PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Bridges of Madison County — Caught Between a Hard Rock and a Place
By Harry Haun
Playbill.com offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of the new musical The Bridges of Madison County, starring Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale.
The Bridges of Madison County opened Feb. 20 at the Schoenfeld with all the fanfare and photo-op frenzy generally accorded a bridge opening — which is to say none at all. All that had occurred the night before at the last preview when the stars came out for a nice look-see and then went into a hardy wind-down at the Hard Rock Cafe.
"It was fun," according to the musical's director, Bartlett Sher, and other accounts. Alan Alda, Jonathan Groff, Zosia Mamet, Brooke Shields, David Hyde Pierce and Bethenny Frankel were said to have tread the red carpet, and, although it was the company's second show of the day, they seem to have pushed themselves through to an enthusiastic reception from friends, fans and celebrities in the packed house.
The real opening night was a rather subdued affair, certainly in contrast, but first-nighters were unsparing in their appreciation and standing, applauding, at the end. Why the switch? Producer Jeffrey Richards put out a release to the effect that Robert James Waller, author of the bestseller the musical is based on, could only make it on Feb. 19 — yet there he was the next night in all his silver-haired glory, taking a curtain-call bow with Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale.
Not only was the place of the opening-night party not known, the fact that there even was one was lost in the ether as well. "Party," perhaps, is too strong a word. The cast congregated, as if it were a regular call, for a symbolic "champagne toast."
This was held — now it can be told — at Sofia Italian Grill, recently relocated to 42 West 48th Street from its home for many decades at the Hotel Edison. It was at that location that Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) had his last drink in "The Godfather," was garroted and dumped in the river to, as we say in Old Sicily, "sleep with the fishes."
Sofia is also where "Godfather" director-adaptor Francis Ford Coppola found the name of his next-born. Now, Sofia Coppola is splashed across the screen as a film director. The man with the original moniker — Frank Sofia — stood at the reception desk, imposing and mustachioed, to welcome all the Bridges players and producers.
The Bridges of Madison County asks the musical question, 'Is a four-day romantic freefall in late August of '65 enough to last a lifetime?' — this, the accidental meeting and mating of a National Geographic photographer from Washington state and an Iowa housewife transplanted from Italy — and answers it in the resounding affirmative with soaring songs from Jason Robert Brown, seconding it with a supportive text from Marsha Norman. Their last note on the subject — a genuinely affecting 11 o'clock number called "[Love Is] Always Better" — ties it all up in a bow.
"You know, it was a hard show to figure out how to end in a lot of ways," confessed the composer. "You don't want to end with, 'Oh, it's sad. They wanted to be together, and they never were.' Marsha said, 'How do you solve the problem of happy but dead?' It took us a long time to figure out what we wanted to say in the show."
Brown remembered the day the whole show came together for them. "We'd just written a bad version of it, and Marsha walked out the door to go to the elevator, and then I heard a knock at the door just as I was coming up with a musical idea. She came in and said, 'What if... ?' I said, 'That's exactly what I just wrote down. Look.' The two of us had the idea at the same time. This is what the show needs to say again. We sat there and just cried our way through the last few notes of the show."
He presents this eureka! moment as kismet, but much experience went into to it. "I've had a lot of years of learning how to do this now. I like to think that somewhere between Songs for a New World and Parade and The Last Five Years and 13, I sorta figured out how to use all that language and let it all keep growing and building."
Both O'Hara and Pasquale are in superb voice, particularly in the song that seals their love at the end of Act I, "[All My Life, I've Been] Falling Into You." Whew!
If you ask Pasquale his favorite of the score, he doesn't hesitate a beat. "The duet in Act II, 'One Second & a Million Miles More,' the most extraordinary music I ever heard."
To create the love of a lifetime, it helps to have an old friend to play to. O'Hara and Pasquale have known each other since they were in 2005's The Light in the Piazza, but, by the time she was upgraded to his lover, he was off to TV land for seven years of "Rescue Me." They reunited, not very amorously, last year as husband and wife in Far From Heaven.
Restored to her natural blondeness (from a brown Italian wig), O'Hara mustered some sparkle at the party to mask her exhaustion. "We want the audience to be in agreement with the choices that my character makes," she said. "If I wasn't able to do what I do, I think people would relate to that and they know how that would feel."
