Romantique

“Oh, you’ll feel such feels!” theatre-savvy friends assured me, upon learning I’d see The Bridges of Madison County. Hopeful, I was, but oh, I yawned such yawns.

The show may go down in history as the fascinating failure of 2014. There’s much to discuss, some of it positive. Stars Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale give stirring vocal performances. One can appreciate them like one appreciates opera stars in a tedious opera. Much of the music they sing, by Jason Robert Brown, is abundantly pretty. It’s a treat for the ears, if not the mind or heart.

The script is by Marsha Norman, who also wrote The Color Purple and The Secret Garden. Her dialogue sounds natural enough, but she fails to create any tension until well into the second act. It struck me as a stacked deck, methodically played: an unfulfilled Iowa farm-wife, a dashing stranger with a sympathetic ear, the ever-so-convenient husband-and-kids-out-of-town-for-a-few-days. Gee, what’s going to happen here?

And how long is this going to take? Look, I don’t ask that all the shows I see be stuffed to the brim with surprising and dramatic events. But Bridges is a slow dance with no serious impediments to the lovers’ consummation. It spends far too much time spinning its wheels, pretending something is standing in their way. And I mean that literally. The drifter mentions his ex-wife, and, in what feels like a directorial conceit if ever I’ve seen one, on comes a woman, crossing through the set, staring at him. This implies that the man is still holding a torch for his ex, and yet absolutely nothing in his actions nor dialogue supports this.

Similarly, we hear quite a bit about the leading lady’s past, in Italy in the mid-forties. There was a fiancé who didn’t return from the war, and a sister who embraced slatternliness as a strategy. These, too, are just the stuff of small talk; I couldn’t glean any influence on her present life or current actions. It might have made more sense to unearth a high school book report she’d written on The Scarlet Letter.

One gets the sense that the creators have nothing to say. They bought the rights to a best-seller, one that had been filmed with famous stars, and assumed that musicalization would lead to big ticket sales. It did not. Over the course of its run, The Bridges of Madison County regularly sold about a third of its available seats, and rarely for full price. Opinions may divide about its quality, but there’s no denying its total failure to catch fire at the box office.

Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown are, to me, a pair of writers who inspire a certain amount of faith. She’s got a Pulitzer Prize, he, a Kleban. Both have Tonys. Now, those who know me are probably aware of how much I disliked their past work: I found both The Secret Garden and Parade mind-numbingly boring. But so many people I respect had said such wonderful things about this effort, I’m actually stunned by how stilted the storytelling is.

An example of this really-pretty-inertia is the leading man’s big song towards the end, It All Fades Away But You. A hefty chunk of the running time has these lyrics:

It all fades away but you
It all fades away
It all fades away
It all fades away but you

during which you might be saying to yourself “This is a real pretty tune.” or “Man, he’s got a pretty voice.” or even “Man, that’s a pretty man.” And I’d be inclined to agree with you, but, there in my fifth-row-center seat, I’m a bit overwhelmed by boredom. Part of my mind is going “I got it; now, can we get on?”

And here’s the thing: Brown may have written a very good pop song, but he fails to understand the difference between a pop song and a theatre song. Good musical theatre thrives on compression; flabbier shows get mired in expansion. The glacial pace of The Bridges of Madison County is due to its authors’ insistence on taking certain emotional moments in the story and expanding them. And these tend to be the stronger numbers in the score. But there’s no conflict, very few times when you wonder what will happen next, and so we get a procession of would-be achingly beautiful songs that are indeed beautiful but oddly lacking in ache.

Music, I maintain, needs to be more than just pretty. And – to mention a positive – Brown shakes things up, utilizing a mélange of styles. We hear what sounds like an exercise on a solo cello. I’m still not sure why we do, but at least it’s different. At another point, strings serve up thick chords that remind one of Copland; seems appropriate for rural Iowa in 1965. And some of these country locals sing country songs, which is fine except they sound way too modern for 1965. There’s a piano theme that sounds like a classical piano piece that gets associated with the heroine’s memories of Italy. Except the piece doesn’t sound Italian. And that ghost of an ex-wife gets a number that’s wonderfully evocative of Joni Mitchell. I liked that song quite a bit, really. Took me right back to the mid-seventies, but the kitchen has no microwave because, oh yeah, it’s 1965.

I’ve two friends in the ensemble, and they take seats on the sides of the stage and watch intimate two-character scenes. What’s that about? Does society’s condemnation of adulterers ever come into play in this piece? There’s a nosy neighbor, a phone that keeps ringing at inappropriate moments, and a couple of eminently unlovable teens. Because the lead lovers have such great voices, you grow to resent every time these stock characters make an incursion.

With director Bartlett Sher reunited with the pre-eminent musical theatre star Kelli O’Hara, one can’t help thinking of their infinitely superior collaboration, The Light in the Piazza – a very romantic musical in which interesting stuff keeps happening! As in Piazza’s brilliant duet, Say It Somehow, O’Hara gets a bit of wordless birdsong and I smiled at the recollection of a show that made me feel feels in spades.

She also gets something of an art song in the second act. By this I mean that it tells its story over five minutes without a hook on its title, and requires a huge (two octaves, I think) vocal range. I can’t imagine anyone besides Kelli O’Hara who could handle it as well. It made me think, OK, I can’t muster much interest in this eventless romance, but at least there’s something really good going on for consolation: I’m hearing an extraordinary piece of music warbled with extraordinary panache. At least that’s something.

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