'The Bridges of Madison County': Jason Robert Brown talks bringing the acclaimed book to the stage

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Image Credit: Joan Marcus

Jason Robert Brown just might be one of the busiest individuals currently on the theater scene. The composer and lyricist, best known for his off-Broadway hit The Last Five Years, is currently preparing for the release of the musical’s film adaptation and is also on track to bring a new production to the stage: a musical comedy called Honeymoon in Vegas, based on the 1992 film of the same name starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Nicolas Cage. In addition, his newest Broadway offering, The Bridges of Madison County, just opened at the Schoenfeld Theatre.

EW talked to the talented composer and writer about the process of bringing Bridges to the stage, and also about his excitement about bringing one of his most popular musicals to the silver screen.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you talk to me a little bit about the process of creating Bridges, and what it was like to adapt the novel for the stage?
JASON ROBERT BROWN: You know, what we wanted from the outset was to do something that really needed to be sung. I had been working on Honeymoon in Vegas, and I had been working on 13, which were both very broad shows and comic shows, and with comedy, you really have to be very sparing with your resources. It’s not an opportunity to sort of let everybody sing out and take to the stage in that way. And so I was itching for a show where everyone could really just make music and sing and let the drama encourage that. So when Marsha [Norman] brought up Bridges, I thought it sounded like a perfect vehicle for that. It’s an important book, but it’s absolutely bursting with emotion, probably over-ripely, with all of this passion in it, and I thought, “You know, that’ll be even better if they sing it.” And so I just set about trying to make the drama come alive in the music, and I did that in a bunch of different ways.

Most importantly, I did a lot trying to figure out the music for each of the characters in the show. In a way, they all sing very differently, and by that I mean primarily the three principles: Robert and Francesca and Bud. But likewise, whenever Marian sings, or whenever Marge or Charlie sings, they have their own kind of music as well. But trying to find the music for those three people was interesting, because I thought that the story of the show is really in the fact that they all sing differently and they all come from different places. I think the kind of music that Bud sings — this is a guy who’s grown up in Iowa and lived his whole life there, and he brings his bride back there to live, and he raises his kids there — he’s going to have a certain sound that’s going to permeate the rest of that community. They’re all going to sound like Iowans, they’re going to sound like people who come from the Midwest, and what would that sound like? I determined it was going be a guitar-heavy sound, and it would have a lot of rhythm to it, there would be a roughness to it, because they’re people who live in the land and they’re people who work with their hands and it’s a hard road. Being a farmer in Iowa in the ’60s wasn’t an easy thing to do. So there’s a roughness to it, but also a lot of beauty that comes out of that. And then with Francesca, it was music that should sound so foreign to the way the rest of these people sound. And so I thought a lot about the fact that she’s born in Naples, grew up in Italy, and only arrived when she was 18 or 19 years old into America, and what kind of sound that was for her. It’s very much influenced by Italian opera, Rossini and Puccini. And lastly, it was trying to figure out Robert Kincaid — who is he? What does he sound like? And I thought the Kahlil Gibran kind of vibe that he has in the novel lent itself to the idea of a ’60s troubadour — a guy who went through this time period and was trying to find a new musical language — very guitar-based and very lyrical and, in a way, very folky. And I thought those three things sort of crashed on top of each other and made the sound of the show.

It definitely worked. One thing I really liked was that despite the very distinct musical sounds, everything came together and felt very cohesive.
The design is a big part of it. Knowing from the outset what you want to do and trusting that it’ll work…while there is a lot of variety in the show, it’s actually balanced by a very specific set of rules, and a lot of that is just determined by the orchestration. I determined that there weren’t going to be any synthesizers, and there weren’t going to be any winds or any brass, it’s just going to be strings and guitars and percussion. And the piano is in there as well. And that palate, which in a lot of ways, is not colorful, is very black and white. But once I knew those limitations, that guided the way the rest of the score got told. If a trumpet had showed up in one of the songs, it would call attention to itself in a big way. And I think trusting the purity of those intentions is what pulls the whole show together, as it is for all of my stuff. I think 13 is similarly balanced by the six-garage band. It’s just part of what I do.

