely superior concept recording.

But Jekyll was a thrill, Pimpernel a delight (especially in its first incarceration at the Minskoff) and The Civil War was a thumping good time for everyone in the audience at the Saint James except for the critics who just could not comprehend what it was that was being presented.

It is a blessing that Mr. Wildhorn has an inexhaustible ability to roll with the punches and keep composing great scores. If Broadway isn’t that interested in his work, he’ll take his wares overseas. He keeps turning out works like Rudolf: Affair Meyerling which premiered in Budapest, Carmen which is still playing as part of the rotating repertoire of its original venue in Prague, The Count of Monte Cristo (Switzerland) Never Say Goodbye (Japan) and Tears of Heaven (Korea).

Now, we get an original Broadway cast recording of Bonnie & Clyde that is a rousing good time. After last week’s column complaining of how the original Broadway cast album of Once did not have a synopsis or give any valid indication of what the show was actually like in the theater, here is an example of how a show’s recording should be done. You come away from both the visual and the aural experience feeling you know what Bonnie & Clyde was like during its brief tenancy in the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Exactly how Broadway Records managed to get the cast to sound as up-beat and enthusiastic as they do is a mystery to me considering that the recording session came just three days after closing night.

The Act I opener, “Picture Show” sets the depression-era, country back roads feel of the score and then “This World Will Remember Me” strikes the recurring theme for the show. Bonnie is Laura Osnes, who has been nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, delivers the lovely “How ‘Bout A Dance?” in the first act and the touching “Dyin’ An’t So Bad” in the second. Throughout the score, she joins with Jeremy Jordan’s Clyde for the rousing “Too Late To Turn Back Now” and the touching “What Was Good Enough For You.”

One of the most entertaining of the songs in the show is sung by Melissa van der Schyff as Clyde’s sister in law who tells her husband who just broke out of prison that he should turn himself in and complete his sentence, "You're Goin' Back To Jail."

The entire package benefits from the nicely detailed country-sounding orchestrations of John McDaniel for a band of eleven.

By the way, the production’s Clyde, Jeremy Jordan, has also been nominated for a Tony for a leading role in a musical, but it wasn’t for this musical. It was for Newsies. After Bonnie & Clyde closed, he re-joined the cast of Newsies where he had originated the lead role in its pre-Broadway engagement at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey.

Get this recording and judge for yourself how good a theater composer Frank Wildhorn really is. You just might want to indulge in copies of his other scores as well. We are fortunate that most of them have been recorded.

Bonnie & Clyde
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Broadway Records catalog BR – CD00112
Running time 60 minutes over 21 tracks
Booklet includes notes, synopsis, lyrics and dozens of photos

Other Frank Wildhorn scores:

Jekyll & Hyde – Atlantic Records ASIN: B000002JC2
The Scarlet Pimpernel – Atlantic Records ASIN: B000002JFB
The Civil War – Atlantic Records ASIN: B00000DP1V
Dracula – Global Vision Records ASIN: B000J2AEEQ
Wonderland – Sony Masterworks ASIN: B004RV6ZW0
Rudolf: Affair Meyerling – Hit Squad Records ASIN: B0030YV26O
Carmen – Disc available as an import from Sound of Music in Essen, Germany
The Count of Monte Cristo – Hit Squad Records ASIN: B001NW8E16
Never Say Goodbye – Disc available as an import from Sound of Music in Essen, Germany
Tears of Heaven – Global Vision Records ASIN: B005RY2U8Y

 Bonnie & Clyde
Original Broadway Cast Recording