Bridges Tony Nominee Jason Robert Brown Gets "Very Personal" Within Madison County

Jason Robert Brown, the Tony Award-winning Parade songwriter, took his final trip to Madison County May 14, conducting his 2014 Tony-nominated score of The Bridges of Madison County for a final time. After all, he admitted that the work is extremely "personal."

Jason Robert Brown
Jason Robert Brown (Photo by Monica Simoes)

"What I aspire to do, and what I try the hardest to do is write stuff that's very personal in its way," Brown told Playbill.com at the April 30 Tony Award nominees press junket. "I figure I can only say things the way I say them, so I'm trying to do something that is kind of anti-generic. In that respect, to be able to put something of my own out there — with a very personal stamp — it's a little scary, and it also doesn't always feel entirely endemic to this particular environment, so when the community responds and says, 'We love this work. We understand what you're doing. We appreciate it,' I love that part. Obviously, it's very gratifying."

Despite Brown's Tony nomination for Best Original Score — as well as three others for Best Actress ( Kelli O'Hara), Best Lighting Design ( Donald Holder) and Best Orchestrations (Brown) — it was announced May 1 that the new musical, based on the romantic novel by Robert James Waller, would close May 18.

Since then, Brown has taken to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre to conduct the orchestra and played his final performance May 14, where an abundance of fans and friends were in attendance. They greeted O'Hara and Steven Pasquale with rapturous applause, stopped the show numerous times in its second act (following "One Second and a Million Miles," arguably the most powerful love duet of the Broadway season, O'Hara's "Almost Real" and Pasquale's "It All Fades Away"), and stood for Brown and the cast at curtain call. Brown was spotted wiping what looked like tears from his face throughout the evening.

"It is scary to write — period — for me, but once you get past the idea that it's scary to write, I still can only be who I am," Brown admitted. "As a writer, my job, to me, is to expose myself — to really sort of dig in and find out who I am and then put it on the page. That's the case if it's The Bridges of Madison County or if it's 13 or Honeymoon in Vegas or if it's Parade. The point is to bring myself through these characters and really try to understand them by understanding myself."

Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale
Photo by Joan Marcus

In Bridges, O'Hara's Francesca Johnson — an Italian war bride — opens the door (and her heart) to a photographer for the National Geographic when her husband and teenage children are away for the weekend. A harmless trip to the famed bridges of Madison County, IA, followed by dinner and beer leads to a tumultuous love affair. Brown tells their story through lush and sweeping orchestrations and folky undertones — different from his previous musical endeavors.

"It's a bit weird because I don't feel like what I write is ever less honest from one thing to another," he confided. "You're always taking some part of yourself and putting it out there… I don't entirely ever feel part of the 'Broadway community' — whatever that thing is — so I'm always kind of honored when they say to me, 'Oh, yeah, come on in. Come on over here… We like you.' I'll never be comfortable with the idea that somehow my work is supposed to be 'compared' to Steven Lutvak's work or 'compared' to Tom Kitt's stuff because I feel like we just speak from our own truth…"

Laughing, Brown added, "Really, if it were up to me, I would just skip the whole nominations entirely and give everyone in my show the Tony Award because, obviously, I feel like we're the best in the world."

Although Brown and his cast take extreme pride in The Bridges of Madison County, critics' reviews were mixed.

"I have given up at various points of my life, and being here [as a 2014 Tony Award nominee] doesn't change that," Brown admitted. "Writing is hard. This business is hard…and if you feel like giving up, I always say, 'So give up! You'll come back to it.' That is what I have always said to myself — if it's too hard, no one is forcing me to write anything — but there are times when the need to express something will be so strong that I have to do it, and that's when I start writing again. I've been very comfortable following that. No one should be in show business to be miserable, and I'm certainly not one of those people who is going to be like that, so for me, this is another step along the journey. There's no guarantees that the journey ever gets easier or harder. It is what it is, and this is the ride I signed up for a long time ago." (Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's 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 at @PlaybillMichael.)