PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With The Bridges of Madison County Writer Marsha Norman
By Adam Hetrick
February 14, 2014
Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman, who last adapted Alice Walker's The Color Purple for the Broadway stage, returns this season with the new musical incarnation of another literary phenomenon, James Waller's 1992 romantic novel The Bridges of Madison County, which officially opens on Broadway Feb. 20 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Featuring a score by Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown (Parade, Songs for a New World, The Last Five Years) and staged by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher (The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific, Golden Boy), the new musical stars four-time Tony Award nominee Kelli O'Hara (The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific, Nice Work If You Can Get It) and Steven Pasquale (Reasons to Be Pretty, Far From Heaven, "Rescue Me") as Francesca and Robert, the two characters central to Waller's story of love and longing.
Norman, a Pulitzer winner for her dramatic two-hander 'night Mother, is also the Tony Award-winning book writer of The Secret Garden and was Tony-nominated for the book of The Color Purple.
Playbill.com spoke with Norman about her work on The Bridges of Madison County, which expands the scope of Waller's original novel to include a broader tapestry of characters and context.
How did this project begin? Was the book initially something that you wanted to adapt?
Marsha Norman: No, it began with a phone call. A phone call from James Lapine. And James said that he had received a phone call from Aaron Priest, [the literary agent] for the book, asking James if he wanted to write the book for a musical version of "[The] Bridges of Madison County." James said, "Oh no, you really don't want me, you want Marsha Norman." So, Aaron Priest talks to me and says that he's looking for someone and would I like to do it? I mean, I had already said yes, of course.
I'm not saying that all the classic love stories would make a good musical, like "Gone With the Wind," but I knew this one would. So Jason [Robert Brown] had also been wanting to write something like La Traviata, where two lovers can sing, and sing, and sing and sing. So, it seemed to fit all of our needs. I needed a book that needed me to flesh it out and make a story out of it from Francesca's point of view, whereas the original book tells the story from Robert's point of view. Jason loved the opportunity to just speak in a different musical language — the language of Iowa, the language of love, the language of of soul mates meeting, the language of the kids and the father and all that, so he was looking for new vocabulary. It was perfect for us.
Moreso than the novel, there's a strong sense of community in your account of Bridges. This love affair is always in public view.
MN: You're going to see that onstage all the time. The community is always watching. It's important to realize early on that Robert and Francesca didn't go off to some Motel 6 in the next state. They were right there in Francesca's house for four days, with all of the community there watching. His truck was parked in the back. It's a completely different thing than going to a convention and having a fling. This is a place where community matters, and we had to take that into account and that was fun.
My memory of the film is that I was devastated for Francesca. But you and Jason give Robert a deeply emotional moment in this eleven o'clock number that allows us to understand and feel his loss.
MN: I think he loses big. He has a song at the end of the musical called, "It All Falls Away," as he's tearing up every photograph he's ever taken. He's ill. Everything doesn't matter; none of it matters except the four days in [her] arms. And that's just this incredible feeling that I think people feel, I think people have felt, and I've experienced with crying in the audience.
How vital was the Williamstown Theatre Festival production to the work that you're doing in New York?
MN: We had to take out about 11 to 13 minutes. That's a lot of time to take out of a musical. And it's not about the time, it's about knowing that the musical feels like it naturally ends at the right time and that's what we want — when the reconciliations have been made. That is a feeling that comes from kid's stories; there is a feeling that this is where the end is. You don't have to be told.
This adaptation has also allowed you to flesh out and create some new roles with Jason. What has your collaboration been like?
MN: Well, it's beautiful being with Jason; it's beautiful being with Bart. Bart's an extraordinary director and he's willing to look a line syllable by syllable and figure out what that means in that moment. There's this moment that we worked on for a couple days in Williamstown where Francesca actually decides [about the relationship], and I had a very strong feeling of what I wanted, and Bart had a very strong feeling about what he wanted, and Jason was like, "This is a scene. I don't know anything about scenes." [Laughs]. Of course he knows about scenes, but he didn't have any music in it yet. And the three of us worked together with absolute trust and peace. There was no one dominating, no one saying, "This is my show. Get out of here, go have lunch, come back and I'll show it to you." It was like, "What did you really intend? How can I put that on the stage?" And we did need Jason to give us that emotional underpinning to allow you to feel that emotion that she was feeling that moment of making the decision.
The book and film were such a phenomenon. Were you at all concerned about comparisons?
MN: I didn't think about it that way, but I guess you're right. People didn't just see the movie. I think that would be much harder because there would be a sense of comparison. Even with The Color Purple there was a sense of, "Well, you didn't make Mister like this." And Color Purple was also a film, so I guess this is getting to be my thing. [Laughs]. A big novel made into a film, and then turned into a musical. I think people wanted another experience of what they felt. They just didn't want to read it again, or go to the movie again. They didn't want to rent the movie again; they wanted to come and have another experience.