I hope my reviews of Dracula and Wonderland haven’t given my readers the impression that I hate Frank Wildhorn. Apart from those two shows, I’m actually rather a fan of his. I’m aware of all his artistic flaws…his derivative sound, the lack of variety in his scores, his complete lack of anything resembling subtlety. But his gift for writing memorable tunes and his boundless energy and vitality means that, however much the highbrow Ethan Morddens of the world may sneer at him, his scores are amazingly fun to listen to…and in the end, does anything else matter? Certainly, I have listened to his Jekyll and Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel scores so many times that if they had been on records, I would have worn the grooves off, and I consider The Civil War to be one of the best scores of the Nineties.
For the record, I get why this show failed. It buys completely into the popular romantic interpretation of the characters, portraying them as highly sympathetic tragic antiheroes. And while probably nobody wanted to see a musical portraying Bonnie and Clyde as the cold-blooded sociopaths they probably were in real life, there is a middle ground, like the one seen in the famous film version that this musical clearly was at least indirectly based on. In the film, the tone was gritty, the violence was real, and the characters, while sympathetic, were clearly shown as ruthless, murderous professional criminals.
Here, they’re just two innocent kids who grew up in poverty and never wanted to do more than steal enough cash to get out of it, only to be trapped in their new profession after they commit their first murder almost by accident. The show was clearly influenced by Assassins, especially the number that attempts to justify the characters’ actions, “Made In America”. But while Assassins may have sympathized with its subjects, it understood and acknowledged the consequences of their actions; this show tries to whitewash the pair’s crimes in order to make them easier to accept as the protagonists of a romantic musical.
As Clyde, the brilliant Jeremy Jordan (who after this show closed turned around and got the lead in Newsies) does provide an appropriately menacing air of evil charisma, but while Laura Osnes gives a passionate performance and sings beautifully, she’s still far too sweet and innocent to play the quintessential ‘Gun Moll’ of all time.
Still, unlike Wildhorn’s first two shows of the new millennium, this show at least features a highly enjoyable score, the best he has written since his Nineties heyday. It features the same irresistible tunes and galvanizing energy his Nineties scores were known for, and while Don Black’s lyrics aren’t the equal of the ones he wrote for Tell Me On A Sunday or Sunset Boulevard, they’re a damn sight better than his work on Dracula. Lovely ballads like “How ‘Bout A Dance?”, “You Love Who You Love”, and the heartwrenching “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad” share the spotlight with scorching rockabilly tunes like “This World Will Remember Me”, “It’s Too Late To Turn Back Now”, and the blazing “Raise A Little Hell”.
It’s pretty apparent that Wildhorn has worn out his welcome on Broadway—after all, the only one of his shows to qualify as a hit by any standard was his first, Jekyll and Hyde, and even it didn’t turn a profit. And after the twin disasters of Dracula and Wonderland and a number of shows of questionable quality that closed on the road, the hope of him ever having another successful show seems pretty slim at this point. But to those who have a soft spot for him, this short-lived show’s sizzling cast album provides the best taste of his style we’ve heard in years, and if you enjoyed the works of his Nineties heyday, I’d recommend checking it out.