How involved were Kelli [O’Hara] and Steven [Pasquale] in the process?
We wrote the show for Kelli, so she wasn’t part of the production we did last summer, but she was always who we were writing for and she had done several readings of the piece with us. So Kelli was intimately involved in terms of hearing what her voice would do. And also, she’s not shy when she feels like her character wants to move in a certain direction, or doesn’t. She’s not imperialist about it, she’s willing to try it, and she’s very vocal. Steven came in much later in the process. Steven had come in for one reading about a year ago, but the first time he was really involved was when we did the show up in Williamstown. And he’s just a wonderful collaborator, but more importantly, he opens his mouth and that voice comes out. What are you gonna do? You’re helpless in the face of that instrument. He invests so completely in who this character is, and in what this character’s function is in the show and in the music, and in every sense of the world, he’s irresistible. He’s a sensational collaborator and with the music him and Kelli make together, I’m very privileged I got to write for them.

What were the big changes (if any) in taking the show from Williamstown to Broadway?
The biggest changes were the 25 minutes that we cut. I think we all had a bunch of great ideas and a bunch of wonderful ways we wanted to tell this story, and too many of them ended up on stage and we had to figure out which ones to get rid of. And, you know, the minute you cut three minutes out, you realize it was there to do a certain thing, and now you’re not doing a certain thing, and what to do you do to cover up for those three minutes, and you’ve suddenly added back two of the three minutes, and oh god. So we had to do a lot of figuring out about the best way to move the show along, because I didn’t want the audience to be done before the story was. And I think sometimes in Williamstown, that happened, and I think it even happened at the beginning of our run in New York, But by the time the show opened, I was really impressed with how Masha and [director] Bart Sher and I were able to catch the same essence and still lose that half hour, because the audience that I sat with on opening night of the show followed and tracked it and stayed with it and wanted it. They wanted the ending that we gave them, and I was very happy about that because that’s what I was aiming for all along…we just had a lot of stuff to get rid of in between. And I think that’s what the development process is for. That’s what previews are for, that’s what out of town productions are for, to try and find the best way from one end of the show to the other.

In adapting a piece like this for the stage, what inspires you? Is it the same kind of inspiration that you find when you start on new projects?
First of all, I think I’m a big romantic. I’m a very cynical romantic, if there is such a thing, and I wanted to write something that was romantic. And what was so compelling about wanting to work on this particular piece was all of the romance and all of the passion and all that it has to say about what love is and what I would call the inopportuneness of love and our ability to just go along with it because of what it says about who we are. So I liked all of that. But honestly, I write Broadway shows, I wanted to write things I knew would resonate with a large audience. So to start with a novel that has 60 million people who love it already, I thought, “I’m probably going to do okay there.” And it certainly helped in terms of getting the show up and getting people to the theater. People know they’re connected to it, and now they just want to see how we’re going to bring it to life. So certainly all of that was true, but you know, it’s also a grownup story and I wanted to write a grownup piece. I wanted to write a piece that deals with very mature emotions and very complicated emotions in a lot of cases, and I felt like this piece was a venue to do that. And more importantly, that Marsha was a wonderful collaborator to do that with, because she also understands mature emotions and complicated emotions and wants to explore them. So I felt I had the right collaborators and the right properties and that was the stuff that inspired me the most.

Can you talk a little bit about Honeymoon in Vegas?
Like with Bridges, there was a strong impetus with what I wanted to write, and Honeymoon fit that exactly, but I wanted to really write a big Broadway musical comedy. I always felt like I could, and at that point, I was the guy who had written The Last Five Years and Parade and these stories of very heavy shows. I wanted to do something that was really just goofy and fun, and allowed me to make a whole lot of big swinging noise. So Honeymoon seemed like a natural to me, and my only condition when I started was that I wanted to have Andrew Bergman write the book with me because he was one of my comedy heroes. He wrote The Inlaws, he wrote Blazing Saddles, he wrote all these fantastic movies like The Freshman, and I wanted to work with the guy who was that kind of comedian, because I felt like our abilities would match. But he had never written a musical before, and as far as I know, he wasn’t interested. But then he called me out of the blue and said, “I hear you want to write a musical about Honeymoon In Vegas, let’s meet.” And when I met him, I just loved him and I loved working with him. It took nine years to get this show up at Paper Mill Playhouse, and in nine years, we just had the best time working on this material. And this show is a blast, and that’s what I wanted it to be.

