BWW Launches New Series in Collaboration with The NY Public Library for the Performing Arts; First Up, Digital Curator Doug Reside on THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY
BroadwayWorld.com is excited to kick off a new special exclusive content series, in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Future entries will delve into the library's unparalleled archives, and resources. First up, Doug Reside, Digital Curator for The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts writes about The Bridges of Madison County.
At The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, along with the original drafts of many of the designs, scripts, and musical scores of the greatest works of the last couple centuries of theatre history, we have, of course, our share of books. So, in this column, I will attempt to meet popular expectations of librarianship, and discuss books-but books in the sense of the musical theatre libretto. I will "read" the text (both book and lyrics) of a contemporary musical. Like the librarian at storytime, I will describe what I see as I read and will supplement the reading with historical context and materials from the archives here at the Library.
To inaugurate this column, in the midst of these slow summer days, I will examine The Bridges of Madison County, which opened and closed last season on Broadway and is preparing for a national tour in 2015.
Just as a good musical score establishes melodic themes that are then developed in variations throughout the piece, a good libretto does the same with words and ideas. The Sound of Music, for instance, repeatedly uses the imagery of mountains and hills as a metaphor for worthwhile challenges ("climb every mountain" to "find your dream"). The Sound of Music was written in the late 1950s in the decade after the end of World War II, a time when there was a popular sense in America that anything was possible if you were willing to work hard enough. This notion was challenged by much of the non-musical theater of the period (e.g. Death of a Salesman), but was, perhaps, the most common theme in the American Musical until at least the mid-1960s (although musicals like Cradle Will Rock, West Side Story, and Gypsy were notable exceptions).
The Bridges of Madison County explores a similar theme, but with more complexity. In the world of Bridges, people may wish for very different, mutually exclusive things at the same time. The musical suggests that if we "climb every mountain," we may miss out on the less obvious pleasures of the valleys in between.
Bridges begins with Francesca retracing the steps that brought from Naples to "3000 acres waiting to be tamed" in America. It is a story of metaphorically climbing a mountain as an immigrant, of choosing to leave a point of stability and knowingly becoming lost both literally and figuratively. Rather than leading to freedom and adventure, though, Francesca's choice leads to stifling security. She is one of the women Mother sings about in the musical Ragtime who "marry so bravely and end up so safe."
Stability, however, is not without its pleasures, a fact that the musical underscores repeatedly. For all that Winterset, Iowa lacks, Francesca later tells the wandering photographer, Robert, it is a community that is deeply caring. Everyone is always watching, and watching out for, each other. The lyrics repeatedly connect looking at someone with loving them.
Iowa's brand of community is new to Robert, who says that he's never been in a place where "people belong to one another." He sings of the way the "frame" of photograph can paradoxically turn a narrowly defined scene of a bridge or sky into the "world." For him, Francesca is that frame. Later, he sings a song in which he confesses he is "wondering" what it all means. In a clever linguistic and musical trick, the word is sung in such a way that it sound like something half-way between "wandering" and "wondering" (suggesting the Robert is moving from his familiar mountain climbing to losing himself in the idea of being at home).
At the same time, Francesca's home belongs to three other people, including her husband. Robert cannot settle in Winterset, and so he must ask Francesca to come wander with him (a fact he excuses by suggesting that she was "born with a Wanderer's soul"). Francesca, then, is faced with the same offer her husband made her 18 years before: to leave home, climb the mountain, and become a wanderer. Her first choice (to marry Bud) is a cautionary tale that informs her second one. When she sees Robert's photographs of Naples, she cries out "I've run away from home and I don't know how to get back." This time, she decides to stay home.
Francesca may not fully love her husband, but she loves, and is loved by her children. She wants to be the one to whom "her children turn for answers." When her daughter, Carolyn, is about to be married she asks her mother if she is "supposed to be nervous" as a bride. Francesca tells her that if she was nervous it would probably mean she wasn't sure about her choice. But this certainty is not always possible. Francesca began the musical by acknowledging that she was a "nervous bride," and her near nervous breakdown as she paces the kitchen trying to decide what to do suggests her second choice didn't feel any more sure. In her closing number, she acknowledges it is "insane" to "place one love above another." However, she finally advises, with all the operatic gusto of Mother Abbess, that, the act most motivated by love "is always better."