MARSHA NORMAN and JASON ROBERT BROWN are no strangers to writing for the musical theatre. Both have Tony Awards on their shelves for their work: Brown for best original score for Parade, and Norman for best book of a musical for The Color Purple and The Secret Garden. But The Bridges of Madison County marks their first time collaborating on a full musical, though they’d been trying to work together for years.
Adapted from the novel by Robert James Waller and the subsequent film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, the show premiered at Massachussetts’s Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer and will be mounted at the Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway, officially opening Feb. 20, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale. The story follows a four-day love affair between Francesca Johnson, a married Italian woman living in Madison County, Iowa, and photographer Robert Kincaid in the 1960s. American Theatre’s Suzy Evans sat down with the writers in the rehearsal room two weeks before the start of previews to talk with them about how they approached the material.
Also, click here to listen to a song from The Bridges of Madison County.
SUZY EVANS: How did you two connect to write The Bridges of Madison County?
JASON ROBERT BROWN: I had scored a play of Marsha’s [Last Dance] at Manhattan Theatre Club, and several years later, we had a great time working on a piece called The Trumpet of the Swan, which the Kennedy Center had commissioned for us. We had such a great time that we said, “Oh, we have to write a real musical together.” What I really wanted to do was write something very grand, like La Traviata, something with a lot of singing. I had been working on 13 and Honeymoon in Vegas, these goofy, very light shows, and I really wanted to dig in. So I said to Marsha, “Let’s start looking for La Traviata,” and she said, “You mean, actually La Traviata?” And I said, “I don’t know!” And then Marsha got a call…
MARSHA NORMAN: …from James Lapine. Robert James Waller’s agent had approached him about doing The Bridges of Madison County as a musical, and he had told them they really didn’t want him, they needed me. So they called me, and I called Jason, and that was it. The material satisfied Jason’s requirements for people to sing and sing and sing and sing, but it didn’t have any other characters in it. It didn’t have story. But that’s good for me. I like having a project where there’s something for me to do. I got to fill in the town. I got to fill in the husband’s story. I got to fill in the relationship with the children, so what you see is a big family story in the middle of which this incredible romance happens. Our agent said, “You need to get Kelli O’Hara.” She read the treatment and said, “I’m in.” Then she called Bartlett Sher. Bart read the treatment, he said, “I’m in.” So it became that experience—not often had—where you know who you’re writing for, and that made a big difference. It’s the thing that teams used to do all the time: write for specific stars.
BROWN: It’s been great to have that specific voice in my head. It changed the way that I wrote the piece, because I knew I had this rich soprano to play with. I don’t know that that’s what I would have written Francesca to be, had it not been Kelli, but knowing that that’s what Kelli does so beautifully, I thought, “Oh great, let me use that voice.”
And Kelli had auditioned for you many years ago for The Last Five Years.
BROWN: It was one of Kelli’s first auditions. She auditioned for The Last Five Years in 2000, and we offered her the understudy part, but she was wise enough not to take it. So I knew her from pretty much when she tumbled into the city.
What’s it like watching her talent develop and now finally getting to work together?
BROWN: It’s been a blessing because she’s good! There are a lot of people who you see come to town, and you see them get more and more successful but they never actually get good at what they’re doing. And Kelli was always good, and she only gets better every time out. She just eats everything we throw at her. She just munches on it and out comes this beautiful fully characterized person. She’s an amazingly talented person.
NORMAN: And knowing that we also had Steve [Pasquale] was a great blessing. Steve’s been in television for 10 years, and nobody, except insiders, knows that he has this voice. The voice has really deepened and gotten more rich while he was in television not using it. That’s really spectacular. And Steve and Kelli are great friends so there’s very much a family approach to this that we really feel comfortable about.
How did the two of you create a collaborative writing process?
BROWN: The most important thing about working with Marsha is we both were able to do our jobs. Neither of us felt like we had to babysit the other one. Marsha came out to Los Angeles and said, “I think I know what I want to do with this piece.” And I said to her, “I think the best thing to do is have a small number of people.” So we decided we were going to write an octet. Now there’s a larger ensemble here on Broadway, but the essence of the show is still just written around those eight. She built the treatment knowing that we were only going to have eight people and it was going to be structured in a certain way.
Marsha wrote a first act, and when songs came up, she would either write a monologue or she would write a bunch of stage directions, or she would just leave a blank space and say, “You do your thing here.” I would write a draft of a song, and in the course of the draft, I might change her dialogue, and I might change her stage directions, and I might change everything about everything and send it back to her. And she would generally say, “Oh this is great. Let me do this.” And she would fix the changes that I had made and make them better. Then the show, in bits and starts, would sort of push its way from one end to the other. We all knew what happens halfway through the second act and we all knew what happens at the end of the show, but the points in between were really a little bit up for grabs.
NORMAN: We had to reduce it to the elemental problem, which is you have a living person and a dead person and a deep love. We were not willing to have the dead person sing with the live person. And there you are—that’s the problem. These are your lovers. You need them to sing at the end. We were stuck for like a month.
