NEW YORK — Robert James Waller is all of three words into his novel “The Bridges of Madison County” when he mentions music.
“There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads. This is one of them,” he writes, launching into the slender tale of a torrid love affair between Francesca Johnson, an Iowa farm wife, and Robert Kincaid, the mythic-heroic photographer who rolls up to her house in his pickup truck one August day in 1965, while her family is away. Waller’s book, published in 1992, was a huge bestseller, and when Clint Eastwood made it into a movie a few years later, he and Meryl Streep starred, slow-dancing in the soft light of Francesca’s kitchen to music from the radio.
So perhaps it was just a matter of time before a Broadway power team took a crack at the material. Now playwright Marsha Norman, composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown, and director Bartlett Sher — Tony Award winners all — have transformed it into a musical, which is slated to hit Broadway in January. But first “The Bridges of Madison County” will have its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival, running Aug. 1-18 on the main stage.
“The reason I think people love this book, long after they’ve read it, is because it speaks to this longing that we all have, for another life,” Norman said, sitting with Brown and Sher in a midtown Manhattan rehearsal studio, shortly before the team headed to Massachusetts with the show.
The story, as she sees it, evokes a what-if. “What if I had actually spoken to the man on the airplane who was getting his suitcase down?” she said. “What if I had taken that turn that sent me into another life?”
Norman may be best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning play “ ’night, Mother,” which premiered at the American Repertory Theater in 1982. But she is also a veteran of musical adaptations of works cherished in other mediums: “The Secret Garden,” for which she won her Tony; “The Red Shoes”; “The Color Purple.” So she can easily recognize what she calls “the salute”: an intake of breath, a hand to the heart, a profession of love for a book or a movie when someone hears she’s adapting it for the stage. Pinpointing the essential element that causes people to do that is “maybe the hardest part of writing a musical,” she said.
“If you’re not careful, you can take that out while adapting, and then realize that you have something onstage that doesn’t have any of the power, any of the meaning, any of the thrill, because you took that out because you thought you didn’t need it,” she said. “So first you have to identify what that thing is, just so that you’re careful not to remove it.”
Waller’s novel is enthralled with its peripatetic photographer — his poetry and pictures, his sexual prowess, even his skill at pouring liquor into a glass. (“Robert Kincaid had dealt with after-dinner brandy before.”) While Norman specifies in the musical’s script that Robert is genuinely hot, she explicitly states that Francesca is the main character, around whom the action swirls. And Norman has widened the focus to encompass Francesca’s world: We see her husband, their teenage children, some of the family’s friends and neighbors, her sister back in Italy.
To Brown, who won his Tony for “Parade” and this spring saw his musical “The Last Five Years” revived off-Broadway, the use of music opens up the story in a different way, adding descriptive capabilities that language alone doesn’t possess.
“You get exhausted trying to come up with words after a while,” he said. “But all I have to play is one C-sharp, and it suddenly means something that all those words can’t do. So to allow music to have so much emotional life, it allows any story to sort of breathe very differently.
“And you have to be careful with it because of that,” he said. “But music in and of itself, with the smallest gesture, can express something that can take pages and pages and pages of dialogue to not actually get to.”
Having characters sing “lifts everything into an entirely different realm,” Brown said. “For a story that exists at the edge of memory and at the edge of fantasy — you know, it’s a romance with sort of all capital letters — what better for that, to help it breathe?”
Musical theater star Kelli O’Hara is slated to play Francesca on Broadway, opposite Steven Pasquale as Robert. It was O’Hara who brought Sher — her director on “The Light in the Piazza” and “South Pacific,” for which he won his Tony — into the project. But procreation intervened: Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons this spring, the actress was conspicuously pregnant beneath the 1950s costumes for “Far From Heaven,” a musical that was developed at Williamstown last summer. So Elena Shaddow, who will be a standby when “The Bridges of Madison County” goes to Broadway, is playing Francesca to Pasquale’s Robert at Williamstown.
O’Hara’s temporary absence from the musical is “a sort of unintended thing,” Sher said. “But it’s too important to get the time to go away and explore it.”
They’re doing that at Williamstown, Brown added, because they wanted to work on the piece in a place where it wouldn’t feel like a commercial tryout.
“We needed the stakes to be high artistically but not high financially,” he said. “We needed to feel like it was someplace that was warm, and the audience at Williamstown is very warm, and the environment there is very warm. And honestly, it’s a show about community and family and all of those things, and we didn’t want to start our journey in someplace very clinical.”
Sher, wary of being influenced by Eastwood’s movie, said he hasn’t seen it, though he did read Waller’s book. It falls to Norman, Brown, and others to help him make sure that their adaptation doesn’t leave out anything essential. Norman sounded confident that they’ve pulled that off. “We’ve managed to keep in this little ticking heart of it,” she said.
She views the story as yet another incarnation of the stranger-in-a-strange-land narrative. She also detects in it a thematic resemblance to the folk tale “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” in which the goats long to cross a bridge to graze on the other side.
“They try to get over the bridge, but they can’t, because there’s a troll under the bridge that comes out and goes” — here Norman made a storybook-fierce growling sound — “and scares them, so they can’t get to this extraordinary pasture that’s beyond.” Until, that is, the biggest billy goat takes on the troll and wins.
To Norman, the troll represents “social morality and teachings and all those kind of warnings that the society would give you about ‘Don’t go to the happy place.’ Don’t go, because terrible things will happen to you if you go to the happy place, to the pasture, to the green lands right across the bridge.”
“But Francesca does,” she said. “And then she decides to come back. So, in a sense, you know, it’s this replaying of this story of ‘Be afraid, be very afraid,’ which is taught to all women from day one: Don’t do the dangerous thing. Don’t go on the great opportunity. Don’t have the big adventure.”
Norman paused a storyteller’s pause.
“But Francesca does,” she repeated, “which is why we’re telling this.”