The Bridges of Madison County on Broadway
We were waiting. This was no surprise; and, honestly, it wasn’t a problem. After all, it was just a social day that would be spent running around, going to beach, doing some shopping – just a social day. Still, we were waiting. Suellen just wanted to grab Madchen, her dog, and a couple of things for the beach. She was running around her house, collecting things and stopping to play with Madchen. And we were waiting.
I sat down on the bed. I watched Suellen and Madchen play, while Christine and Sean chatted about something happening in the world. I sat on the bed and looked around the room. There. On the nightstand. I recognized the cover, having seen it in every bookstore in America. How boring. Everyone in America was talking about it. Everyone in America was in love with it. Oprah talked about it all the time, all the time, all the time. I had not bothered to pay any attention. I hate the bandwagon and it is a place I never want to be. Still, I was waiting and had little else to do. I leaned over and picked up the book, opening it to page one, and began to read. It had my attention. Two pages later, Suellen was ready to go and I was embarrassed to say that I no longer wanted to go to the beach, I wanted to stay here and read.
The day that I returned to New York City, I went to the store and bought my own copy of The Bridges of Madison County.
It isn’t every book that I pick up which forces me to ignore my life until I have finished the story. In fact, I know their names: The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Magic, Bloodline, The Grass Harp, Howard’s End, Maurice. The Bridges of Madison County held me captive, from the second time I picked up and read page one to the final moment when I closed the book for the last time. Indeed, I remember that moment, vividly, and, until three days ago, I had never shared the moment with anyone – and, three days ago, I told my husband the story. I was on the subway, the 1 train, riding downtown and reading The Bridges of Madison County. I was crying. I could not stop, would not stop, until I was finished. I was going to be so engrossed in the novel that I would miss my stop. At the 18th street stop, I knew I would have to get off the train, if I was to satisfy my need to finish the novel. I fled the darkened underground for the light of day and, upon reaching the street, sat right down on the curb of 8th avenue, in the afternoon sun, and scanned the pages of the book with my anxious eyes, weeping in public, for all to see, and fulfilled my need for completion of the tale. I closed the novel and sat on the street, crying softly into my hands.
It is extremely rare for a novel that I love so passionately to be turned into a film that I love passionately. When the casting of the movie The Bridges of Madison County was announced, I was a bit confused. I, like all, loved Meryl Streep and respected Clint Eastwood. He seemed a bit old for the role of Robert Kincaid and I thought Isabella Rossellini a more appropriate choice. Still, I was willing to give the two legendary artists their shot at these two characters, two of the most interesting and human characters ever to be put to page. I was not disappointed, in spite of my reservations, and the film version of my favourite book became a favourite movie, indeed, my favourite Meryl Streep performance until her movie Hope Springs. So, for years, was my relationship to the story of The Bridges of Madison County.
When I read, a year or two ago, that Jason Robert Brown was writing a musical of my favourite story, that he was going to put onto the musical stage a new presentation of Francesca Johnson, my favourite literary character (along with Margaret Schlegel, Dolly Talbo, Noel Page, Rynn Jacobs and Dorian Gray), I was nonplussed. I had enjoyed some of Mr Brown’s songs but left cold by his musical Parade (only Carolee Carmello’s performance in this play, had I found breathtaking enough to remember); so my interest was piqued but not to the extreme. I would go. I would give the show a chance. In fact, one night, outside of PIPPIN, I looked up and saw the billboard for The Bridges of Madison County and thought it was beautiful enough to Instagram. Yes. I would definitely go.
It took weeks since the opening of the play for me to get to the theater to see the play; and it was only because a friend took my husband to see the new work, immediately after which Pat went on the tdf website and bought tickets for two nights later. A date night for myself and the love of life was planned for one of my few nights off of work. What fun! My husband and I love date nights, especially if it means sitting beside each other in a theater. It must be said that he and I both, truly, know how to shut out the world and allow ourselves to take the journey provided by the artisans who create theatrical magic. We enjoy their work, our journey and the joy of, occasionally, turning to see that each other is enjoying the journey, as well. As the curtain rises on a new theatrical experience, like children at the circus, we grab each others’ hand, hold our breath and wait…
I have been teased and laughed at by friends for my tendency toward dramatic expression when discussing my feelings, particularly over a trip to the theater. Every play is the best play I’ve ever seen, every play is one I will remember until the day I die. I have also been admired by these same friends who laugh at me. In life, every day, I see the truth; about the world and about myself. I am a bit of a joke to people, and happy to be so, because I also know that people admire, perhaps envy, maybe respect, that I choose to eat life. Every experience must be enjoyed to the fullest extent – otherwise it is wasted energy; every emotion must be felt to the extreme, even if it hurts, otherwise there is no benefit in the emotion.
The Bridges of Madison County is a quiet musical. I have heard people refer to it as a chamber piece and other similar adjectives. Funny, I thought I was at the opera. It is a quiet, small musical that felt, not like it was larger than life, but more like it was exactly the size of life. Epic. With this musical, staged in a classical musical theater staging where even the movement of sliding a kitchen table on a trolly from one side of the stage to the other felt like a chandelier falling, a helicopter rising or a staircase sweeping onto a stage. The way the cast of characters and picket fences danced around the lovers at the center of the story felt like a performance of a ballet by Balanchine. The light that illuminated the story was like being at the epicenter of the Aurora Borealis and a simple man-made tree upstage center made me feel like I was living in an Ansel Adams photograph. From the opening moment to the final curtain call, I wept, I sighed, I laughed and, quietly, whimpered. I knew that superlatives and extremity of emotions were not behind what I was feeling. Jason Brown, Marsha Norman, Bartlett Sher and the artists on the stage had reached inside of my heart and found the switch that I try, very hard, to keep at the OFF station and flicked it ON.
