Posted on March 22, 2017 at 2:08 am

Marsha Norman and I had just opened The Trumpet of the Swan at the Kennedy Center, and the reviews that morning were the best either of us have ever gotten in our entire careers. More importantly, we’d had a great time working together – we seemed to be in sync about what the piece wanted to be, in terms of the characters, the pacing, the overall tone of the storytelling. So I asked Marsha if we could do a real musical together, and she happily agreed.

My first instinct was that I wanted to write something really romantic – after 30 years of being bored senseless by opera, I had picked up a recording of La Traviata that I was finding unexpectedly inspiring, and I wanted to try my hand at music that had that kind of sweep to it. We went searching for a story that could support that kind of music, but nothing seemed to get us excited. We weren’t in a rush, at any rate, so we just promised each other we’d check in if the right idea came to either of us.

Right about this time, Robert James Waller‘s representatives reached out to James Lapine about making a musical out of Waller’s titanically successful novel The Bridges of Madison County. (Apparently there had been some unauthorized musical version that was not very good but convinced Waller and his reps that there was potential in the story for a musical.) Lapine, no fan of the novel, passed, but he said to the reps, “This is not for me, but you should try Marsha Norman. She’s great at adaptations like this.” (Presumably, he was referring to The Secret Garden, which Marsha adapted masterfully, and to her equally adept translation of The Color Purple, which at this time was just finishing its initial Broadway run.)

When Marsha got the call, she immediately emailed me. Maybe this was our Traviata?

People often ask what attracts me to certain ideas, and the honest answer is that, often, what most excites me is the opportunity to collaborate with the writers and directors and performers that inspire me. I’m not saying I could write anything – there are some ideas that just feel wrong, dead, unmusical – but given the chance to work with an amazing collaborator, I’m open to lots of things that may not excite me in any other context. So it was with Bridges, which was in every respect the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day, a novel which everyone I knew felt free to mock without having to bother reading. The novel (and the subsequent film) tells the story of Francesca Johnson, a middle-aged Italian war bride living on a farm in Iowa, and her four-day affair with Robert Kincaid, a photographer for the National Geographic who has come to Iowa to take pictures of the world-famous covered bridges, while her family is away at the state fair. When the book first came out, I had no interest in reading it, and seventeen years later, I wasn’t any more enthusiastic; but I suspected that if Marsha could find a way in, then I would have so much fun working with her that something good might just come out of it. I also had to admit that adapting such a famous book would probably be good on a commercial level – the minute you mention The Bridges of Madison County, everyone knows what you’re talking about and a sizable portion of the world has great affection for it. Finally, even with what little I knew about the plot and the characters, I already could hear the sound of the music – some cross between the acoustic Midwestern country music of the 1960’s and Italian opera, with a healthy dollop of Joni Mitchell. I had wanted to write my Traviata, and strangely enough it had actually shown up on my doorstep. So I told Marsha that I was game to sit with her and come up with an outline, and if we were both happy with what we came up with, we’d give it a shot.

There’s not a lot of plot in the novel, and for a book so short, a surprising amount of time is spent in odd digressions, like Robert Kincaid’s essay on “Dimension Z” (don’t ask) or an old grizzled jazz musician’s memories of Kincaid in the years after his affair with Francesca. Too, much of the book is devoted to Francesca’s children and their discovery, after their mother’s death, of her decades-old affair. Marsha managed to cut through all of that, and in our first meeting, she had a very clear sense of what the show should be: the story of Francesca – why she makes the choices that she makes, and what is the effect of those decisions. To that end, it was important to include not just Francesca’s husband and children, but to add two characters who represented the rest of the Iowa town in which she lived, her neighbors Marge and Charlie.

My suggestion was to make the show an octet. A piece of chamber music that played out in a large and isolated space. Marsha had identified seven characters, and I thought we needed one more woman’s voice to balance out the sound world (this became very useful for reasons I’ll explain in a minute). I could hear how the eight voices would interplay, and I was excited about finding a way for Robert’s and Francesca’s music to differentiate from the rest of the Iowans, and to comment on it.

I was surprised to discover how much I wanted to write these characters and their story. I never became a fan of the novel, but Marsha had stripped away enough of the distractions to show what was hidden in the story’s DNA, something moving, maybe even profound, about community and family and what commitment really means.

Thus armed, we started down the road of outlining the show, figuring out how the story worked, what moments seemed to sing, where the first act would end and the second would begin, and how we wanted to pace the events throughout. By the time we finished putting our précis together, we had found out something else: Kelli O’Hara wanted to play Francesca. The pieces were falling into place with remarkable speed.

To be continued, at a later date. But now, some music.

Three selections:

1. Robert is introduced to us as a mysterious character, a man of few words, “the last of the real cowboys.” Until Robert falls in love with Francesca, he is locked off from us, only truly engaged when he’s behind a camera. I needed to tell the audience something about who he was, what his life had been like, but Robert couldn’t be the person to explain it, and no one else on stage was supposed to know anything about him either. And then I found a passage in Waller’s novel – no more than a couple of sentences, really – where he tells us about Kincaid’s first wife, Marian, a folksinger in the Pacific Northwest. I seized on Marian immediately as my way to let the audience in on Robert’s inner life (Aha! Now I knew why we had another woman in the ensemble!), and within a couple of hours, I had written “Another Life.” It’s certainly risky to bring a character onstage that the audience has never met, have her sing for five slow minutes, and then have her disappear, never to be seen again, but I felt like if we could make that work, if we could make that make sense in the world of the show, then we had an important tool for telling our story. “Another Life” was my first real key to the theatrical language of The Bridges of Madison County.

In 2012, our producers asked me to put together a fully-orchestrated recording of several of the songs from the show to help attract investors. I knew “Another Life” had to be included, and I knew exactly who had to sing it – my favorite voice in the world, Shoshana Bean. In subsequent years, when we auditioned actors for the role, they all were given Shoshana’s version to help them learn not just the notes of the song but the style, the sound. What Shoshana got, almost instinctively, was exactly how I wanted the song to feel. Even Whitney Bashor’s magnificent performance of the song on Broadway was heavily indebted to this recording, and I’m thrilled to present it here.

“Another Life” (2012 demo)
from The Bridges of Madison County
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Vocal: Shoshana Bean
Piano: Jason Robert Brown
Guitars: Gary Sieger, Andrew Synowiec
Bass: Trey Henry
Violins: Sid Page, Julie Rogers
Viola: Pam Jacobson
Cello: Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick
Percussion: Bernie Dresel
Recorded by Charlie Paakkari at Capitol Studios, Los Angeles CA, November 29, 2012
Mixed by Jeffrey Lesser

2. This is the original version of the second-act opening. At the end of Act One, Robert and Francesca have gone up to the bedroom to consummate their affair, and the audience has been absorbing that morally complicated moment all through intermission. We wanted to start Act Two somewhere different, give the audience a chance to breathe and to check in on the rest of Francesca’s family before we plunged back into Robert and Francesca’s story. Ergo: The State Fair. (In the book, Bud and the kids are at the Iowa State Fair, which would have only been about a half-hour away from the farmhouse in Winterset. That was a problem for us in the storytelling, because it meant they could get home too quickly for Robert to escape. So in our version of the show, they’re at the Indiana State Fair, a seven- or eight-hour drive, where Carolyn’s steer is competing in the Nationals.)

This version of the State Fair song is what we used when we premiered the show in Williamstown, but the producers asked me to change it for Broadway. I’m not sure why, to be honest – I think they wanted something more “radio-friendly”? – but I gave it a shot. All things considered, I do like the Broadway version better – the lyrics are certainly smarter – but I still have a lot of affection for this one and the girl in the yellow sweater, so here it is. Also you’ll get to hear me living out my dream of doing a duet with Kelli O’Hara, a task for which I am completely unqualified but I enjoyed immensely.

State Fair/Who We Are And Who We Want To Be (2012 demo)
cut from The Bridges of Madison County
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Michael: Will Collyer
Carolyn: Nina Herzog
Ensemble voices: Jason Robert Brown, Robert Yacko, Laura Griffith
Piano (and foot): Jason Robert Brown
Guitars: Gary Sieger, Andrew Synowiec
Bass: Trey Henry
Violins: Sid Page, Julie Rogers
Viola: Pam Jacobson
Cello: Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick
Drums and percussion: Bernie Dresel
Recorded by Charlie Paakkari at Capitol Studios, Los Angeles CA, November 29, 2012
Mixed by Jeffrey Lesser

3. Finding the right leads for the post-Broadway tour of Bridges was a daunting task, to be sure. Just to find people who could sing it and act it and look right for the parts was going to be tricky – I could never have predicted that we’d find two actors who brought a whole new energy and intention to their parts, and who put their own wonderful stamp on the show. This promotional recording, made while we were still in rehearsals in New York, is a wonderful representation of Andrew Samonsky and Elizabeth Stanley’s chemistry and extraordinary vocal power.

One Second and a Million Miles (tour promotional demo, 2015)
from The Bridges of Madison County
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Robert: Andrew Samonsky
Francesca: Elizabeth Stanley
Piano: Andrew Resnick
Guitars: Gary Sieger, Justin Goldner
Bass: Randy Landau
Violins: Paul Woodiel, Katherine Livolsi-Landau
VIolas: Kiku Enomoto, Erin Mayland
Cello: Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf
Percussion: Benny Koonyevsky
Conducted by Tom Murray
Vocals recorded and mixed by Jeffrey Lesser at John Kilgore Sound Recording, NY NY, November 14, 2015 [Vocals overdubbed on the orchestra from the original Broadway cast recording, 2014]

Credits: