‘The Bridges of Madison County’ novel springs to life as a musical
When the book “The Bridges of Madison County” debuted in 1992, its publishers had only printed 35,000 copies.
From that small start, Robert James Waller’s first novel blossomed into a phenomenal best-seller. The book, which is still in print, spent three years on the New York Times best-seller list and went on to sell more than 60 million copies with editions in 40 languages.
In 1995, it had a second life when its story about a four-day love affair between an Iowa housewife and a visiting photographer became a popular movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
It’s been reborn again as a musical with a new viewpoint created by writer Marsha Norman and an original score from Jason Robert Brown.
Fans need not fret.
It’s still set in Iowa’s Madison County in 1965 and focuses on a brief, but significant, romance between housewife Francesca Johnson and photographer Robert Kincaid who meet when Kincaid, a divorcee, knocks on her door hoping for directions to one of the covered bridges he’s shooting for a national magazine.
Mutually attracted, they spend four blissful days together before reality requires them to make painful choices and decisions.
“It’s an epic romance (like) ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘Tristan and Isolde’ — finding that person you love until you die. If you are a romantic, you want to believe that can happen,” says Elizabeth Stanley, who plays Francesca in the national touring production that will play March 8 through 13 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
“I think everyone who sees the story can relate to it in some way. We all make choices and sacrifices in our lives,” Stanley says.
But the musical has some surprises.
Waller’s original novel told the story from Kincaid’s point of view, and the lovers’ encounter took place in relative seclusion.
In the stage show, Norman made Robert and Francesca younger, with the musical telling the story from Francesca’s perspective.
Norman’s version also expands the action, taking the audience backward and forward in time and introducing people from the lovers’ larger world, such as Robert’s ex-wife, Francesca’s husband and children and members of the community where Francesca lives.
“I think everyone who sees the story can relate. If you are a fan, you will find it really fascinating,” Stanley says.
Stanley’s Broadway career includes roles in the 2014 revival of “On the Town,” and the 2006 revival of “Company,” as well as roles in the musicals “Cry-Baby” and “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Pittsburgh audiences have seen her in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera productions of “Cats” and “Jekyll & Hyde” and as the Lady of the Lake in CLO’s “Spamalot.”
But for Stanley, Francesca is a dream role.
“Marsha (Norman) wrote very witty characters,” Stanley says. “The thing I love about (Francesca) is that she is very human, resilient and hard-working. She is a woman of a very different time period (1965), when the rules for women were different.”
Stanley also was attracted by the chance to sing Brown’s score that won 2014 Tony Awards for best original score and best orchestration.
“It doesn’t get much better. He writes gorgeous lyrics. I say one thing, but the cello is saying something else. For the listener, it’s a really complex experience,” she says.
Kelli O’Hara played Francesca when the show debuted on Broadway in 2014.
But Stanley says she and Andrew Samonsky, who plays Robert, were given a lot of freedom in re-creating the characters for the national tour.
Original director Bartlett Sher and Tyne Rafaeli, who directed the national tour, were open to their suggestions and interpretations, Stanley says.
“It was a really creative process, very collaborative,” she says. “We did already know the (design) of the piece, but we are different actors, and they were very open to sharing what they found to work and open to deepening the work or making changes that didn’t get nailed down the first time around.”
Pittsburgh will be the seventh stop for the tour that opened in Des Moines in November.
But Stanley is not yet ready to stop working on her character and the musical.
“I love the great challenge of it. It continues to be a piece I keep learning about, deepening as a singer. There’s a lot I keep working on,” she says.
Alice T. Carter is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.
Bridges of Western Pa.
If “The Bridges of Madison County” stirs your interest in covered bridges, you don’t need to travel all the way to Iowa, where the musical is set.
Nearly three dozen covered bridges built from the 1860s to 1915 can be found in nearby Washington and Greene counties.
Unlike Robert Kincaid, the photographer in the musical, you won’t need to go knocking on doors to find them.
The Washington County Tourism Promotion Agency and Greene County Tourist Promotion Agency has put together a brochure outlining four road trips that will lead the way to 30 original and restored covered bridges, all of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to driving directions and color photos of each bridge, the brochure offers statistics and interesting facts about each bridge.
Details: 724-228-5520 or visitwashingtoncountypa.com