Theater Pizzazz feature: The Bridges of Madison County
By Peter Haas
Start with a widely known romance that’s already been a novel and a movie – and has now been adapted for musical theater. How do you bring it to the stage when everyone already knows how it will end? And how do you do it in such a way that the audience – and the performers – enjoy its unfolding? How do the actors and audience collaborate to make it work?
These were among behind-the-scenes topics discussed by Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, the stars, and Bartlett Sher, the director, of the upcoming Broadway adaptation of “The Bridges of Madison County.” The three, with host Adam Guettel, came to the 92nd Street Y’s Buttenweiser Hall in early January, on the day before the show’s first theater run-throughs, to talk about the production’s on-going development.
The show – based on Robert James Waller’s book-then-motion picture – was written by the team of Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown. Opening February 20 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, it represents a theatrical reunion of Kelli (for whom the score was written), playing Francesca Johnson; Steven, as Robert Kincaid; and Bart, as director. The three had worked together on Craig Lucas’ and Adam Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza.”
The “Y” evening opened with Kelli and Steven performing one of their duets from the show, “Falling Into You.” Adam opened the discussion:
In “The Bridges of “Madison County,” he commented, a challenge “was to allow the attraction of the two principals to each other to develop, to be revealed to each other and to the audience.” Said Steven: “Kelli and I had many conversations about wanting to be so careful: that Robert not seem predatory and that Francesca not seem too accessible. Bart, as director, had been truly helpful so that we wouldn’t start out in that ‘star-crossed, immediate electric’ thing, but, instead, that we could build it through particular moments, to let the ice melt as little bit.”
“In tryouts” (this past summer, in Williamstown), Kelli added, “the audience was way ahead of us. They knew the story, they wanted us to get together! So we had to give in to that – but very carefully. That’s where I completely trust Bart to weigh in on those things.” Said Bart: “The audience can’t wait for it to happen – but the actors need obstacles for it not to happen. So we had to come up with reasons for that, including specific on-stage tasks.”
One example was the interpretation of a song. “When we sang ‘What Do You Call a Man Like That?’ in readings,” Kelli pointed out, “it sounded like I was insane for this person – and I had only just met him! I thought, ‘this is way too soon.’ But it’s amazing when you can take a song and change its meaning just by how you think, what is inside your head, how you approach it: instead of its being all breathless and romantic, making it, at that point, more descriptive, more of a discovery. For example – here’s the on-stage task – Robert, with his hands, shows how his camera works. Francesca’s response to that can put you in a different place. And the meaning of the song changes.”
In such a show, said Bart, “the people have to have stakes. Francesca and Robert each have to have something they are risking.” Late in the show, after Francesca and Robert plan to meet (and Robert has left center stage), Francesca’s children come running in, needing her attention. “And you suddenly see,” said Bart, “a woman caught – which you can only see in theater – between the greatest love she has ever experienced, and her children, whom she loves with all her life. She has – and the audience has – these two elements smashing into each other. It’s a great moment for Kelli! and it puts the audience in a great position: they have information the characters don’t.” When her husband soon enters, with thoughts that he and Francesca might spend more time together, “all of these things,” said Bart, “the things we long for in our secret lives, the things we’ve done and not done, the things that on the surface we do, they all smash into each other, and make a great theatrical situation. Those stakes are the fun part of making theater. The balancing is where the material is. In addition, they create good reasons to sing!”
The 92nd Street Y program was held on the eve of “Bridges” going into theater rehearsal – and the show was running long. “We are content with the quality of the material,” Bart pointed out to the audience, “but we’ve got to find eight to ten minutes. And all of us feel a little differently as to where those eight minutes will come from.” Joked Kelli, looking at Steven: “I think they should be yours!”
“We can do some internal cuts,” Bart pointed out. “We can do some pacing, but ultimately a little bit of material will have to go. You can cut the script. You can cut songs; some are more vulnerable than others. You can do internal cuts in the music. The preview audiences may tell us. Or they may tell us that they love a particular number, more than we realized in Williamstown. There are things we have to do – in some instances, more publicly than we’d like! But the piece is so strong that it will give over to a deeper level of shaping.”
“We as actors don’t want to put ourselves out there to anybody, even in the first preview, unless we feel that things are right,” commented Kelli. “But” – addressing the “Y” audience – “you are our final collaborator. We can’t know how the engine is churning unless you kind of tell us. Unfortunately, if we’re willing to put those vulnerable spots in front of you before we cut, we may have a little egg on our face. But Bart is going to make us do that, because it’s the only way to know.”
“And the audience will let you know,” Adam Guettel summed up, concluding the evening. “Workshops are good, to a certain extent, but they’re comprised of your friends and your enemies, and they’ll all tell you that they like it! But audiences are truthful. They’ll let you know – through their breathing, their bodies, their candy. They’ll let you know!”
*Photos: Stephen Sorokoff
See live footage at Meet the Cast and Creators of The Bridges of Madison County (songs/interviews) https://www.theaterpizzazz.com/crossing-bridges-madison-county/