Don Black Is Back on Broadway
The multi-award winning lyricist discusses working on the new musical Bonnie & Clyde.
"Cy Coleman once told me, 'If you want to stay sane in this business, you should write three musicals at the same time, because there's always a glimmer with one," says Black. "I've taken his advice. I'm always developing two or three musicals and looking for the glimmer."
As it happens, the show's composer, Frank Wildhorn, has long been a fan of Black's songs -- even before the two worked together on Dracula. "He contacted me 10 years ago, when he had a deal with a record label. He sent a list of couples he wanted to do a romantic series about, including Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise, Taylor and Burton. It was ridiculous! On it were Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. I said, 'How about Bonnie and Clyde?' Frank said, 'Let's do it.' We wrote a couple of songs, and they're still in the show!"
Being that Black is both Jewish and the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, one might not think the Southern vernacular needed to musicalize the story of Bonnie and Clyde would be a good fit. But he begs to differ. "I've loved small-town America since my first visit to the U.S.," he notes. "Ever since childhood, I was fascinated with anything to do with diners, liquor stores, ferns and wind chimes on porches and the eras of American music."
Black and Wildhorn actually wrote the score on different continents. "Having had Ivan Menchell's book, sometimes moments jump out that seem right for a song. And there were a few times I'd shoot off a title to Frank, but 98 percent of the time, he sent the music first," says Black. "I never write in the same room as the composer. I get my inspiration walking around parks and staring out windows. I end up at a desk, but out and about is always best."
Working with Wildhorn again was an absolute delight, says Black. "His enthusiasm rubs off on you, and he has a delightful sense of humor. Frank's like a kid in Toys 'R' Us, always getting into mischief. We love great songs and our heroes are the same. In Bonnie & Clyde, his score is certainly of the time, the 1930s. I think it's not only Frank's best score in years, but also something he hasn't done before. It's amazing how he keeps reinventing himself. I hope the show's a success for Frank; then maybe the critics will take him more seriously."
There was one little "annoying" habit of Wildhorn's, though, that Black had to adjust to. "He would end a tune and at the end of the tape, he'd say, 'Don, that's it. Have fun.' What followed were many sleepless nights trying to have fun!" says Black. "A lyric writer doesn't have that kind of fun; every song in a musical has to push the narrative. You not only have to tell a story that will propel the plot, but you have to do it in a concise eloquence."
Black also gives credits for the show's success to Menchell. In this version, the show is essentially a tragic love story between two young people. "It's vital to capture who they really are, and Ivan's done that," says Black." He also has a sense of humor that translates to the page, which isn't always an easy task. Everything in his book is anchored in fact, which helped him humanize them."