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March 7, 2014

Paging Marsha Norman

In these times of all-men-and-all-women-are-created-equal, have we reached the point where one can matter-of-factly reveal a woman’s age?

I hope so, because I’m about to spill the beans on how old Marsha Norman is.

Well, I’ll obfuscate it a bit by saying that in the summer of 1965, Norman was a sweet seventeen. And the reason I chose that date instead of 2014? Because 1965 is the year in which THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, the new musical she’s penned with Jason Robert Brown, is set.

How to sum up the new musical? I can’t remember any that has as much kissing and as many pay-phone calls. It’s the latter ingredient that makes me surprised.

After all, Norman was old enough back then to know that a long-distance phone call was a Big Event. It was reserved for extraordinary good or bad news, because it seemingly cost a fortune. The 1965 price for most out-of-state calls made before 11 p.m. was about a dollar a minute – which now translates to a whopping $7.43 for every 60 seconds. These “Call New Delhi for a penny a minute!” days that we currently enjoy were long in the future.

And that a buck-a-minute tariff was the cost from home. If you made a long-distance call from a pay-phone, you’d know why “pay” was part of its name. Rates routinely doubled and tripled for station-to-station calls. Worse, they were substantially higher for person-to-person calls in which you played a type of telephone roulette: if you told the operator the name of the person to whom you wanted to speak and someone else answered the phone and said that that person wasn’t there, you paid nothing; but if the person WERE there and agreed to speak, you paid close to double the rates.

Norman should have incorporated these values into her libretto. Instead, she has Bud Johnson, who seems to know the value of a buck, blithely and often call his wife Francesca while he’s at the Illinois State Fair with their children Michael and Carolyn. What’s more, he calls during what always seems to be prime-time rates and he’s never in any hurry to hang up. A quick “Well, I better get off; this is costing a fortune” would have been very convincing.

Frankly, Bud would have been more likely to be one of those many Americans who cheated the phone company’s long-distance rates by a couple of famous scams.

One: an out-of-town husband would call his wife person-to-person, ask for himself, which then would inform his wife that he’d reached his destination and that all was well. She’d say he wasn’t there and the cost of a call would be saved.

Two: the person would call, ring once, hang up, call again, ring once again, and hang up again – thus signaling a safe arrival. Both of these would be options that Bud would know and probably use.

And both were tricks that Norman should have had Bud and Francesca discuss before he left home. A powerful moment would have occurred if Francesca and her new lover Robert were in bed, only to have the phone ring once and then not immediately ring again – only to ring again a few seconds later. She’d know who it was. Can’t you hear the audience gasping out an “Ooooh” when they heard those solitary rings?

However, Bud does say on one of his phone calls to Francesca, “I wish I were there with you,” showing that he’s a good guy. (Hunter Foster plays the sensitivity well.) In a way, we learn a lot about him when we first see him entering his home: he wipes his feet on the mat before he comes in. Believe me, many a wife would hang onto him just because he knows enough to do that.

What makes THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY real is that the villain of the piece isn’t Bud or Francesca or even Robert, the photographer with whom she takes up. The “bad guy” is the morass of marriage and family.

Norman starts out by showing us the chaos that passes for normalcy in so many families. Running a home with teenage children (not that Kaitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena appear to be teenagers) is akin to running a small company. But most other “mom and pop” enterprises are easier to handle.

Before Bud and the kids leave, he tells her, “We’ll be home before you know it,” Yes – and that’s the problem. As Katharine Hepburn famously said, “Marriage isn’t a word – it’s a sentence.”

Francesca admits that she’ll relish her furlough: “I’m not doing anything for three whole days.” Not quite; the phone soon rings – the first of those many long-distance pay-phone calls – because Michael and Carolyn are having an argument and they want her to settle it. Even after they leave, they’re there.

Actually, Francesca winds up doing plenty during that 72-hour span. Similarly, when Robert approaches her and says “I’ve been looking for something,” he’ll soon find it, too – and I don’t solely mean the covered bridges (simply represented by beams) that dot Madison County, Iowa.

When Francesca joins him in his truck to show him where a bridge is, she sits as far away from him as possible. And her inviting him into her home could be construed as just a warm Italianiate gesture from this native of Naples. In conversation, he reveals that he believes “girls need more luck” which shows a sensitivity that would have been hard to find in a 1965 man.

But what about the neighbors? As we learned in THE MUSIC MAN, Iowans help each other. “You’re never alone in Iowa,” Francesca’s told. Yes – and that’s a problem, too. The horrible lack of privacy that people endure in small towns is a large component of BRIDGES. With no live entertainment available in these places, residents find drama and comic relief in their neighbors’ lives. Every citizen is one who bears watching, and every detail of his life becomes of interest. “They’re either working or looking out their windows,” mourns Francesca. Cass Morgan, in her three-dollar housedress, is especially potent as one of the neighbors who’s as much help as Dennis the Menace was to Mr. Wilson.

That’s apparently why Bartlett Sher has kept his ensemble members onstage at all times, sitting on the sidelines and staring at the action when they’re not moving scenery and props. Because the men and women look as dour as the couple in “American Gothic,” they create a grim mood. Their presence reiterates that small-town folks are always there, if not in your hair, then in your soul, subtly influencing you to make decisions that you may not really want to make. Minding one’s own business is utterly foreign to them, so if you do stray from their moral imperative, they’ll never forget it and will remind you of it each and every day of the rest of your life with doleful and baleful looks.

(Take me back to Manhattan, that dear old dirty town!
As Al Carmines wrote in JOAN, “In this city, the definition of life is doing what you please in a very little space.”)

Francesca takes out the brandy that she’d been saving for a special occasion. She assumed that any big event worth celebrating would have been with her husband. (Perhaps that would be when both kids were old enough to leave home.) Instead, the festivities will be with someone she never knew before and, frankly, barely knows now.

What’s strong about Norman’s writing and Kelli O’Hara’s performance is that all these emotions take her by surprise. Francesca was not hot to trot. But how can she not be moved by his love for Italian food -- a cuisine that doesn’t spring to mind when one thinks of Iowans. Yes, Norman could have done a little better than by starting a scene in which Robert and Francesca are at dinner and are laughing at something funny that one of them obviously had just said. That’s an easier scene to write than one that would show us what made them laugh together in the first place.

And so they bed. And so the phone rings. “How come you didn’t answer sooner?” Bud wants to know. Even when he’s away, he’s still there, asking questions, probing away, fully assuming that he has the right and privilege to expect her to be sitting by the phone and yearning for his call.

Robert (an excellent Steven Pasquale) can teach her something new – photography – while her husband has nothing left to teach her. BRIDGES reminds us that people would never promise to stay in the same job or house for the rest of their lives, but they’re expected to promise to stay with the same person for that long expanse of time; that’s a much harder promise to keep.

And how often do long-term spouses give each other unexpected presents? Here’s Robert giving Francesca a book about Naples, which is a glorious way of letting her recapture her past, feel young again, and remind her of when life held greater possibilities.

Jason Robert Brown’s score registers as lovely at first hearing. It obviously sounds the way he wants it to, because he’s done his own orchestrations. As is the custom with small shows of the last couple of decades, the cello is prominent. I’m telling you, those parents who a quarter-century ago urged their kids to take up the cello must have grateful children, for they’ve all made quite a living in musical theater during that time-span.

Here’s betting we all love Brown’s score more when we get to know it from the upcoming cast album. It’s going to be a two-disc set, so I imagine that some of the dialogue will be included. If it is, be prepared for quite few phone calls.

         — Peter Filichia

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