Andrew Samonsky and Elizabeth Stanley in the national tour of The Bridges of Madison County. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
In 1992, everywhere you looked, people were reading Robert James Waller’s pulpy romance novel, The Bridges of Madison County. But Broadway composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown was not one of them.
“I hadn’t read the novel. I’d seen about 15 minutes of the movie,” he says, referring to the 1995 Hollywood release that starred Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood as the lonely Italian housewife and the National Geographic photographer who meet and launch a torrid four-day affair. “So I was coming at it just from the point of knowing it was a thing that sold a lot of copies and got a lot of older women very moist.”
Despite his initial skepticism about the material, Brown eventually collaborated with playwright Marsha Norman and director Bartlett Sher on a musical version of Bridges that eventually won him two Tony Awards for the show’s score and orchestrations. Although it only ran 100 performances on Broadway in 2014, the show managed to muster a national tour, which arrives at the Kravis Center on Tuesday, April 26.
“I’m thrilled about it,” says Brown of the musical’s unexpected life on tour. “It took a lot of work. It was a lot of producers doing their homework, really fighting because they wanted this show out on the road so much. There’s so few things that really go out anymore, especially not a lot of new shows. So I think it was the promoters and the producers who all got together and said, ‘We think this piece will find an audience, we think this piece deserves an audience.’ ”
Perhaps the performing arts centers of the country were always a more natural fit for Bridges. “I think it was always an easier sell to an outside-of-New-York audience anyway,” says Brown. “I think the title of the novel is a tricky thing and a sophisticated urban environment was a real challenge for it. I think anyone caught dead reading the novel still wouldn’t admit it in the first place.”
And perhaps there was also resistance from those who had read the book. “I think there was a real sense of read-that, seen-that, I don’t need to go see the show,” says Brown. “I think we assumed that what counteracted the schmaltz of the novel was that it was Marsha Norman and it’s Bart Sher and me. There’s an essential difference to what we’ve created, not only in tone but in content. I think we’re exploring what thematically is hiding in the pages of what is not a particularly well-written book. I don’t think any of us were fooling ourselves about that.
“We all trained ourselves to call the book ‘iconic,’ which it is. But I think outside of it being an iconic novel, I don’t think any of us though much of it. Still, there was a kernel of a story in there that we thought was worth exploring,” he says. “It became very clear very quickly that we were very connected to what was hiding in the novel about commitment and about family and about love. And what it means to be an artist. Maybe Waller meant them to be explicit and maybe he didn’t, but those were the things the piece ended up being about.”
Jason Robert Brown. (Photo by Maia Rosenfeld)
The musical began with a phone call from Waller to Norman, who had previously adapted such titles as The Secret Garden and The Color Purple for the stage. “So she was sort of the literary adaptation girl,” says Brown. And Marsha and I had wanted to work on something. I said I wanted to work on something that really needed singing. I wanted to write big singing.
“And so Marsha said, ‘I got the weirdest call about “The Bridges of Madison County.” Is that our opera?’” Warily, the two of them agreed to take a crack at bringing it to life onstage.
“Once Marsha and I knocked our way through the idea of it, I remember saying to myself, ‘All right, now I guess I’d better read it,’” laughs Brown. “And I remember sitting and reading it and taking my notes on it. There’s a lot of purple to get through. It is both a very short book and a heavily overwritten book, but that to me felt like exactly why it made sense as a musical. There was so much room in it to explore an emotional life, there was so much that music does well that I felt like when you sing it, it gets supported by all this musical life.”
His Bridges score is very lush and symphonic, unlike what he has written for Parade (which won Brown his first Tony in 1999), The Last Five Years, 13 or Honeymoon in Vegas, his most recent Broadway show, which opened last year and closed even faster than Bridges.
“I’d say the concept for the sound came to me quickly. I knew what it was supposed to sound like. Actually getting the notes out was an interesting process,” he says. “In this case, I wrote on my guitar. I don’t play the guitar, but I know when I go to the piano there are certain things that I do reflexively that have become part of my vocabulary.
“I just felt that these characters were not those urban, funky people that I write, so I pulled out a guitar and started playing around with tunings and different ways of voicing the instrument. So it’s a very guitar-heavy score and I think that texture and harmonic vocabulary was very different for me,” he said.
Brown has thought a great deal about why Bridges of Madison County had such a short run on Broadway, without reaching any answers. “There are 10,000 reasons why something doesn’t catch on. I’ve seen infinitely worse shows with infinitely worse performances that do very, very well and run forever. My job and Marsha’s job and Bart’s job was to say what we had to say in the best way we knew how to say it. And I felt like we all did that. There was never a day when I sat in the theater and thought, ‘Boy, we never wrote the show we said we were going to write.’ ”
The show opened at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival in the summer of 2013, where Brown and Norman worked on it methodically and confidently. “There was no panic. I think had our producers been a little more honest with us about where the sales were, we might have been panicking, but I don’t think we would have changed the show,” says Brown. “The show was what we wanted it to be.”
Asked if it was easy to sell the show to theaters around the nation, Brown says, “Some yes and some less so. I think the theaters around the country that only want to do ‘Book of Mormon’ are wondering how they’re going to sell this show. I think the presenters around the country that love theater and love what the musical theater can be, I think they signed on very quickly.
“And I think the Kravis is one of those places. I know that those audiences can be very vocal and very cranky. They know what they want. I think this was a very easy call for that audience.
“All of my shows have ended up with very healthy lives outside of New York,” he adds. “And none of them ended up with very healthy lives inside the city. So I no longer worry about that as much of a metric of anything. I just try and write the shows that I love and then they go out in the world and they do these amazing things in the most unexpected places.”
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tuesday, April 26, through Sunday, May 1. Tickets: From $27 up. Call: 561-832-7469.