Jennifer Ellis on The Bridges of Madison County
A devastating almost-love story whose fans have been reaching for tissues for over two decades, The Bridges of Madison County is one of the most enduring modern odes to lust, affection, and all that might have been.
With a first-rate score by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last 5 Years) and a book by Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother), Bridges tells the story of Francesca, an Italian-American housewife and mother who begins an insatiable affair with a handsome photographer who happens to be passing through town. He ignites in her all that she didn’t know she wanted, but she must ultimately decide whether the damage that she would do to her family is worth a shot at happiness.
There is no one better suited to play Francesca than Jennifer Ellis, whose recent performances of unmatched grace in Far From Heaven at SpeakEasy, My Fair Lady at the Lyric, and Carousel at Reagle Music Theatre have been among the high points of the last several seasons.
Francesca seems like a really challenging role.
Yeah, it is. It’s kind of funny, because we talked about Carousel [last summer] and it’s challenging in different ways. Far from Heaven remains the hardest that I’ve had to do, but this one, it is, it’s challenging. I actually thought the infidelity issue was going to be harder to wrap my head around and make it seem palatable to the audience, but there’s something about this piece and the way it’s written that you just root for Robert and Francesca even though you might have issues with the infidelity. It just seems like they’re meant to be together.
You’re right, it’s a tricky thing to win over the audience and not have them immediately judge Francesca’s decisions, especially because her husband is not bad to her.
Yeah, and it’s Chris Chew, and he’s so likeable. I was thinking that going into it and the more I do it, the more I’m like, I don’t have any control over what people will think of it. I just need to tell this woman’s story from my point of view.
Had either the book or the film been a part of your life before getting this role?
I watched it about a year ago. I mean, I just loved it because, you know, Meryl. [laughs] And then I did read the book when I knew I’d be coming into this. It’s interesting because the book is written from Robert and Francesca’s internal lives so it kind of lends itself to being a musical. What do we do with those internal feelings that we can’t speak? We sing them.
What kind of discussions have you had about where Francesca is coming from? She hasn’t had an easy life: she was raised in Italy during the war, her parents are dead. She’s probably very sad.
Yeah, and in fact, in this story line you get to hear so much more about her childhood and the trauma that she experienced that brought her to Iowa. She grew up in Naples which was being completely torn apart with bombs, her fiancé went away to war and never came back, and right on the heels of that, she met her husband, Bud. He falls in love with her and she says, “Okay, this is the life that I have wanted, I want to live somewhere where it’s quiet with someone who loves me and just kind of escape.” There’s a line where she says, “I ran away from home and now I can’t get back.” But she does have her children that she loves and I think it’s a decent marriage. They’re not so great at the co-parenting, but they’re partners and she pulls her end of the housework and he does his end of the farming, and it’s okay. It’s just not fulfilling all of her desires and her passions. In this version, she’s really interesting in art and went to school for drawing and I don’t think anyone understands that besides Robert, because he’s also an artist.
You know, when I saw this on Broadway, I was devastated by the ending. I was surprised by how much I wanted her to leave Bud. Is that weird?
No. I think it’s so funny, even in our first read-through, I looked around the room and people were crying. I didn’t expect that. It’s a really sad story.
And there’s no crime in someone just not being fulfilled in a marriage.
Right. She couldn’t have known, going into it, that it wasn’t going to be fulfilling. She’s about 17 when she gets engaged to Paolo and then he dies and then she’s like 18 when she moves to America, so she’s still a kid, and then she never gets to return because they can’t afford to. That just sounds so hard to me, to be that far away from home forever.
Is this a difficult score to sing?
The music is so well written, it almost sings itself. It makes so much sense, it just sort of tumbles out of you. I think I’m just going to keep an eye on Kelli O’Hara’s trajectory and see what she does, because we have a similar range and considering that this was written for her voice, it’s really fun to sing because we have the same sensibility.
How has it been, working with Bevin? I’m so looking forward to seeing her direct a musical.
She’s really easy to talk to and easy to come to questions with. She tends to work in questions, so she’ll say, “what is this?” about a particular line or a lyric. And you think you know what it’s about and she has some really insightful question and you’re like, “Oh, okay. I’m going to write that down and think about that because it’s a really brilliant question.” And she doesn’t always have the answer; she’ll just be like, “Just something to think about.” I don’t feel like I’m doing her justice. [laughs] I was a little nervous going into it because I’ve wanted to work with her for so long. Finally, it’s her last show and I’m getting to work with her before she leaves us and I was just putting tons of pressure on myself to be a smart actor and someone she wants to work with again.