In 1992 Robert James Waller released one of the best-selling 20th century novels, “The Bridges of Madison County”—one that has become a quintessential heartbreaker for readers of the romantic drama genre worldwide. The story follows an Italian-American war bride, Francesca, who ends up on a farm in Iowa with a loving husband and their two children. Isolated as her family makes a trek to the State Fair one state over, Francesca is surprised when one day a National Geographic photographer, looking for a covered bridge to complete his assignment, shows up at her doorstep. Francesca accompanies him to the bridge, and the two create a bond that leads to a soul-changing, unexpected four-day affair.
The famed plotline has become even more popular once its lead characters were portrayed by Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood (the former of whom was nominated for an Academy, SAG and Golden Globe for her performance) on the big screen in 1995. It wasn’t until 2014 the novel-turned-movie also turned into a musical, with book by Marsha Norman (“The Secret Garden,” “‘Night, Mother”) and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “Songs for a New World”). Its stage iteration garnered numerous awards, including a Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.
Wilmingtonians will see “The Bridges of Madison County” local premiere as produced by Thalian Association (Best Theatre Company 2018, according to encore’s Best Of readers’ poll) beginning this weekend. Directed by TA’s artistic director, Chandler Davis, with Heather Setzler playing Francesca, encore asked the two ladies about the upcoming show, which opens Friday night at Thalian Hall.
encore (e): Chandler, tell readers why you love this story.
Chandler Davis (CD): Because I personally have a hard time expressing my feelings, and I love how easy it is for the main characters to jump in and blindly create such an epic relationship in such a short amount of time. I also love the motto, “Run towards the fear,” and I love how Francesca and Robert go for it, even though they don’t know how it will end, and they know they could get hurt.
e: Have you seen the play before? How does it translate?
CD: I have and I loved it much more than the movie or the book. It’s a great story for the stage.
e: How do the songs add to the story?
CD: The thing I love about musicals is the concept of the characters in the story being so overcome with emotion that regular words won’t do to express the way they feel; they have to use song. So that’s a perfect vehicle for a story about two people having a very intense affair in a short amount of time. The music in the show is incredible, which is not surprising since it’s by Jason Robert Brown. He wrote “The Last Five Years.”
Heather Setzler (HS): The music is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. It will sweep the audience through every range of emotion. Robert’s song “Wondering” evokes the longing for something you know you shouldn’t have. “Falling Into You” is a duet that will remind people what it’s like to fall freely in love. And Francesca’s final song will reassure the audience that “Love is Always Better.”
e: Heather, what do you find most fascinating about this story—her story—and is it new territory for you to explore?
HS: I find it fascinating because it is not a happily-ever-after love story; yet, I—and millions of others—are drawn to it, whether through the original book, the subsequent movie or this new musical. Robert and Francesca’s love transcends what most people ever experience. It’s truly beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful. So it’s new territory to bring those kind of epic emotions to the stage in an honest, moving way. Thankfully, I have a great co-star in Brenton Schraff who is as invested as I am to honor this story.
e: What do you love most about this character and what are you learning from her?
HS: I love Francesca’s warmth and passion. I personally tend to over think things so Francesca’s abandon when it comes to Robert is beautiful to play.
e: How is the script challenging you?
HS: Francesca is Italian so the accent is a challenge. Also the music is complex and packed with emotion, so it takes a lot of stamina!
e: What is your favorite song, Chandler?
CD: Probably “Look at Me.” Francesca sings it after she realizes what it feels like to have a connection with someone and how it’s enough just to have them notice her. She doesn’t even need physical contact; a look is enough.
e: Are you doing anything particularly different in overseeing this show, from a director’s standpoint?
CD: Versus being the artistic director? Not really. The goal is always to tell the story as truthfully as possible and serve the audience, whether as a supervisor to someone else or if I’m directing the show personally.
Differently from the original version? Yes, it will be—in that we have a different space and different performers. But the show is relatively new and most effective if played as written.
e: What do you hope audiences take away per themes or ideas from the script?
CD: This is a show for everyone; there’s something for everyone to relate to. What I love is the focus isn’t on the two main characters only. You get to see what everyone around the two of them is doing, thinking and feeling. You get to see the world through their eyes as well. I also love the message that Francesa gives to the audience at the end. She ponders all of the choices and sacrifices she’s had to make through the years and decides choosing “Love is Always Better.”
e: What will the world look like and who is helping you design it? Anything you are most excited by here from a tech standpoint?
CD: I’d say it’s dream-like and rustic—lots of trees, sunsets and a bridge of course. Lance Howell is designing and building the set. Josh Zienesiss is doing the lighting design. Debbie Scheu is the costume designer. The story is written in a very fluid dream-like way, and the cast moves most of the set while visible to the audience. The idea is the actors are setting up each scene and building the story right before your eyes.