“There is something about this story that I believe moves people,” says Stacey Mindich, a lead producer of the new Broadway musical The Bridges of Madison County. “And, as a musical, it has the power to move in a way unlike the previous versions.”
The story, of course, is the brief but passionate love affair between a farmer’s wife and a traveling photographer in 1960s Iowa, first introduced in the 1992 bestseller by Robert James Waller and popularized three years later in the movie version with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. The potent new element in the stage version, in which the ardent lovers are played by Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, is the rich score, the producer affirms. “The music takes you to new heights. You can get lost in the ecstasy of the love story and the great music.”
Broadway Direct recently chatted with composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown, book writer Marsha Norman, and director Bartlett Sher about the romantic musical. Over lunch at Becco, the famed Italian restaurant in the Theater District, the three collaborators — who have among them a stash of Tony and Drama Desk Awards, not mention a Pulitzer Prize — describe how working together on this project represents what they feel most passionately about the theater.
Norman reports that she was invited to adapt the story into a musical some four and a half years ago. “I am best when I am working on what I call ‘trapped girl,’” says the playwright, who received the Pulitzer for ‘Night, Mother, a searing 1983 drama about a woman who has decided to commit suicide. She subsequently collaborated on the musical theater adaptations of The Secret Garden and The Color Purple. Francesca Johnson, the Italian-born housewife in Bridges, is “trapped girl writ large,” says Norman. “You can almost feel the ’60s arriving when she says, ‘I’m not just here to cook and clean,’ a statement that was beginning to echo around the country at that time,” the writer explains. “That doesn’t mean that the husband is rotten, or that she should break out of the trap. You realize that the door is open and you walk out a little bit; you decide whether or not to go back in. I think Francesca understands that she can explore her abilities, her thoughts, her feelings, and her strengths outside the traditional role.”
Norman says she and composer Brown had been on the lookout for a big-scale project to work on together. “Jason said he wanted to do a kind of La Traviata with big music. When I decided to do Bridges, I called him and said, ‘Here’s your Traviata,’” she reports. Says Brown, explaining the reference to the great romantic opera by Verdi: “I like to traffic in music that has a lot of waves to it — music that goes in a lot of directions emotionally and stylistically. I had just come off from writing 13, which was a lot of fun, but was constrained to the world of those 13-year-olds. I had also been working on [Broadway bound] Honeymoon in Vegas, which also, because of the demands of a comedy, was very constrained in its own way. The plots of La Traviata, La Boheme, or any of those operas, had to be very basic and simple because you need to leave a lot of room for these people to sing. I knew immediately there was going to be a lot of breadth in this story, a lot of places for people to express things musically.”
“Whenever I can I do my own orchestrations because, for me, the sound world is very much a part of how I write,” Brown continues. “In this case, there is the world of two guitars and a piano that lives in the center of the show and then there is the universe — and that’s where the strings come in. Marsha and I always thought of this show as about these two people isolated in this enormous place. That’s what you feel like in the middle of Iowa — you are isolated with a million miles of nothing all around you. The strings — the cosmos — embrace you and envelop you or they can keep you out and make you feel very lonely. The way it all fits into this theatre is that everything feels like it is happening right in front of you. All of the instruments in this show are real instruments being played by real people and all of the singing is done by people you can see. There are these 10 people playing their hearts out and there are these 15 people on stage singing their lungs out.”
Norman and Brown’s mutual agent suggested the golden-voiced O’Hara for the role Francesca, who has several soaring arias in the lush Bridges score. When the star came on board, she called on Sher, who had directed her Tony Award–nominated performances in both The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific. “When Kelli wants to do something, I have to take it seriously,” says Sher. Describing O’Hara’s character’s journey in the story, he remarks, “I think we all operate from the self we build and the choices we make, and then events can happen to fracture that self and make it open up again. Watching Kelli in the show — I like how thirsty Francesca is all the time, how she is suddenly realizing what it is like to experience the world that she has sort of pushed away and which has now reopened.”
“When you see the title The Bridges of Madison County, I think your worst fear is that it is some Hallmark card,” says Brown. “Marriage is a complicated thing. Bart’s married, I’m married, and Marsha has been married: There is no way we can work on this show and not say that. It entails making choices daily, on an hourly, minute-by-minute basis. The question in the show is about how you are going to handle your marriage and the life that you have chosen to make. Francesca went down a hard road and I think this is a place where she has to ask herself, ‘Is this what I really meant to do?’”
“As a writer I delight in taking left turns, and that is one of the joys of working with Marsha and Bart both,” Brown continues. “What is underneath Francesca’s skin is so important to how she makes the choices that she makes. So we felt it was utterly essential for the audience know what her life was like in Naples and understand what her life is like in Iowa before Robert Kincaid [the photographer] shows up. Feeling the way these characters breathe: That is what moved us to write this in the first place.”
Expanding on the novel, the musical version of Bridges encompasses members of Francesca’s family, as well as her neighbors in the small town of Winterset, Iowa. “It has to be this big story about a community and what happens to a woman in that community,” says Norman. “The neighbors are there not only because we need them storytelling-wise; I’m very interested in how the observers of people in love are really under pressure about to how to respond. I think that one of the things that Bart has done with great success is to create a world on the stage that feels to me like the world that we live in.”
“We use the space to have all the layers present at the same time in a very matter-of-fact way,” Sher explains. “The community is present, but it is never malevolent. I think what I find most quietly subversive is the way the community responds so atypically to Francesca,” he adds.
“I like that term: quietly subversive,” Brown interjects. “Things happen very gradually and maybe without them realizing they are happening at times. I think that was key to the way we approached the piece.” Norman picks up the theme: “I think too that subversion is a recognition of the multiple loves that we all have and how we have to balance them all. For most of us, it is not having Robert Kincaid in the driveway, but as Jason says in the final song, you can’t put one above the other, you have to simply extend your arms and love all of them and then work out the details.”
Francesca and Robert’s illicit affair, in a very modern way, may actually have helped to strengthen Francesca’s marriage, but it has lasting consequences for both of them. “Francesca has more at stake,” says Norman. “She has the family and all of the problems to deal with in the community, whereas Robert can just leave. On the other hand, I think what Jason has written and what Bart has done in the staging is make it very clear that Robert is the one who suffers the most in the end. We see him grieve for the loss of this great love.”
Before we end our chat, we talk for a moment about Michael Yeargan’s spare but evocative set design for the musical. “The bridge was the hardest part,” says Sher. “It should be a covered bridge, but what would that look like on the stage? Where would you actually stand in it? So we came up with this idea, which literally came from the movie Dogville [directed by Lars Von Trier]. It is an expressive image — very much consistent with the rest of the show. We suggest the bridge and you have to paint it: It is an interaction between the audience and us over the bridge.” That rectangular scenic element also becomes a metaphorical statement for the production, says Norman: “This is a bridge that Francesca has to cross in order to get to the next part of her life.”