BROWN: It’s not as though we ever felt, “Oh god, let’s abandon the project!” But we were like “Meehhhh!” I finally said to Marsha, “There’s something in this story that whenever you talk about it, you start crying. What is that thing?” And she said, “Well, it’s very simple. It’s just that when he shows up at the end and he puts his arms around her”—and as she said that, she started crying. And I said, “There. That’s the end of the show.”
NORMAN: The other trick was how to keep Robert, once he leaves, present enough in the storytelling so that the last song would have some power. One of the things that often happens in novels is that a character gets left behind sort of halfway through, but you need them at the end in order to get everybody to cry. If the tears pop out of my eyes, that’s good.
What are the biggest changes you’ve made from the book and film?
NORMAN: Well, what we’ve built is an expansion on the book and on the movie—we’ve taken it as a story that occurs in a real town, in a real family, and in a place where people are watching all the time. Bart’s complemented that by having chairs onstage, so that people can see this community that’s looking on. And so, in a way, the novel has nailed an iconic idea, which is: What if you had a week that didn’t count? What if you discovered your soulmate in the middle of a fading marriage and having children? What would you do? And from what we’ve seen from audiences up at Williamstown, enough people have had those experiences.
BROWN: The book is really Robert’s book. That character sort of runs the novel. We started from the very beginning knowing that this was Francesca’s show. That change of emphasis is huge, and it is to a large degree why I respond so much more to what we’ve done here than I ever did to the novel. The novel is about a sort of mysterious character who remains mysterious. What we’ve done is about a woman who experiences something life-changing, and how she deals with it. Both Marsha and I have a much stronger emotional response to this than we did the book because I think we both relate to Francesca a lot more than we relate to Robert.
NORMAN: There’s an old saying in the book-writing business that goes, “You don’t cut up a sofa to make a chair.” Basically, this is the chair. The sofa should stay the sofa and you should sit in it and see why you like it. Then you should build your own chair out of your own materials—the things that work best in the musical theatre. So there are songs that need to carry the emotional content of the show, and there are these other characters who have to be there to sing. You really do need a B-couple, as you do in all musicals, and we have this wonderful pair, Marge and Charlie, who live next door and are looking through windows all the time watching what’s going on in Francesca’s house. That’s not in the novel. But if this were happening in life, there would be a neighbor. We also used our own knowledge of what was happening in 1965 and what was happening in 1943 when Francesca left Naples. That was the most bombed Italian city in the war, and we’ve really built that piece up, so you see where she came from.
BROWN: In this case, we took the sofa and made a whole living room set out of it.
You’ve both adapted all sorts of material. What makes this story right for musical theatre?
BROWN: Marsha and I are both really grouchy and cynical, but ultimately we’re both big, mushy romantics. We both really want to believe in what this show posits. We can connect to that, and there are issues about family and about community and even about what it is to be an artist. There are things about that that we have dug out of this material that other writers might not have. If you ask Marsha, she’ll always tell you that she writes for the “trapped girl,” and Francesca suddenly and very obviously became that, and that would be why she responded to it. Whereas I’m always the person who’s on the outside; I’m always the person who’s standing around wondering what the hell all you people are doing but also not wanting to participate in it. There’s a lot of that in this piece. Robert is very much that guy for the show. So I think that our own particular neuroses and obsessions complement the material very well. We’ve both had the experience of being asked to adapt stuff, and we look at it and say, “I cannot find a way into this.” And then someone goes off and makes a lot of money doing it. The Bridges of Madison County wasn’t a book I had ever read, and it wasn’t a movie I had ever seen but I knew that yes, that’s something I know how to find my way into.
Have you seen the movie now?
BROWN: I haven’t! I saw the first 10 minutes a long time ago. I’ve never watched the rest of it.
Marsha, you co-chair the playwrights program at Juilliard. What makes writing a musical a different process than writing a play?
NORMAN: There’s a limit to what you can do in text in terms of the big, deep emotions. You can go very far in thought in a play, but in a musical, what you can do is say what it feels like to have conflicting emotions, deep love, great loss, incredible sadness, great joy. It is very hard to show joy on the stage. Cartwheels! You can’t do that. The thrill of writing musicals is you can get to that point where you have to stop talking, and then you can sing, as opposed to plays, where you get to that point where you have to stop talking and then it’s the other person’s turn. I really love what music can do—I think music can really get around people’s defenses about feeling things. Music can tell people things that they already knew, but they didn’t know anybody else knew that. And music is especially good at getting people to cry.
Was that your intention when you were writing the music, Jason?
BROWN: Listen, if you write The Bridges of Madison County and people aren’t crying at the end, you totally blew it. But music, first of all, is very expansive. It can give you a lot of information about space, very quickly. You have to show your work as a character when you have to sing. With just text, it is so hard to push that boulder up the hill. Music just flattens the hill for you. The boulder just starts rolling. And then you have to be very careful about the power that that thing has.
