ON THE RECORD: The Bridges of Madison County

By Steven Suskin
04 May 2014

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column explores the original Broadway cast recording of Jason Robert Brown's The Bridges of Madison County.

*

Fans of rhapsodically rich, soaringly theatrical musical scores like Carousel, The Most Happy Fella and The Light in the Piazza might profitably turn their attention to Jason Robert Brown's The Bridges of Madison County [Ghostlight]. Brown's newest musical doesn't — for several reasons — fall in the same category as the above-mentioned titles. The score itself, though, is a pyramid of strong, intelligent and melodic treasures that people who love this sort of thing will be happy to bask in, and it's been a while since we've been able to say that.

Bridges is based on the 1992 sentimental novel by Robert James Waller, which in turn was adapted into a 1995 big-screen blockbuster starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. It tells of Francesca (Kelli O'Hara), a displaced Neapolitan war bride. After 18 years on a farm in middle-of-nowhere Iowa — confined by her hard-working ex-GI husband, two squabbling teenagers, and no passion — she is swept off her feet by Robert (Steven Pasquale), a wandering photographer who is on assignment shooting the scenic bridges in the area. They meet, they are instantly smitten, they have a passionately torrid affair, they learn the secrets of life (as you might say). Ultimately, she refuses to desert her family and run away with him.



The musical, thus, is not much interested in action; it is a character study of the two protagonists. Brown examines them as if under a microscope, drawing them in music and lyrics with layer upon layer of insight. The nature of the show affords the composer the time, and the room, to create these characters from within: The things they say, the things they don't or can't say, the things they believe or think they believe. Brown digs deeper and deeper, over 14 powerful songs, and succeeds in grand and glorious manner.

The composer starts things off with a plaintive cello solo — Brown wrote the orchestrations, too, and they are superb — and Francesca's solo "To Build a Home." This memory piece follows the young bride as she sails from Naples across the sea, and then from Pennsylvania Station on "a train that slices like a scythe through the fields of America." The couple roosts on three hundred acres in rural Winterset, where "blade of grass by blade of grass, and ear of corn by ear of corn" she builds herself a home and a semblance of a life.

O'Hara and Cass Morgan
photo by Joan Marcus

Robert has a similarly effective introductory number, in which he explains that he has been looking for something: "You chase it every day, you think you're on your way, and then you're temporarily lost." (While Francesca's number is punctuated by cello and piano, the music for this 1965 American wanderer is heavy on guitar.)

"What Do You Call a Man Like That?" explores the initial attraction felt by this unavailable woman, while he counters with a song of "Wondering." This is one of the half-dozen beauties in the score. "You're wondering," he sings to himself no less than twelve times, like a cry in the night, concluding that "nothing's gonna happen." But of course it will. The song itself has one of those plaintive melodies that stays with you.

"Look at Me," a duet which crystallizes the burgeoning mutual attraction with cascading guitars, explodes with barely controllable excitement. "Don't offer your hand, don't reach for my waist, don't lean towards my lips, please — just look at me." The first act ends — and the affair is set afire — with another stunning song in which Robert sings, "All my life I have been falling, I have been falling into you." The words are purposely simple, set to a strong melodic line — accompanied by an insistent rhythmic heartbeat pounded into the piano — that turns the thing into sheer beauty.

"Who We Are and Who We Want to Be" is an effective morning-after song, in which both middle-aged characters discover themselves in a new and unexpected place. This leads to the musical peak of the show. Francesca starts by acknowledging that the affair has brought her new life, defined by the time "Before and After You." Robert follows this by an extended interlude ("For the First Time in My Life"), a minute-long section which — thanks to the bravery of the composer and the talent of Pasquale — is sung a cappella, after which the pair consummate the scene with another beauty virtually throbbing with emotion, "One Second and a Million Miles."

 Continued...