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‘Bridges of Madison County’ brings head vs. heart dilemma to Kennedy Center

Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) and Andrew Samonsky (Robert) appear in the national tour of "The Bridges of Madison County." (Matthew Murphy)

WASHINGTON — It was a bestselling novel that became an Oscar-nominated Hollywood tearjerker and a Tony-winning Broadway musical.

Now, “The Bridges of Madison County” comes to the Kennedy Center now through July 17.

“It’s just such a renowned, very special place,” star Elizabeth Stanley told WTOP.

“We’re pretty excited to be playing there.”

Based on the 1992 bestselling novel by Robert James Waller, the heartbreaking story follows Francesca Johnson, a lonely housewife in 1960s Madison County, Iowa. When her husband and kids leave town to attend the state fair for the weekend, she strikes up an affair with Robert Kincaid, a traveling National Geographic photographer shooting a photo spread on the area’s covered bridges.

Three years later, the steamy romance hit Hollywood under future “Notebook” screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, who was fresh off an Oscar nomination for “The Fisher King” (1991). The 1995 film also showed a softer side for actor/director Clint Eastwood, having just directed the Best Picture-winning Western “Unforgiven” (1992). The “Bridges” movie also earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture and a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep in one of her most memorable roles.

“I had never seen the movie until after I got cast, and then Andrew, who plays Robert, he had also never seen it. We both read the book, and so we said, ‘We should watch the film,'” Stanley admitted. “Normally I’m worried about accidentally imitating whoever plays the role before, [but] I thought, well, if I’m accidentally able to pick up some techniques from Meryl Streep, that’d be OK.”

Few movie moments have made moviegoers choke up with tears like Eastwood dangling Streep’s necklace off the rearview mirror of his truck, stopped at a traffic light in the rain, as Streep’s husband naively honks behind him and a tormented Streep reaches for the door handle with trembling hands.

If you cried during that scene, “you’re not alone,” Stanley said.

The pure drama of the novel and seriousness of the film may have seemed like a challenge to convert into a stage musical. But the 2014 Broadway production, starring Kelli O’Hara (“The King & I”) and Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”) proved that it could be done, earning four Tony nominations.

“If you are a fan of both [the book and film], you will be a fan of this also, because it is very much the same story. It just has the added element of music,” Stanley said. “Some people are like, ‘How does that work?’ Because they’re picturing like tap-dancing musicals. This is very much not like that.”

Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years,” “Parade”), blends Americana folk and soul genres with traditional Broadway ballads, including Stanley’s favorite “Almost Real.”

“People often ask me what my favorite song is, and I usually don’t say that song, but last night when I was singing it, I thought, ‘I should say this song!” Stanley joked. “It’s sort of a flashback moment. She’s talking about her early life, so I like the information that it’s giving. … Then musically, it’s really fun to sing. It’s a ‘big sing’ in terms of musicals, a little more on the heavy soprano side, which is really fun.”

The music won a pair of Tony Awards: Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations.

“The score is really lush,” Stanley said. “It’s a little bit classical in some points, especially the stuff that Francesca sings, I think it’s influenced by her being Italian. Then a lot of the stuff the other characters sing … their music is sort of folky Americana, a little bit country. So it just really flows very naturally into the storytelling, and it’s already such an emotional story that the music just really elevates it.”

That “emotional story” is crafted for the stage by Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman (“The Secret Garden,” “The Color Purple”), who adapted the novel into the musical’s book.

“I love Marsha as a writer. She’s really great at bringing out the feminine in the story, which as a woman, is really exciting. … It really is Francesca’s story,” Stanley said. “In terms of the storyline being a little bit different, [Norman] really wanted to introduce a little bit more of the sense of community and how Francesca is really living in a small town, so people are very much involved and around.”

The community feel makes for juicy small-town gossip about the steamy affair. Just how steamy is it? Enough that the Kennedy Center website recommends the show for ages 12 and up.

“It’s pretty adult,” Stanley said. “There’s no nudity, it’s not in-your-face, but it’s definitely a romance. There’s a couple scenes that are in a bed. It’s just a lot of insinuated moments. It’s really artfully done. It’s a good date. … I honestly think the perfect situation is to come with your girlfriends.”

The credit for this “artful” approach belongs to Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher (“South Pacific,” “The Light in the Piazza”), who mines chemistry between Stanley and co-star Andrew Samonsky.

“He’s so great. I’m so, so thrilled that I’ve gotten to do this role opposite him for this whole tour,” Stanley said. “We’ve been friends for a long time. The Broadway theatre community is kind of a small world, so it was really exciting when we found out we both got cast. It’s been a great ride together.”

The forbidden lovers remain sympathetic despite their dirty deeds, as Francesca’s dilemma transcends the extra-marital affair to explore universal themes of the head versus the heart.

“Most of us understand what it’s like, whether it’s in a relationship or it’s a job or whatever, at some point in your life, there are things we have to do because they’re the right thing to do or because they affect other people, and then there’s the part of us that wants to do what our heart is calling us to do and what makes us happy,” Stanley said. “We all are very familiar with that choice. That’s part of why it speaks to people, because that’s one of the hard things that everyone goes through at some point.”

Click here for more information. Listen to the full conversation with Elizabeth Stanley below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Elizabeth Stanley (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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