PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Bridges of Madison County Composer-Lyricist Jason Robert Brown
By Adam Hetrick
February 2, 2014
Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown has returned to Broadway with the new musical The Bridges of Madison County, based on the best-selling 1992 Robert James Waller novel. Brown spoke with Playbill.com about his latest project.
Brown (Parade, Songs for a New World) is collaborating with Tony and Pulitzer Marsha Norman (The Secret Garden, 'Night Mother) to expand the world of Waller's novella for the Broadway stage.
Directed by Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher (Golden Boy, South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza), The Bridges of Madison County Based on the 1992 Robert James Waller novel, The Bridges of Madison County will officially open Feb. 20. Tony Award nominee Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale star.
When you set out to adapt the novel for the stage, how did you identify the musical palette you would use?
Jason Robert Brown: All of my shows have different worlds, and it was important that Iowa 1959 not sound like Honeymoon in Vegas and not sound like The Last Five Years and not sound like 13 and that it be its own thing. So the trick in doing that was to ask myself, "What are the confines? What can’t I do?" It can't sound too urban. Every time I sat down at the piano, I felt that I knew where I was going already and that wasn't helpful, so I actually picked up a guitar, which I don't play and said, "I'm going to write this show on this guitar, and I'm just going to figure out how to do it."
A lot of the show is sort of based around that because it gave me the farm and it gave me the Midwest in '65. It really helped define the palate of the show. The sound is guitar and strings. You know there's a percussionist and a pianist, but it's a very pure world, and I feel that I always create best within the narrowest of confines. The musical world has to be very clearly defined. Honeymoon in Vegas has a big sound. You want that big band sound. So with that I need a lot more musicians. But with this, I wanted to really isolate these people, because in a lot of ways the show is about isolation; two people who are isolated and find each other, and I wanted the music to bring them together that way.
How aware of the cultural phenomenon of the book and film were you? Did that impact your writing?
JRB: I mean, it's this iconic book that everybody knows. I'd only seen about 10 minutes of the movie. I was 24 when the book came out, too, and it wasn't a book written for 22-year-old single guys [laughs]. So it never peaked my consciousness, but when Marsha came to me about the project, before I even read the book, she said, "This is what I wanted to do with it. It's about this." And for me, projects are about the people you do them with, as much as they are what is under them. So, the opportunity to work with Marsha and to write something for Kelli O'Hara was so strong and so great. I saw how much romance there was and I wanted to write a romance very badly. I instantly said that we have to do this one. It's been so rewarding because there’s so much beneath it that we keep pulling out.
How much of a touchstone was the original book for you?
JRB: The book is, in a way, almost impressionistic. It's a very short book. There's so much that we are doing that the book couldn't do and the music does so much that a book can't do. I don't think that people are going to walk in and be like, "Oh, it's not the book." We have taken the DNA from the book and created a musical about that.
Bartlett Sher said that the script and score for Bridges of Madison County is perhaps the best material he's ever worked on. Does this project feel different to you as well?
JRB: I want to do good things and I want to work with good people and I haven't had a show on Broadway in five-and-a-half years, you know. I don't want to put stuff out there that I don't love. I love all the stuff I put out there and I love this just as much. Working with Marsha has been a dream, and working with Bart has been thrilling. It's a selfish choice for me. I can't say that any of my babies are less precious to me, but this is the newest. This is the one that people have heard the least, and I'm just so eager to get it out there and get people to hear it, and just sort of experience it.
You had the luxury of staging this in a pilot production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Was a great deal learned there that you're able to apply for Broadway?
JRB: I actually loved it at Willamstown. I felt like what we got a chance to do was to see how the audience responded to it, and they responded so warmly. We could see that there were a couple of places that needed to be tightened up a little bit, but it wasn’t like, "Oh, let's throw out the machine." I'm rewriting one song and that's the majority of the changes. Marsha is tweaking a few lines, but it's just been about making sure it builds and that the story grows more organically. I loved doing it at Williamstown. That theatre was just great and those audiences were so smart.
You wrote this score for Kelli O'Hara. How did that directly influence the sound of the piece?
JRB: Any musician gets used to an instrument and also wants the best possible instrument. If you're a pianist you want that Steinway, you know, you want the best possible instrument. Knowing that I have Kelli O'Hara means that I had the best possible instrument. There’s nothing that I write that she can’t do. And it all has a very specific color and character to it, but within that, everything's possible. It's just so glorious when she starts singing these songs and you're like, "Yes! That’s the best version of that song. No one will ever do that that well because I wrote it for that instrument." It just blossoms out. It's the greatest thing in the world.
(Adam Hetrick is the editor in chief of Playbill.com. His work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com, as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillAdamH).