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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
For a director, the canvas of a new musical can be intimidatingly blank: There might be songs and scenes, but they need a world to exist in, a physical space to bring them to life. As Jeff Calhoun says, "A show has to look like something. Ideas are hard to come by when you're working on new material, so when you do get something that you love, you have to hang onto it and go from there."
And he should know: Calhoun is directing the new Broadway musical Bonnie & Clyde, which tells the story of the infamous American outlaws who became famous for their Depression-era crimes and their passionate love affair.
He also directed the show's 2009 premiere at California's La Jolla Playhouse, where he quickly seized on a concept for the set. "I said, 'I would like the topography of the set to be as perilous as these times they're living in,'" he recalls. "Nothing is easy. The platforms are at all different levels. You have to walk up to one and cross over to another and step over a gulley to another. I wanted it to be precarious."
That idea became part of the production's DNA. There are plenty of light-hearted moments in Ivan Menchell's book, and the score, by Don Black and Frank Wildhorn, wriggles with the energy of American roots music, but we never forget that Bonnie and Clyde are desperate people in desperate times.
Along with platforms, Tobin Ost's set uses three movable panels to suggest the harsh boundaries of the Depression. When a character is baptized, for instance, there's a panel between the preacher and his flock, suggesting the distance between "the power" and "the people." When Bonnie and Clyde drive the car they famously die in, they keep insisting they're free, but the panels on either side trap them in a narrow world.
And here's another fact about directing new musicals: Sometimes, the best ideas are accidental.
Calhoun may have known he wanted a set that suggested danger, but he wasn't necessarily thinking about panels. "We were designing the set [for the La Jolla production] before the script was finished, so we had to have something that was flexible," he says. Panels, then, became a practical solution with artistic benefits.
By the time the show got to Broadway, the vision was in place, and Calhoun was able to refine and even defend it. In the first scene, we see the bloody bodies of Bonnie and Clyde in their car, and we see child actors playing the criminals before they were famous. As the kids sing about wanting to escape their hardscrabble lives, we're forced to see the outcome of their dreams.
"Our producers, up until two weeks before rehearsals were to start, insisted on not having the children [in the show] to save money," Calhoun says. "The writers and I spent six weeks spinning our wheels and saying, 'What are we going to do?' And we did try [to come up with something else] but I don't know any other way to open the show. You can't just arbitrarily throw out a good idea."
The projections, designed by Aaron Rhyne, have also proven valuable. They're used for historical emphasis, splashing mug shots, crime scene photos, and newspaper headlines across the walls. As Bonnie and Clyde go on their robbery-murder spree, we see their real victims' faces, and when Bonnie tries on a new outfit, we see the real Bonnie Parker in similar clothes.
"It reminds people we're not just making this stuff up," Calhoun says.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor