“The Bridges of Madison County” is a phenomenon.
The hit book by Robert James Waller sold 50 million copies, inspired an Oscar-nominated film with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep and forms the basis for a new Broadway musical that opens this month. Given that it deals with infidelity, it counts as an unorthodox, even unlikely success. After all, readers and film fans don’t tend to lose their hearts to a couple of cheaters.
But the underlying story of two lost souls who forge an enduring bond resonated around the world and lifted the material out of sordid territory. The moral questions raised by the passionate four-day love affair between lonely Iowa housewife Francesca Johnson and peripatetic National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid are being examined on a nightly basis at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre, where “Bridges of Madison County: The Musical” is currently in previews. It opens on Feb. 20.
“We spend a lot of time worrying about the moral compass of it all,” Steven Pasquale, the “Rescue Me” actor who plays Kincaid, said. “Anyone who leads a grown-up life can relate to this story. It certainly goes against the values of most Americans to have an affair. But then again is it truly wrong that you get to experience the most powerful thing in your life by doing this? There’s an ambiguity to it.”
Pasquale’s co-star Kelli O’Hara (“South Pacific”) agrees that audience members will have their loyalties divided as the story unfolds, but told TheWrap that she tried to understand rather than judge Francesca’s actions. She noted that her character is at a cross-roads as the story begins, having moved to Iowa after meeting her husband, then a U.S. soldier, in World War II-ravaged Italy. Life on a farm, with two kids, was what happened when she was busy making other plans.
“I find myself really fighting for Francesca,” O’Hara said. “She has a very different background from me. She escaped war in the only way she knew how. She’s married to a man and it’s not a bad life, but something is missing. Because of this affair, it opens her up to be her best self and ultimately to become a better wife and mother. Some people may view it as negative, but something positive does come of it.”
The forbidden, ultimately doomed love affair is the same one that captivated millions of readers and moviegoers, but Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the score, and Marsha Norman, who handled the book, have departed from the source material by broadening its scope. Instead of just being a two-hander about the lovers, members of the tiny Iowa town where Francesca lives, as well as her husband and children play key supporting roles.
“It really helps to dramatize what life in Iowa is like,” O’Hara said. “You get a sense of having people watching and judging and even more surprisingly not judging as they see everything unfolding from their windows and porches.”
Bartlett Sher, who directed O’Hara in “South Pacific” and “The Light in the Piazza” is overseeing this production, which also departs from the source material by filling out the characters’ backstories. The show includes scenes of Francesca’s life in Italy and Kincaid’s failed marriage.
“Setting this partly in memory gives you a real sense of what Francesca is being pulled back towards,” Pasquale said.
Neither star was overly familiar with the source material. O’Hara had read the book as a teenager and seen parts of the film, while Pasquale had only watched the movie. That gave them license to make the characters their own.
“I didn’t have a model,” O’Hara said. “Francesca is someone I was challenged to create from the ground up. For her accent, I listened to friends who were Italian, but a little assimilated, because I wanted her voice to be real and specific to her.”
The musical faces fierce competition from a number of high-profile shows, many of them arriving with bigger stars and special effects. “Bridges of Madison County”s’ pyrotechnics are purely of the emotionally variety, but O’Hara thinks that audiences are ready for a story that tugs at the heartstrings.
“A pure and true and undeniable love story is easy to identify with,” O’Hara said. “In a world of video games and movies with people blowing each other up, I think there are many people who are hungry for something positive to embrace.”
Those kinds of attributes may make it an easier sell on female ticket buyers than men, but Pasquale thinks there’s something in this story for everyone.
“Men should come because it’s a good story, beautifully told, and they may just learn something about themselves,” he said. “Plus their wife is really going to want to go, so don’t make her go alone.”