An Affair to Remember — Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale Talk The Bridges of Madison County

By Marc Acito
10 Feb 2014


Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

It's fitting that Bridges finally gets musicalized, because the idea for the 1992 novella actually began as a song. Author Robert James Waller, an Iowa economics professor, was also a guitarist and songwriter who performed on the campaign trail for Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. An avid photographer, Waller was taking pictures of Madison County bridges in early 1990 when he recalled a song he'd written in his youth about the lost dreams of a woman named Francesca.

The ideas collided and the tale of a lonely, displaced Italian war bride and her four-day affair with a travelling National Geographic photographer poured out of Waller in just two weeks. The resulting book spent over three years on the New York Times bestseller list (a record at the time), surpassing "Gone With the Wind" as the bestselling hardcover fiction book of all time. Oprah Winfrey called "Bridges" "one of the most romantic, stirring tales of true love I've ever read." In her review of the 1995 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, though, critic Janet Maslin of the New York Times, dismissed the novella as "the world's longest greeting card."

Still, Waller, who recorded a follow-up album called "The Ballads of Madison County," felt that the story sang. He reached out to playwright Norman, who so tenderly rendered the bittersweet heart of the Broadway musical adaptations of The Secret Garden and The Color Purple. Norman immediately called composer Jason Robert Brown, whose musical The Last Five Years set the contemporary musical theatre standard for thoughtful examination of relationships.

Having written the musical comedies 13 and Honeymoon in Vegas, Brown was looking for a piece "that could really go deep emotionally," something akin to La Traviata, "where people could sing all the way through their souls." The moment Norman mentioned Waller's tale of noble sacrifice, he knew he had found it. Brown and Norman expanded the story, not just by populating the Iowa farm town, but by delving into the memories of the lovers, finding a folksy, pop sound for the hero and a semi-classical Italian flavor for the heroine.

For the latter, the team knew they had to have O'Hara. "Kelli is, simply put, the real thing," Brown said, "and the real thing is in short supply." Sher, who directed O'Hara in both Piazza and South Pacific, described her as his "muse" and "the truth meter" for her level of depth

And to match that level, Sher finally lured Pasquale back to the musical stage. "He's the most naturally gifted tenor in the business," Sher said. "That masculinity and power and his ability to lift that into song — it's just unparalleled. And he's a great actor."

That it took ten years for these stars to align echoes the theme of Waller's novella: "In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once."