There is an old French proverb that translates into “the more things change the more they stay the same.” The Bridges of Madison County, the romantic musical drama at the Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway, is proof of it once again. Its book by Pulitzer Prize playwright Marsha Norman is fashioned from the best selling American novel which in turn served as the basis of the hit movie of the same name.
Norman has probed more deeply into the novel than the film did by adding characters and subplots to those in the movie, but the general plot line also brings instantly to mind the 1937 MGM musical Maytime which was a huge success for Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. The musical movie retained only one song from the Broadway operetta Sigmund Romberg composed in 1910 but though this new musical is set in Winterset, Iowa in 1965, none of the changes mask the fact that both the film and the stage piece tell basically the same story, with all plot points kept in tact.
Ms. Norman has given the old story a new twist by fleshing out the characters of Francesca and Robert, the romantic leads. She is a Madison County Iowa farmer’s wife, imported from Italy where she was raised. Her husband Bud was serving in the American army during WWII and soon after Francesca’s Italian fiancé Paolo died in that war, she met and married the American who saved her from drowning in grief over the death of the unrequited love of her life.
We first meet her at the top of the show. which she opens with a rich and rewarding ode to the simple life, “To Build A Home”. Director Bartlett Sher has done a masterful job of staging this number, building it from Francesca’s solo to include her husband, her two teenaged children, her neighbors and friends so that when it’s done, we’ve been properly placed in the very simple and safe but unstimulating flat prairie farmland. Francesca, with an old world soul, has settled for a life of unrelenting flatness, one that’s turned out to be far less satisfying than the one she’d envisioned when she accepted Bud’s proposal. She loves him, she loves her children, but there are depths to her that have never, as of the opening moments in the show, been touched. She admits that these people in her new world are loyal and caring, but she is the transplanted flower that has never quite blossomed in the foreign soil.
Bud and the children are soon off for four days to a state fair, which is particularly meaningful to Carolyn, the teen age daughter, who has raised a steer from birth, and she hopes to come home with the blue ribbon for the best in show. Her brother Michael is along for the ride and whatever fun he can scoop up at a fair. Bud is very proud of his daughter’s accomplishment, and is happy to drive his kids to Des Moines and Francesca is left home alone to keep an eye on the farm.
If you’d seen the movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, chances are you’d have found it unlikely material on which to base a Broadway musical. But Jason Robert Brown, who’s had an uneven career trying to find his way as a theatre composer, has said he was more than happy to take it on because he’d been looking for material that “could really go deep emotionally, where people could sing all the way through their souls.” He and Norman expanded the story, “not just by adding townspeople from Winterset, but by delving into the memories of the lovers, finding a folksy pop sound for the hero and a semi-classical Italian flavor for the heroine.”
Minutes after being left alone, Francesca opens her kitchen door to greet a handsome stranger, Robert Kincaid, who is asking direction to the famous old bridges that he has been sent by National Geographic to photograph for an article to be devoted to them. In a completely natural progression, Ms. Norman’s book, and Mr. Brown’s score includes us in the development, in just 4 days, of an intense romantic involvement for these two. They resist as long as they can, but ultimately, as though guided by divine intervention, they consummate the relationship. The road to the final conclusion is a rough one, and Norman is playwright enough to manage it most satisfactorily. I won’t tell you how she does it, for that would be the spoiler of the year, but I can say it’s moving enough to have grown men (including me) on the verge of a complete meltdown at final curtain.
Much of the credit for this goes to Bartlett Sher, for his staging is fluid, imaginative, often illuminating in itself. And Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale could not be better playing two souls that were meant to merge. The physical attraction is patent and clear, but it’s the slow coming together of their souls that is really intriguing and it comes off in a dozen masterful ways — a touch here, a brief eye contact there, a shared attitude toward some of their past experiences, their slow and mutual understanding that they both have been merely coasting, that they feel sexual desire but also a fervent urge to explore a less transitory connection that neither of them has ever experienced until now.
Both have glorious voices, and kudos to Jon Weston for his sound design which only enhances, never distorts them. Brown’s music helps them a lot ; there is some slight danger of overkill when it comes to interior monologues, but I prefer a little too much over not enough. Norman’s skills as a writer keep the book from getting soggy, and a fine supporting cast, including Hunter Foster as the husband Bud, and Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin as neighbors keep things humming even when the lovers are offstage. The sum total is a small musical with a very big heart.
The Bridges of Madison County is onstage at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 w. 45th Street, NYC. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.