it starts with the light.
It also starts with a cello, a bit of music that has taken up permanent residence in my chest, a slow, resonant creation that I have taken to (somewhat) affectionately calling “that fucking cello part.”
Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf was actually the first performer in The Bridges of Madison County the audience met, that aching series of notes from her and her cello, and then the boat that leaves from Napoli every Thursday in the morning.
This is a struggle, past and present tense when it comes to talking about Bridges. Past, since the show closed, present because it's not going into the ground. Present, because I've listened to the soundtrack at least once a day since the show closed, and watched Kelli O'Hara campaign for a Tony and read articles and watched people like Sarah Paulson give their support again and again.
I'm not sure why I feel like I would ride into battle for Kelli O'Hara, but I probably would.
Let me tell you why I am so absolutely bonkers for this show, so unrelenting in how I want to continue to support it, even now, especially now.
This is a show that encouraged me to care about the tiniest of details, every instrument, every change of the light. This is also a show that rewarded me for when I did take the time to notice these things. But can we appreciate something that is so subtle? Is that how we’re trained to watch a Broadway musical now? Beyond considering it a traditional musical, with an orchestra in the pit and a love story that culminates in the big duet, the show is fairly modern, and it certainly doesn’t baby its audience. It carries you through four days, and the leaps through the years. Even when Bridges is big, loud, perhaps overly emotional, it is still a show of inches, the tiniest sliver of negative space, a decision to stand on tiptoes, and the power of a name. Can we still appreciate a show that might take multiple viewings, at different angles, to see something as simple as the way Donald Holder captured sunrise, sunset, a thousand stars out on a night over Winterset, Iowa?
That’s why this musical felt so different, so rewarding, so thoughtful, so unlike any other experience I’ve had in a theatre before. Theater is art: it’s deliberate. It’s artificial. But that shouldn’t stop it from feeling warm and human. And Bridges felt lived in and alive, even as it closed, perhaps then more than ever.
It feels important that Bridges was adapted by a woman to be a woman’s story, that Francesca is our focus rather than Robert. It feels important that while this is a story of a woman who must choose, at its heart and above all, the show is about Francesca’s identity as a woman. I can't say I have much in common with Francesca, a housewife in 1965 Iowa with a husband and two kids on a farm, but I cared deeply about her struggle to remember her own identity that she had buried beneath layers and layers, under the Frannie who learned to speak and learned to sew.
Harper’s Bazaar: I saw that a lot of young women, especially women in their twenties, posted actively about your role, Francesca, on social media. Why do you think her character resonated with them?
I’ve had two experiences in my life that I classify under the general heading of “the closest I will ever get to a religious experience.” The first, for context, was singing along to “Where the Streets Have No Name” at a U2 concert in 2005 with twenty thousand strangers at the Boston Garden on a winter night and feeling impossibly twenty-one and perfect in that moment. I’ve added a second: sitting five rows back from the stage at the Schoenfeld, with Kelli O’Hara singing “Almost Real” directly into my face (or so it felt), on Saturday, May 17, 2014, in her second to last show.
The show isn't just Kelli O'Hara. Pasquale's performance as Robert is quiet and aching in its own way, and I find that his songs are actually the ones growing on me the most as time goes on. (As a photographer, I've taken to quoting "people are vertical" a bit too much as well.) But I also think that the other women in this show, Whitney Bashor and Cass Morgan and Caitlin Kinnunen, those performances are sticking with me too. Especially Bashor's "Another Life," which the show sold as a Joni Mitchell number for mass appeal but is actually the secret weapon, that upside-down mirror image a lens produces, this series of snapshots of a woman trying to define herself through the lens of Robert.
Knowing that I was writing for Kelli O'Hara meant that I had an extraordinary instrument of virtually unlimited emotional range, and so I dove in as deep as I knew how. I felt myself sometimes butting up against the corny, the cheesy, the sentimental, but I decided in those moments to push harder through it, not to be cynical about love or family but to sing about them with ecstatic truth."
Sometimes I like to think about the way Marge looks out for Francesca after Bud gets home with the kids. Sometimes I like to think that Marge subscribes to National Geographic, after, and keeps the issues and tracks where Robert goes, and keeps them all just in case Francesca ever asks. I feel like this is something Marge would do, just in case.
Because Marge understands.
This is a story about women, about the choices they make, the lives they build from nothing, kept together with safety pins, how they love. This is a show about love, absolutely steeped in love, that leans into love and comes out the other side, changed but not harder. And that is so important, that Francesca holds on to these four days for so long, and at the end, is able to know with all of her heart that it's insane to place one love above another.
That ecstatic truth about love is summed up so simply in "Always Better," a song that spans years of decisions, that reaches beyond past, present, future, that has become more than simply the closing number but has turned into an anthem, a celebration of a show that closed before its time.
But what is true
Thank you to Allison & Jill, for all the curse words and encouragement.
I filmed these two videos:
Here are the essentials: