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'The Bridges of Madison County' Gets the Broadway Treatment

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Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale from the original Broadway production of "The Bridges of Madison County."

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Before theater veteran Bartlett Sher directed The Bridges of Madison County on Broadway in 2014, and before its 1995 run as a movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, the love story was a slim book penned in two weeks by an unlikely first-time Iowa novelist, college business professor Robert James Waller.

Through each beloved incarnation the tale has garnered widespread accolades. The book was on the New York Times best seller list for about three years. It sold more than 12 million copies and has been translated into more than 40 languages. Actress Streep was nominated for an Academy Award® for her role as Francesca in the film.

Decision-making involving matters of the heart is excruciatingly difficult" 

—Robert James Waller

The musical, which played at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theater and starred Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, won two 2014 Tony Awards®, including Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations by composer Jason Robert Brown. Now, the national touring production, which plays the Ahmanson Theatre from December 8, 2015 through January 17, 2016, offers the romantic tale from a perspective that is much different from the book or the movie.

It’s still the story of a housewife who has a hot affair with a nonconformist traveling photographer, Robert Kincaid, while her husband and kids are gone for a few days. She passes up a chance to run away with him, choosing instead to stay with her family and forever pine for Robert.

The story continues to pull at the heartstrings. But the musical offers an entirely fresh perspective with greater involvement of Francesca’s husband and children, as well as the Winterset, Iowa townspeople, who are often onstage, watching. Parts of the story—including the ending—had to be transformed for the stage production because of the medium, said Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman, who wrote the musical’s book. “In the movie, you watch Francesca watch the windshield wipers, and Clint Eastwood is standing all soggy-haired on the other side of the street,” she said. “That’s not something you can do in the theatre.” There are no flashbacks or fast forwards in the musical. “This is a straightforward march from the time the family leaves the farm to go to the fair to the rest of their lives,” said Norman.

For Norman, the musical is about anytime anyone has had to walk away from a deeply moving experience and back into prior commitments. “The community is crucial in the telling of the story, as are Francesca’s husband and children,” said Norman. “That’s not something the book went into at all, and it’s not something the movie dealt with at all.”

Composer Brown describes the process of writing an ending for the production as a challenge. “The question was where do we leave Francesca and Robert?” he said. “In a lot of ways, Francesca’s story goes on for a very long time after Robert leaves. We just didn’t know how much of that we wanted to show and how much of that we wanted to experience with her. I think we found the right balance, but it took a while.”

In a rare interview, author Waller recently said he originally had no intention of publishing his romantic tale, but a friend who was a former editor insisted on sending it to an agent. While Waller calls Bridges “a story that came to me, that’s all,” he acknowledged that “apparently there is something universal within it,” perhaps because “decision-making involving matters of the heart is excruciatingly difficult.” He added, “There is something ineffable about the story that escapes even me, and a wide variety of people—young and old, truck drivers and construction workers and lawyers and university professors—love the story.” He marveled at their diversity: “The youngest reader I heard about was 14, and many in their 80s read it, along with all the other demographics in between.”

Waller has never second-guessed Francesca’s decision to stay with her family rather than to run away with her lover. “I believe she did the right thing, not so much to spare them gossip, but to spare them everlasting heartbreak,” Waller said. “Deep inside himself, over the years, Robert Kincaid knew she made the right decision, for he would have done the same in her position.” However, “I did not know until the book was nearly finished what decision Francesca would make.” Regardless of their age, profession, or background, fans of all iterations of The Bridges of Madison County have the opportunity to fall in love with Francesca and Robert all over again as the two-time Tony Award-winning show sets out on its national tour.

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