I believe that everyone who attends a Broadway theater gets a magical Kelli O’Hara moment. This beautiful performing artist can not make a wrong move and is shockingly chameleon-like. She can sing in any style, act inside of any time period and her work is the epitome of excess within control. With one high note, she can move you from your seat in the theater to the clouds; and I believe that, though a person will enjoy her work in any play, there will always be one special performance that each audience member will carry to the end. This was my Kelli O’Hara moment. To attempt to describe it is superfluous, futile; I can only say that Kelli O’Hara brought to life this character that I love so much, that I have read and seen on film so many times it is embarrassing, and gave her a newness that I had not thought possible. The simultaneous vulnerability and strength, the joy and the despair, the complacency, overshadowed by longing; every contradictory emotion that a wife, mother and woman feels, nay, even a few men, I am sure (as sure as I am of my own heart) is right there, on that staircase, on that kitchen floor, in that bathtub, on that bridge. Other actresses, gifted and wonderful, might have done a superlative job, will give breathtaking performances, will present the wonder that is this character; none, however, will bring the individual magic to her as this actress, for whom (I am given to understand) the role was (God, thank you) written. Indeed, if it is possible, this is the most human I have ever seen Francesca Johnson.
I never saw Steven Pasquale before. I saw him on TV but I never saw him onstage or heard him sing; and, with this one performance he joins the five men who have, long, been my favourite men of Broadway; but he has claimed a, particularly, special place on that list. Oh, his acting is superb and his singing is astonishing and, yes, he is certainly easy to look at. He did, however, do something for me that nobody has done before: he showed me myself on a musical theater stage. Those emotions I have, the ones of which I am so proud, I try (often to desperation) to control them, to keep them down, to keep them away from people and out of sight, to keep them stoic, particularly with regards to my life as an artist. I have been behind the camera for over three decades. I have had successes and I have had failures; but I have never denied the fact that I am a photographer, at least not in my heart or my soul. I have said, often that we are not defined by our jobs, which is a lie. I actually AM defined by my station as a photographer. I am a watcher, a story teller, simultaneously within and without, looking through a lens and seeing people and sights for all that they are, capturing them for others to see, for now and all time. I can, successfully, lock away the emotions but, never, lock away the need, the desire, the power of looking through that window. With Jason Brown’s music and (especially) lyrics and his epic voice, Steven Pasquale gave me the gift of seeing myself expressed in a Broadway musical. The flood of tears was unstoppable. I am certain that my husband is grateful to these two men for the experience he had, watching me respond to this particular musical number.
Beyond this, though, I saw, expressed in this play, more emotions that I have felt in my life than, possibly, ever in another play. The longing, the fear, the love, the sacrifice, the devotion to family, the friendship, the vastness of country life, the loneliness of artistry, the scrutiny of others, the support of certainty, the abandon of adventure, the wistfulness for the past, the worry for the future, the sorrow for change. It, and more, is all in there. I don’t know how these writers got inside my head, got inside my heart, and swept through my emotions and thoughts for public consumption; but I am grateful to be seen, even if it is through these characters that so many people will come to love. Maybe the creators just tapped into emotions that every human feels – I wouldn’t know, as I am preoccupied with the exhaustion of juggling all of them, coursing through my veins, running rampant through my being. As the play came to and end, first with Steven Pasquale’s final opus, followed by Kelli O’Hara’s expression of how important it is to love, I came completely undone. My family will back this up: everything in my life starts from a place of love. It is the most important thing; and it is to be treasured. Love is where everything begins and it is the place from which we all must come, if we are to live happy lives.
I cannot let this be unsaid: I hope the New York theatrical community appreciates the treasures they have in Cass Morgan and Hunter Foster. They are incomparable and irreplaceable.
I could go on. There is little to no point, as I feel that my thoughts are abundantly clear. With The Bridges of Madison County, Jason Robert Brown has reached what is, for me (and my husband) the perfect expression of his artistry. He has captured a place in my heart that will go on forever. He and the entire creative team have moved me, beyond measure, beyond compare, something for which I will always be grateful. Indeed, this version of The Bridges of Madison County actually surpasses the ones that I loved before, having brought together this story, beloved to me, and the artform of musical theater, cherished since the age of five — but for more than that, really; for bringing Robert Kincaid closer to my heart than he had been before, for illuminating corners of my inner being, previously darkened, for casting a light on the past and the future that will never dim.
I came home from the play the other night. Four times in my life I have been unable to move, unable to breathe at the end of a play: Burn This, M Butterfly, Angels in America, Sunday in the Park With George. This was the fifth. As I prepared for bed, I opened my Playbill and looked at the song list, where I saw the names of two songs “The World Inside a Frame” and “Love is Always Better”… and I began to weep. My face in my hands, standing up against the front door, I am weeping, quietly and softly. I might be there, still. My husband came to me and put his hands on my shoulders and asked what was wrong… and all I could say was
“Over a play. Over a Goddamned play.”
But, audible sigh; oh, what a play.