What is most special about what we’re doing with The Bridges of Madison County is how very delicate the balance is with all of us. It’s a very spare piece, and it’s a very thoughtful piece, and I think most people’s impression of what a musical is is neither spare nor thoughtful. This is a very serious and very emotionally intelligent and sophisticated piece of writing. We’re putting it on Broadway in a house where you usually put plays because that’s what it feels like to us. That’s the kind of emotional investment that you want to get and the kind of attention we expect the audience to pay to it.
You had a production at the Williamstown Theater Festival this summer. What did you learn as writers from that work and that process?
NORMAN: It was enormously helpful. We learned that we had to take 10 minutes out, so that’s useful and terrible knowledge. But we also learned that the audience is there. What you don’t know when you’ve worked on a show for a long time and you’ve just done readings is, you don’t know if there are 700 people who will come to the theatre every night for three weeks and see it in the Berkshires, where there don’t seem to be any people. Where is the audience doing to come from? And not only did they respond, they cried. They talked to us. They grabbed us. There is something in this piece that causes people to go into their personal lives and respond from what’s happened to them and to connect with the people on the stage. The great thing is to be able to watch where they laugh, where they discover how they are following the piece, and make sure we get them what they need at the right time. In musicals, the big deal is figuring out how to deliver the information just as the audience was wondering about it—not dumping it all on them at the beginning. And we had some fantastic performers there, too. We were working with another good fabulous group.
That’s right—you wrote this part for Kelli, but Elena Shaddow played Francesca in Williamstown. Was it helpful to you as writers to have a different actor play the part?
BROWN: Elena was so wonderful; it was very helpful that she was good. If she hadn’t been good, it would have been not helpful. For me, the most important thing that I got out of Williamstown was just the knowledge that it wasn’t the end. Often we’re so panicky about getting any production at all that by the time you get it up there, you think, “Oh God, this is it. This is the last time I’m ever going to see this show.” And knowing that we could do something where we could have an audience come in and look at it, and then we could all go away and solve any problems—that was enormous. I don’t think I can overstate the importance of knowing that we weren’t done at that point. If we had put this show up and said, “Great, that’s perfect,” that would have been fine, too. But instead we were able to look at it, see how the audience responded to it.
There is also a high—I would even say an expert—level of bitchery that you are exposed to from the day you announce that you’re doing a show in New York that ramps up so intensely from the minute you start previews. And there’s no way to be immune to it. There’s no way to ignore it. There’s no way to put it aside. You sit in the audience and you just see one person’s eyebrow go up at a certain point, and your entire body sinks to the ground because you think, “I don’t know how to do this.” Being able to do the show out of town lets us know now when we start previews and we have a nasty bitch around us on one side or the other, we still know what the show is. We know that it works. We saw it in front of an audience and that audience loved what we were doing. And so we are able to recover more quickly I think. We are sort of able to say, “No, we’ve got the courage of our convictions. We know what it is.”
Apart from losing 10 minutes, did you make any other changes to the show after Williamstown?
NORMAN: We worked a lot on the family’s story. These are not just cutouts that stand around as the love affair goes on. These are actual people.
BROWN: We explored the kids a lot. There are two kids in the book, a son and a daughter, who show up as grown-ups, and they sort of negotiate a flashback, and we didn’t do any of that. Marsha and I had always been a little bit undecided about what the relationship between them was, and about the relationship between them and their parents. That was something that we really got to look at in Williamstown. We also made casting changes around exactly that stuff. We cast a new son [Derek Klena] and we cast a new father [Hunter Foster]. Did we solve the problems by recasting it, or does recasting it make new problems? The answer is both.
NORMAN: By the time we’re through with it, it’s all tightly woven, so you just don’t know what’s going to happen if you pull this or that thread.
BROWN: We have to be very careful. This was something I used to say with Alfred Uhry a lot when we were working on Parade. [Director Harold Prince] was always right about when our writing was going off course, and he was almost always wrong about how to solve it. And we had to trust that if people were saying to us, “I don’t get it,” that yes, we have to fix it. But the minute they said, “Why don’t you instead do this?” We had to just close our ears and start going, “La la la la la la.” Because inevitably, they’re not the writers. We’re the writers and that’s what we do for a living and we’re most likely going to be the ones who figure out how to solve that problem because we’ve done all the rest of it.
NORMAN: A good thing about the two of us is that we are able to listen well, but we won’t be pushed around. We set our own agenda about when we’re going to solve what problems. That may not suit everybody, but it suits us and it gets the thing done and it makes us feel like it really is a team effort here.
BROWN: We’re theatre people, not movie people. It is not our belief that it’s someone else’s job to solve a problem. This is our show. We did this together, and we’re going to see this through, and if you fire everybody else, you’re still going to be stuck with us. We’re both good at defending our turf in that way. There are some people who must think we’re just impossibly difficult. But we’ve built this work that we’re very proud of. Everybody can get taken care of if the writers know how to do that—and we’re both real good.