How American history inspired the 'Bonnie & Clyde' musical

The title duo were real-life criminals in Great Depression-era America, whose two years of robberies and other exploits are dramatised in this hit show.

Rebecca VanderKooi
Rebecca VanderKooi

True crime fascinated society long before the days of podcasts, documentaries, and television shows. During the height of the Great Depression, the infamous small-town Texas crime duo Bonnie Parker and Clyde Champion Barrow captured the nation's attention with their two-year crime spree, evading police and later the FBI.

The media ate up the story, producing headlines such as "Barrow Mows Down Two More Officers. Makes Getaway" and "Bonnie & Clyde Gang Robs Cedar Hill Bank." When police finally caught the couple, the New York Times front page read, "Barrow and Woman Are Slain by Police in Louisiana Trap."

Their story has since inspired numerous media adaptations, including the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The story came to the stage in the Tony Award-nominated 2011 musical Bonnie & Clyde. featuring a book by Ivan Menchell, lyrics by Don Black, and a blues and gospel score by Frank Wildhorn. Find out more about songs in Bonnie & Clyde.

The show premiered in the West End with two sold-out concerts at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 2022, with Broadway star Jeremy Jordan as Clyde. A full staging followed at the Arts Theatre, starring Frances Mayli McCann and Jordan Luke Gage. The duo reprises their roles at the Garrick Theatre from 4 March.

Although the Bonnie & Clyde musical is fictionalised and dramatised in parts, the show faithfully highlights many aspects of their real-life story, making it an impressive and engaging theatrical experience. Learn more about the real Bonnie and Clyde and how their history appears on stage.

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The Great Depression and Dust Bowl

Picture life in Texas during the 1930s. The nation suffered an economic depression. The “Dust Bowl” added further struggles. This phenomenon brought drought, wind, and blinding dust storms to a state reliant on farming. This bleak environment was perfect for two bored and desperate criminals — like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow — to launch a destructive campaign.

Clyde had just left prison on parole, but given the dire economic circumstances, finding work was virtually impossible. This partly led him and Bonnie to embark on their crime spree. Bonnie sought fame as an actress, poet, and singer, while Clyde yearned for financial stability. For the couple, the solution seemed straightforward: commit robberies and other crimes throughout the Dust Bowl region.

Furthermore, during the Great Depression, society viewed banks unfavourably because they were frequently foreclosing. As a result, the fact that the couple committed numerous bank robberies was slightly less outrageous.

This context adds a layer of complexity to the Bonnie and Clyde story, highlighting how the couple's actions reflected the desperation and anger many people felt during that time.

What crimes did Bonnie and Clyde commit?

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Champion Barrow’s crimes took them throughout Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. The musical is inspired by their lives and crimes, along with those of Clyde's brother Buck and his wife, Blanche. They teamed up with the title duo and are characters in the show. At one point, they had a fifth member in their group, gunman Raymond Hamilton, though he isn’t part of the musical.

Bonnie and Clyde met in West Dallas, Texas, in 1930 when Bonnie was married to a prisoner. Clyde was soon arrested and imprisoned; he escaped thanks to Bonnie smuggling him a gun, but he was later recaptured. He suffered abuse in prison and committed his first murder there — the song “Raise A Little Hell” introduces this event on stage.

When Clyde was paroled in 1932, the infamous couple began their life of crime, lasting about two years while officers throughout the Southwest, and even the FBI, worked to locate them. The police finally killed them in an ambush in Louisiana in January 1934.

This wasn't the first attempt to capture the couple. In November 1933, the Dallas sheriff set up a trap near Grand Prairie, Texas. Still, the couple escaped the gunfire and continued their life of crime for two more months before meeting their end.

Who were Bonnie and Clyde caught by?

On 23 May 1934, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were shot to death while driving a stolen car near Sailes, a small town on the border of Texas and Louisana. The pair were killed by Captain Frank Harmer and his team, who spent over three months tracking the pair down before the criminals met their end.

Historians believe Bonnie didn’t commit any murders; instead, she was simply an accomplice to Clyde. The case gripped the public, and after the couple died, a crowd gathered to gawk at their bullet-hole-littered vehicle.

How accurate is the Bonnie & Clyde musical to historical events?

Although the Bonnie & Clyde musical incorporates artistic license, it remains faithful to the real-life story of the young couple who pursued wealth and fame at all costs. In contrast to the popular Bonnie and Clyde movie, the musical stays more accurate to historical accounts.

Bonnie & Clyde songs including “The World Will Remember Us” and “Too Late to Turn Back Now” underscore their crimes on stage. At the end of their spree, the couple was suspected of committing 13 murders, multiple car thefts, various burglaries (including multiple bank robberies), and even a kidnapping.

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