Stage preview: Composer sets 'Bridges of Madison County' to music
March 6, 2016 12:00 AM
Andrew Samonsky portrays Robert and Elizabeth Stanley is Francesca in the national tour of "The Bridges of Madison County."
Jason Robert Brown wrote the music for the stage production of "The Bridges of Madison County."
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jason Robert Brown creates a musical vocabulary for love in many of his songs, from the relationship cycle of “The Last Five Years” to the tragic couple at the heart of “Parade” to the comedic antics of “Honeymoon in Vegas.”
The composer won two Tony Awards for perhaps his most epic musical study of love, “The Bridges of Madison County,” which arrives at the Benedum Center Tuesday.
The musical, adapted by librettist Marsha Norman and Mr. Brown from the best-selling novel by Robert James Waller, had one of those unhappy Broadway endings that is being rewritten on the road. It closed in New York in 2014 after five months and 100 performances — when it earned nine Drama Desk and four Tony nominations, with Mr. Brown winning for orchestrations and the lush, romantic score.
‘The Bridges of Madison Couny’
Where: PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $26-$72; trustarts.org or 412-456-4800.
Kelli O’Hara, a best actress nominee for “Bridges,” played Francesca, the role originated by Meryl Streep in the film co-starring Clint Eastwood as rugged photographer Robert Kincaid. Francesca, the restless war bride of an Iowa farmer, falls into a steamy affair with Kincaid while her family is away. Steven Pasquale joined Ms. O’Hara on Broadway as the couple to make audiences swoon— watch the YouTube video of them recording “One Second and a Million Miles” if you don’t believe.
That video also shows Mr. Brown cheerleading from the sound booth and, as further evidence of his strong feelings for the musical, he took the unusual step of conducting when the tour, starring Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky, opened in Los Angeles in December.
“I felt like the show didn’t necessarily get a fair shake in New York and I wanted to be able to put my own imprimatur on it, to say to an audience, ‘I’m totally behind this, I love this show so much, and I want you to believe in it with me,’” the composer said. “I would have done the whole tour if I could have, but I can’t be away from my family that much.”
Mr. Brown, 45, was on the phone from New York, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. He discussed his creative process and being a composer who doesn’t mind being the face of his work.
How do you approach a love story like this from a musical standpoint?
It’s not just that this is a love story but there’s something that is very dangerous about this particular romance and in it’s way, something tragic about it. And especially if you are reading the original novel, there’s something that’s mystical about the whole thing. I didn’t want to lean on that too much, but at the same time, that was key to the way the story functioned.
There is something about destiny and fate, and those are hard things to talk about if you are of a cynical frame of mind, which I probably am. But they were at the heart of this piece, so trying to talk about things that otherwise make me feel cynical was one of the challenges of writing it. … If you do just a layer of sincerity, it can be cheesy, it can be corny. So the sincerity is down to the bones of it, something that is truly, honestly felt, a titanically strong feeling — that was the challenge. What is something when it feels that strong and powerful, and how do I translate that into music?
You use a lot of strings — was that the solution?
Strings felt right for these two people because of the worlds they come from. With strings, you have very long phrases and you can hold onto things for a long time, and there’s also a very wide range of pitch. … The strings turned out to be very important. The guitar was very important, it can tell you something about softness, it can tell you something about delicacy, but it can also be very rhythmic, very strong. All of those things were a key to the sound of this particular piece.
Were you in close contact with book writer Marsha Norman when you were writing these songs?
When I am actually writing a song I can’t have anyone around me. I can’t have anyone within earshot. Those are deeply revealing and sort of very vulnerable moments for me, so even when I think my daughters are in the house, I have trouble writing.
Before we wrote a word, Marsha came to L.A., where I was living back then, and we sat at a table and determined what the shape of the show was going to be and who the characters needed to be and how many there needed to be. ... It was a very intense back and forth between the two of us. She would send me a scene, and I would make adjustments — we were really negotiating our way to the best possible show we both knew how to write.
The Broadway cast was pretty incredible. Did you write specifically for them?
The only person we had was Kelli, and she was our reason for writing the show. Everyone else came in over the course of the three years we wrote it. … They really imprinted themselves on the show. But what’s been most thrilling on the tour, which I conducted for the first two months, to hear this material that we had built around one group of actors, then to hear this other group take such incredible ownership of it, they are a tremendous company. That was thrilling, and surprising, to be honest. We thought anyone we could get would be just some pale imitation of Kelli and Steven, and instead, Elizabeth and Andrew are so dynamic and specific to themselves. They fully inhabit the show, and yet they inhabit it in a way that is entirely different from what Kelli and Steven did. It’s beautiful to watch.
This seems like a show that would play well with audiences outside New York. Is that the case?
I think people respond to shows in pretty much the same way, and that may be because a New York audience is so dependent on tourist traffic. When I saw the show in Des Moines, Iowa, and in Los Angeles, those audiences responded exactly the same way as in New York, and they embraced the show the same way that they did.
Some shows are laugh riots from the very beginning and some shows are spectaculars with a lot of special effects and a lot of flashy dancing, and ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ is a very still piece, and it asks of its audience to sign on to be part of the community of the show.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.
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