To this end, playwright Norman pitches her a desperately evocative line that explains the plight of an isolated Italian war-bride in the Iowan cornbelt: "I ran away from home, and I can't get back." Also, almost as a throwaway, the character is caught sketching and explains she was an art student, who, much against her will, turned into something else. (When Mike Nichols discovered that Mrs. Robinson had been an art student, that salient little fact convinced him to direct "The Graduate.")
Next up for Norman, on March 31, is an anniversary — her 20th year of co-chairing, with Christopher Durang, the Playwriting Program at the Juilliard School. "We've been kept in complete darkness about this," she admitted, "but I know all the alums are coming. Maybe it'll be like a roast. I really just don't know what will happen."
Hunter Foster, who has the thankless role of the blank-but-loving husband, brings his down-home agrarian authority to the character. "It seems to be a theme," Foster conceded slyly. "This is my third character in a row who has been sorta rural-based: I did Million Dollar Quartet, Hands on a Hardbody and now this." (His sister, Sutton Foster, also Georgia-born, is good about working the region as well; next: Violet.)
In praise of playing the cuckold, he said, "It was a very small role in the picture, but in this production, you see more of her home life. You see more of her husband and her kids. It actually makes it more of a struggle for her, because you know who the husband is and who the kids are. I think it was important they do that, dramatically."
Vocally, he gets some rough-hewn licks in with a bar song ("Something From a Dream") and a gospel-eque number ("When I'm Gone"). The latter song is started on its rough road by Michael X. Martin, the next door neighbor, and it's his big musical moment. "What a beautiful song! It rings deep, and it comes at a great time in the show. I think this is a song that's going to be done at memorials because it's just a beautiful, hopeful kind of song. If I could sing it at my own memorial, I would."
Martin's other half is played by the inestimable Cass Morgan, who arrived in New York as one of two dinette waitresses in Pump Boys and Dinettes Off-Broadway. Interestingly, her Bridges role was played on film by that other dinette, Debra Monk.
"The character's name was Madge in the movie, and I'm Marge," Morgan pointed out. "I don't know why the name change was made, but it's really the same person. She's very loving, and I enjoy that people don't really see her. People think they know who she is — she's a nosy neighbor — and, in truth, that's not who she is at all."
Caitlin Kinnunen from Spring Awakening and Derek Klena from Dogfight are the bickering offspring of our heroine who give her a break by trooping off with their father to the state fair. Kinnunen has recovered from the laryngitis that struck in mid-matinee last week and prevented her from finishing the show. Happily, she was present and accounted for during the duel premieres. "I think they were both great," she trilled gleefully. "Last night was different because we had two shows during the day. Everyone was tired but we pushed through, and I thought we did a great job last night. The energy was spectacular, and everyone was on their game."
Klena concurred. "Both nights were really exciting. This was a new crowd, and there were enthusiastic people in the audience. Last night felt more like the opening because it was more the opening-night structure. Everybody got dressed up and lookin' good, and there were lots of famous faces in the audience and a good crowd."
He was particularly proud about the domestic life that was collectively created on stage.
"Bart has been really amazing during this whole process about really trying to form the family and making sure the family's on the right path with the right amount of struggles and the right amount of warm, loving moments. I felt we got to that place and we're so comfortable together and we like each other so much. It's a lot of fun up there on stage. It feels like it's new every night, which is really special."
O'Hara's understudy, Whitney Bashor, has a rather bizarre track to play in the show — in the first act, she's Pasquale's ex-wife, and in the second act, she's O'Hara's sister who still lives in Naples, Italy. Only one of her two songs made it through the previews, but it's a beaut: The ex-wife's poignantly haunting "Another Life."
The up-number assigned to the sister was not so lucky. "'He Forgave Me' was her very sassy opinion of what decision Kelli should make — whether she should go and experience this great love or stay for her family? It's a fun number about her husband forgiving her for having affairs so she's telling Kelli hers will as well."
Midway through the evening, Sher hoisted a glass of champagne and thanked the producers, the cast and the authors. "It has been a very long, beautiful, wonderful journey with The Bridges of Madison County. I'm incredibly glad that we're here."
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