The Bridges of Madison County – A Perspective
Music & Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Book: Marsha Norman
The Bridges of Madison County has divided opinions since Robert James Waller’s novel first appeared in 1992. Some critics were enchanted by a poignant tale of star-crossed lovers, while others bemoaned trite sentimentality and ponderous, overwrought dialogue (there is certainly plenty of the latter). Still, it sold 60 million copies, and inspired a very successful film, released in 1995. The film gives more prominence to the lead female character, Francesca, and Meryl Streep received an Oscar nomination for the role. The screenplay was praised as a significant improvement on the novel.
Nevertheless, the story divides opinions. In addition to the inherent weaknesses of the source novel, I suspect that this tale of an Italian war bride in Iowa, embarking on a brief, passionate affair with an itinerant photographer provokes some emotional discomfort in many people. Did you make the right choices in life? What would you do in Francesca’s situation? What would your spouse do…? A musician friend dismissed the pretext as unrealistic: if Francesca was unhappy, why not sleep with a guy from the next town? Why this passing stranger?
Book to Film to Musical
Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman’s musical makes further changes to the details of the story. The lovers are younger, making a possible new future a more enticing proposition. Francesca’s reasons for marrying and leaving Italy are fleshed out, adding further emotional weight to her current lack of contentment. Most importantly, she is decisively made the focus of the show, completing the change of emphasis begun by the film. This makes a lot of sense, because it is Francesca who has the most at stake in deciding whether to leave with Robert or stay with her family.
Other additions to the musical provide interesting emotional contrasts. While her family bickers over trivia during its trip to the Iowa State Fair, Francesca experiences the most powerful emotions of her life and searches her soul. Her nosey neighbors observe disapprovingly (adding a shot of light humor) but also at a critical moment provide the warmth and generosity of spirit that give Francesca the space she needs to make her fateful decision.
Norman’s book has been criticized more than it deserves. Despite its flaws, I consider it the best incarnation of this imperfect tale of imperfect people and the choices they make. But the real heart of the musical is Brown’s gorgeous score, which enriches the story, and is worth the price of admission by itself. He won Tony awards for both score and orchestration, and it is easy to see why. The songs are beautiful and lyrical, rich but never schmaltzy, accessible but never kitsch.
Brown adopts three distinct musical motifs for the characters, all infused with his characteristic pop sensibility. Francesca’s songs have an Italian operatic flavor, Robert is represented by guitar-based folk, and the family and neighbors (the Iowans) get a country vibe. The stylistic shifts are expertly accomplished, and never jar. All of this is brought to life by a string section (two violins, two violas, cello, upright bass), two guitars (mostly acoustics, with a smattering of electric and some mandolin), piano, and percussion.
The show opened on Broadway in February 2014 and closed only three months later, unable to attract an audience to sustain a longer run. I suspect that it will not be widely performed in future, which would be a sorry fate for such a fine, distinctive score. Then again, I also imagine some of the songs will flourish in concert settings for many years to come.
See my entry on Playing The Bridges of Madison County – Guitar 1 book for details of my experience playing this show, commentary on the songs and my approach to the music.