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

By Marc Acito
February 10, 2014

Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara and "Rescue Me" star Steven Pasquale chat with Playbill.com about playing onstage lovers for the second time around.

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When television heartthrob Steven Pasquale locks lips with four-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara onstage in The Bridges of Madison County, audiences will witness a kiss over a decade in the making.

The stars of the new musical have led a star-crossed path. In the original 2003 Seattle production of The Light in the Piazza, Pasquale, as the romantic Italian Fabrizio, wooed Celia Keenan-Bolger as Clara, while O'Hara played the secondary role of Franca. By the time the show came to New York in 2005, O'Hara had moved to her star-making turn as Clara, but Pasquale was no longer available, having landed the role of firefighter Sean Garrity on the television series "Rescue Me." Pasquale's seven seasons on that show kept him away from O'Hara until last year, when the pair finally played opposite one another in Far From Heaven at Playwrights Horizons. Due to their characters' loveless marriage, however, their lips barely touched for a passionless peck.

Any plans to break out the breath mints for the first production of Bridges in Williamstown, MA, last summer were foiled when the birth of O'Hara's second child prevented her from taking part.

Reunited at last, O'Hara and Pasquale sat down with Playbill on the set of Bridges, cozying up on a Midwestern diner banquette set adrift in a rehearsal studio, the lights of 42nd Street blinking incongruously just outside the window. The two are clearly comfortable together, shoulders touching, O'Hara completely unruffled by having had this reporter accidentally walk in on her moments before while pumping breast milk. As the mother of a newborn, she's pumped at the White House, the Kennedy Center, the Metropolitan Opera "and pretty much any bathroom in New York City."

O'Hara's sense of ease and calm permeates a rehearsal atmosphere that can often fizz with panic, a principle she learned from John Lithgow while playing a supporting role in 2002's Sweet Smell of Success. "On and offstage," she explained, "the air and the energy starts from the top and it can cloud it incredibly badly or it can lift you up."

Indeed, it was O'Hara, plus the Tony Award–winning trio of director Bartlett Sher, book writer Marsha Norman and composer Jason Robert Brown that sold Pasquale before he read a word or heard a note. "This could have been a project called Poop and I would have gotten involved with those four people," he said.

"Please, let's do a production of Poop very soon," deadpanned O'Hara.

 

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."