I’m super excited for the release of The Last Five Years. How excited are you for everyone to see it?
I loved the movie. It’s a wonderful tribute to the show, and it’s a great document of the work that we did and what [director] Richard LaGravenese had to say about the show, and the way he brought it life visually. It’s thrilling. I never imagined that I would be talking to you about a movie about one of my shows, especially that one, which is so abstract and theatrical. But he found a beautiful way to make it come to life on screen, and I’m desperate for people to see it. We finished the movie seven to eight months ago, but it’s finding its way, and we should have news about a distributor this week or next and we can start talking about getting it out there. But it’s time. It was 12 years ago that we premiered in New York.

And I remember that, too. It doesn’t seem that long ago!
But the idea that its journey is still going on all these years later is really a lovely thing for a writer to be able to see.

I also think it’s interesting because of the growing trend of bringing shows from Broadway to the silver screen – like Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera. But those are big budget, easy-to-translate musicals, and this is much more abstract.
I don’t think the impetus was the same. I think at a certain point, when you have Phantom or Les Mis or even Hairspray, you have a property that sort of makes a lot of money and everyone’s like, “hey! How can we make more money? Oh, let’s make a movie, and let’s get everyone in to see the movie.” And that’s sort of the driving force. The Last 5 Years is very different. I don’t think anyone was like, “let’s go make a lot of money,” we all just loved this story and what do we do to place this story into film? And because it was such an artistic impulse, I think the movie is different because of that, but I’m also immensely proud of it.

Are there any other upcoming projects that you’re excited about, or willing to share?
Oh, god. It’s hard to have anything else I’m excited for with all three of these things rolling around. You know, it’s been a lot of years building up all of this, but the idea that I can have this year where Bridges is open, and I think Honeymoon will be open by the end of the year, and The Last Five Years will be out in theatres by the end of the year…it’s thrilling, and at the same time, I have to get to my next things. I have a new solo album I’m in the middle of working on, I’ve been doing a lot of concerts and performances as the year goes on, just working as a solo artist, and there are a couple of ideas for shows that are too newly hatched for me to share, but I think they’re all coming forward in a couple of years. But let me get these out of the way first.

And it’s great that you continue to stay involved in the theatre community, even with being so busy.
I have a responsibility to the work that I do and to the people that bring it to life, so I’m just ready to be out there sharing it with the world.

In terms of personal inspirations, is there anyone you can say off the top of your head who’s inspired you as a songwriter?
There’s a bunch of people, and certainly with Bridges, it sounds a whole lot like Joni Mitchell came in and brought me lunch. But she was a big part of my inspiration for years and years and years. So I’d say that there are always three or four people at the top of the list who influenced me and who brought me the most on a musical and dramatic level to the work that I do. So there’s Joni Mitchell, there’s Paul Simon, there’s Steve Sondheim, and there’s Lenny Bernstein. And I think between those four people, you get a good lock on the kind of work that I do. And then you have to sprinkle a little Stevie Wonder in there, and a little Duke Ellington, to account for all the jazz stuff that I love and want to do, and then, alright, my world got a little bit bigger. And alright, if you want to throw in Steve Reich, then you gotta throw that in, too, and okay, so now we’ve got one more thing. But you know, being a musician – and I like to think of myself as a musician with a capital M – you need to be an omnivore, and I think the best musicians will listen to anything and love everything and I do. I try to get underneath the skin of all kinds of music and I never know what’s going to inspire me and what makes me crazy. I wouldn’t have gotten through the last three weeks without Parrell Williams’ “Happy,” so I feel like you can find it wherever you find it.

That’s one of the reasons I love your style, and I’m always so impressed at how you’re able to blend everything together and make your music work so well on so many levels.
For me, I feel like a writer is supposed to have a voice. I feel like the point of being an artist is to have your own voice, to do it the way you would do it and not the way anyone else would do it. If you’re a strong enough writer, then that voice is going to come out all the time, and I can’t stop it from coming out, no matter what I do. If I pick that chord, that’s something no one else is going to do. So I get excited about having that voice, and just letting it out in the world and I think the writers I admire most are the ones with these unshakeable voices, and they have these great voices but they have these great technical skills so they can do whatever they have to do. But it always sounds like them.

Bridges of Madison County is currently playing at the Schoenfeld Theatre.


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