'Bridges of Madison County': Plenty of reasons to sing

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The cynical might call it sentimental, but the story at the heart of "The Bridges of Madison County" is infused with the inner turmoil and heightened emotions one might expect from opera -- or a powerful musical.

That’s the bet taken by the creative team behind this brand new musical, which makes its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival on Saturday after two previews. It runs until Aug. 18.

Its story, about a short but intense adulterous affair in small-town 1960s Iowa, originated with Robert James Waller’s hugely successful book in 1992, was re-told three years later in the popular film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, and is now reimagined for the stage.

"The most difficult decision anybody makes to musicalize something is the source material. If the source material is flawed, it will not work," remarks director Bartlett Sher. "This is one of those rare things that you always hope for when you’re looking for material to adapt, that the best expression of a story is found in a musical. The romance, the sacrifice, the longing -- it has lots of great reasons to sing."

Sher -- who won a Tony award for his direction of the 2007 revival of "South Pacific," is resident director at Lincoln Center Theatre, and has directed numerous works for the Metropolitan Opera -- is among a very well-credentialed team of theater artists who’ve been developing this musical for four years. There’s plenty of money and momentum behind the production; it’s already booked to open on Broadway in January of next year.

The book is written by Marsha Norman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her play " ‘night, Mother" and a Tony

for "The Secret Garden." Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the music and lyrics, has his own Tony (for the score to "Parade"), and previously collaborated with Norman on "The Trumpet of the Swan," an ambitious adaptation of E.B. White’s book billed as "a novel symphony for actors and orchestra."

The would-be couple at the heart of the story is played by Elena Shaddow and Steven Pasquale, who also appeared together in "The Light in the Piazza." (Pasquale may be best known for his work on the TV series "Rescue Me.")

Discussing the play in an empty dance studio at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance after a long rehearsal in the building, Sher and Norman examine the emotional conflict on which the story hinges, as a beautiful Italian transplant considers throwing her family into turmoil by pursuing a romance with a traveling photographer.

"We think most of us have had a fantasy, had a thought, had a question -- what would have happened if I had gone down that path, made that choice instead of this one, married Ted instead of Fred?" Norman says.

"There’s a connection to this longing and this knowledge people have that the choices they’ve made have really created the lives that they’ve lived, and it could have been different."

The creative team knows there’s something about this story that attracts an audience, but also that they have to deftly maneuver around any expectations theatre-goers may have based on their experience of the book or film.

Citing a scene from the film that does not work in the context of the stage, Norman says her job is to interpret the underlying emotion rather than offer a literal transcription of previous incarnations of "Madison County."

"There’s something in this story that people come back to. But they’re not looking for a page-by-page, perfect rendition. They don’t want a copy of an experience that they’ve already had," she says. "There’s a feeling they experienced, and you have to look for other ways to get them that same feeling."

The musical has had a patient incubation period including four workshops, so this Williamstown production offers a chance to fine-tune the storytelling. Norman says the team is well past the days of tearing out script pages and diving into re-writes. With the shape of the story in place, this first public airing of the show offers Sher the chance to complete his own "draft," he says.

"We feel like we have a pretty good sense of the shape, but there are millions of emotional calibrations that are still to be worked out. Part of it is in the extremely warm and intelligent community of the Berkshires, and Williamstown," Sher says. "We need the safety to prepare and inspect what the piece is as we prepare to move it on."

"I think making musicals is about as hard a thing to do as there is in the arts," he adds, "and I think audiences who love new musicals are also demanding. Our job is to stay focused on what we love."


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