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Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown
Between rehearsals for The Bridges of Madison County, WTF’s Literary Intern, Skyler Gray, sat down with creators Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman to talk about their new production.
SKYLER GRAY: What do you look for in a successful collaborator?
JASON ROBERT BROWN: Trust is it.
MARSHA NORMAN: Yes, trust. Also, the fact that the other person can play at your level. You don’t want to be covering for your partner.
JRB: There is such a comfort, I think, with Marsha and me knowing that one of us isn’t always washing the other’s dishes.
MN: We can write characters that can speak and sing in the same voice. I think that is a real gift.
JRB: What doesn’t matter for a collaboration is a similarity in background or personality. I don’t think Marsha and I are similar in that respect, and in background we aren’t similar at all. But, that couldn’t matter less. A collaboration relies on being able to speak a mutual language as far as a theatrical venue is concerned. I mean, we are going to be writing a piece that is going to show up on the stage and we know how to speak the same language and it works.
MN: Yes, so you end up writing in the same show. That is also true of other members of the team. I mean, the director has to be doing the same show. And the costumers and scenic designers—everybody has to be doing the same show. This is why so many musicals are based on underlying material. There are so few original musicals, because you can’t even begin to imagine the arguments that occur when you are writing a show and there is no material underneath. This is like trying to go across the Brooklyn Bridge with no bridge, right? You need the bridge. What is crucial for the whole team is an understanding of where we are going.
Steven Pasquale and Elena Shaddow take a moment, while Bartlett Sher (Director) talks to other cast members
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
SG: How did your writing partnership come about?
JRB: We both got called to interview for a terrible show.
MN: Which cannot be named.
JRB: After the meeting, I E-mailed Marsha and said, “That was the most ridiculous meeting in the world.” And she said, “While we are talking, I have this commission at The Kennedy Center for an orchestra piece for family audiences based on the EB White novel, The Trumpet of the Swan. Do you want to do it with me?” We started writing Trumpet of the Swan and had an awesomely good time together.
MN: It is a beautiful, stunning piece.
JRB: And we had such a good time doing it that we said we have to write something together. What I wanted to write was like La Traviata, where the people sing with that much passion. Then I got a call from Marsha’s agent–
MN: And he said, “Marsha got a call about doing The Bridges of Madison County, and Marsha says that you are her choice to do this with her. She believes that this is the La Traviata that you have been waiting for.”
JRB: So I called Marsha and said, “Sure. I mean, I don’t know. Can we do it?” Marsha said, “Yes, we can do this. I think it is going to be great.” I trust Marsha implicitly.
JRB: Basically, that is my rule and it has gotten me through this life: trust Marsha implicitly.
MN: The trust is so mutual. I trust that Jason can just knock it out of the park and he trusts that I can do the same. That is a really, really great feeling to be working with a real partner that really knows his stuff.
SG: That brings me to my next question: Marsha, you have adapted quite a few novels for the stage, what is the key to your success? How do you bring these iconic characters to life and keep the story fresh?
MN: Well the adaptation key phrase is: you don’t cut up a sofa to make a chair. Right?
SG: I like that.
MN: In other words, you don’t start with the original and somehow try to chop it in half and paste some stuff. You try to find the tiny ticking heart of the thing. What is it that makes people love it?- What is it that makes people want to see it again? You have to do the work of finding the heart of the show and then you can build around that. You can expand characters that don’t have enough stage time or characters that need to be brought forward. In The Color Purple and The Secret Gardenthere are characters that appear in the first scene and then aren’t seen again until the final few pages. So, what you have to do is keep characters alive throughout. Those are just the tricks of adaptation. The secret to my success in adaptation is that I have chosen pieces in which I had a real vested interest. I was somehow or other that trapped girl in the story. Whenever I write trapped girls, I am able to understand them. Every writer has something they write best. That is why they wanted to be a writer, so they could write about that. You can be good when you are writing outside of yourself, but you can’t be great.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
SG: When you began working on The Bridges of Madison County, did you turn to the novel or the movie?
JRB: I have never seen the movie.
MN: I didn’t watch the movie until I had finished my first draft. The movie uses an entirely different vocabulary than the musical. They use close ups, they use scenery–
JRB: They use famous people.
MN:–they use famous people. But we had to find a different way to tell the story. We have exquisite tools in terms of music, specifically Jason’s music. It puts us way far ahead of the movie in terms of what we can say emotionally.
JRB: I think doing The Bridges of Madison County as a musical is the best way to realize this particular story. [Novelist] James Waller uses a very expansive and poetic vocabulary to keep giving emotional life to his characters, but music can do that in a single note.
MN: In the musical these two great voices sing until you think they can’t take another breath. There is a limit to what you can do with text. I mean, I worked in text for a long time, successfully, but—
JRB: Yeah, you did okay.
MN: —there are things that I cannot do in plays. If I say: “I love you,” in text, then it is your turn and you have to say, “Oh, I love you too,” or, “I have to go now.” But, in a musical you can say: “If I loved you, words wouldn’t come in an easy way. Round in circles I’d go. Longing to tell you, but afraid and shy. I’d let my golden fancies pass me by. If I loved you.” This great feeling of wondering if you are about to be in love with someone, you can’t say that in text. Not in English, maybe French. But in music you can say that for four and a half minutes. Now, Curly comes out on stage and says, “Oh, what a beautiful morning.” The audience sits there and says: “Yes, that is what it feels like to walk outside on a great day and be happy to be alive on the planet.”
JRB:If it is a song, an audience wants more of it. If he walked out onstage and said, “Oh, what a beautiful morning,” we’d be like great, let’s keep moving. But, with music they want to live in it. You feel them want to keep going.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
SG: Can you give us an insight into what drives Francesca to engage in this love affair?
MN: Robert James Waller initially identified Francesca as Neapolitan. Bud rescued her from the war and brought her back to Iowa. So there she is in Iowa, but Waller doesn’t really go into her history and we have really taken that on. What did it mean to come from Naples, the most bombed city of the Second World War, to Iowa? When people are in the midst of incredible destruction and just leave, they have this relationship to their destroyed past. She has a really broken heart about her past and she can’t really get better until she falls in love with this man, I believe. I mean, we haven’t presented it that way, but I believe that loving Robert Kincaid somehow allows her to tell the story of her past in a way that she’s never been able to.
JRB: The novel feels to me like it skews towards Robert Kincaid’s story, you know, it feels like it is largely about him and the effect that this event had on him. But as far as Marsha and I were concerned, his story was not as important as Francesca’s. We wanted to find out what this experience was like for this woman who was under extraordinary circumstances, stuck in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa. She is the most active member of the story. You know, he travels around and this adventure is not unlike other adventures that we presume that he has had. She has nothing like this in her life and that was the thing that sings. Finding the balance between those two characters has really been a big part of our job. Also, they are both outsiders, and it was very important that we understand just how far outside this town they both are. It’s not enough that she has an accent, it’s more than that, she’s got a whole different set of values and life experiences that she largely hides while she’s in this particular community.
MN: She even hides them from her family. She has been very careful about what she’s let her family know about her history. I think it’s typical of people who come from a country that’s been destroyed to feel the shame of that personally, even though she was not responsible for the Second World War. She is so beautiful and has a voice that you cannot believe, yet inside that heart is this pain that is just pulsing and waiting to be unlocked by this man. He’s taking pictures of it all and putting them back together. We invented this as a way for them to connect through his photographic skills. He has taken these pictures of reconstructed Naples for the National Geographic and puts them back together for her. They are both speaking a common language of recovery and loss.
Photo by Paul Fox
SG: What inspired you to expand the secondary characters for the musical?
JRB: I can answer this on my end. If you’re going to have someone sing for three-and-a-half minutes, you have to know what’s going on with them. We had to fill this world and understand the stakes of it. Francesca’s husband and children are in the book. But, Marsha’s most delightful invention is the next door neighbors, Marge and Charlie. I take credit for throwing the ex-wife into the show. Chiara, Francesca’s older sister, was really a mutual decision on our part. Once you give anybody a name, you have to make it worth it. The people who have an impact on the story have to be real.
MN: Marge and Charlie were really important in our original concept. They are the world; they are the eyes of society. Marge happens to be extraordinarily compassionate and very funny. We also have Cass Morgan to model this character on. Cass was in the workshop and as she got funnier and funnier, the character got larger and—
JRB: It’s now actually her show. It’s called the Marges of Madison County.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
MN: (Laughs) All great musicals have two couples: you know, they have A and B couples. Marge and Charlie are the B couple in this story. The reason that you have a secondary couple is to pass the time. You have to be able to go to the secondary couple in order to make it clear that a week or a month or a day has gone by, otherwise you’re just stuck staring at these lovers. You know they are lovers from the minute you see them and you can’t just go on having them be more and more in love all the way to the end. You have to stop and give them obstacles and have other things happen.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
JRB: That’s why The Last Five Years is such a wacky show. In order to deal with the fact that I’ve only got two people all night long, I have to keep swapping them around and messing with the time. Otherwise, it would be like: “Yeah, we get it, you’re a couple, good, move on.” I never need to write another show with only two people in it.
MN: No, no, no. It’s really hard.
JRB: That’s one success story I’ve fully accomplished. Check that off the list. That’s done.
SG: Can you explain the development process leading to the WTF production?
MN: I called Jason in 2009.
JRB: I started writing in the summer of 2010.
MN: Right. But we had a producer.
JRB and MN: We picked the producer that we wanted.
JRB: Which has been the biggest blessing of the entire process because I really feel like we have been supported and guided by people who want the same show that we are doing. I’ve never had that in my life, so that’s a miracle. And then we had this fantastic two-week boondoggle on Saint Bart’s that Marsha managed—
MN: I won it in a—
SG: You won it?!
MN: I won it. I had great luck with winning it at an auction.
JRB: It was just unbelievable, so we were in this villa with a recording studio.
MN: Villa Rockstar.
JRB: I had already written two of the songs and I wrote five more in the two weeks we were there. I came home and then we did a reading of the first act. Kelli O’Hara was in all of the readings we did. Seven months later we did a reading of the first act with a lot of changes. Then we did one very important reading about a year after that with a draft of the whole show. This past January we did one more workshop to remind ourselves what was still ahead of us.
MN: And then we worked like crazy people for the last month.
JRB: It actually wasn’t very long in terms of a standard development process. It feels like it’s been a pretty long drive because we’ve known from the beginning what show we wanted to write. I will say that every time we’ve done a reading, we find ways to deepen it and sharpen it. Bartlett Sher has been so incisive; he doesn’t change what we’re doing, he brings it to life. It is exactly what you want a director to do with your material. Bart finds what is in there and interprets it in such a way that it comes alive. I keep saying: “I wouldn’t have known how to do that myself, but that’s what it’s supposed to be.”
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
SG: What are you most excited to discover with the world premiere here at WTF?
JRB: I think Williamstown is a vital part of the process. I’ve done shows several times where you go to Broadway without having had a chance to really know what you’ve got. We’re going to have an opportunity to really feel our way through this material. It’s such a luxury to have an audience that is so used to seeing new work and just being part of a process. I’m very proud and honored that we get to be part of the history of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Marsha Norman | Book
Marsha Norman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ’night Mother, playwright and co-chair of
Playwriting at Juilliard. She won a Tony Award for The Secret Garden, and another nomination
for The Color Purple. Her first play, Getting Out, received the John Gassner Playwriting Medallion, the Newsday Oppenheimer Award, and a citation from the American Critics Association. Other plays include The Laundromat, The Pool Hall, Loving Daniel Boone, Trudy Blue, Last Dance, and The Master Butcher’s Singing Club. She has also worked extensively in television and film and has an upcoming play for the UN about trafficking and violence toward women. She is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a former advisory member of the Sewanee Writers Conference, and former Vice President of The Dramatists Guild of America. She is a founder of the Lilly Awards and current judge of the Yale Prize. Most recently, Ms. Norman received the Inge Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
Jason Robert Brown | Composer, lyricist, Orchestrations
Major works for the theatre include Songs for a New World (Off B’way), Parade (B’way and
Donmar Warehouse, London; Tony Award, Best Score); The Last Five Years (Off B’way; Drama Desk Awards, Outstanding Music & Lyrics); 13 (B’way and West End). Other works include Trumpet of the Swan (written with Marsha Norman; National Symphony Orchestra). Jason also tours the world as a singer and pianist and leader of the Caucasian Rhythm Kings, with whom he recorded the CD Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes. His scores, including The Jason Robert Brown Collection, are published by Hal Leonard. Mr. Brown is a former faculty member of the USC School of Dramatic Arts and Emerson College. Upcoming: Honeymoon In Vegas this fall at Paper Mill Playhouse, and the film of The Last Five Years to be released in 2014.