Jason Robert Brown’s other show from this era, Honeymoon in Vegas, deserved to be a success, but this one earned its failure fairly, despite having significantly the better score of the two.
This show won a Best Score Tony for a reason; it really is one of the finest theater scores of our time, and might even qualify as the finest thing Brown has written to date, which is no small feat. The show it is most often compared to is Adam Guettel’s magnificent The Light in the Piazza, and I can see why; Brown’s complex, atmospheric music is so lush, fascinating and often sublimely gorgeous that it really does remind one of Guettel’s masterpiece.
It also featured Piazza‘s star, Kelli O’Hara, and while she was actually quite miscast here from a character perspective, far too young-looking for the part and with a rather atrocious attempt at an Italian accent, her marvelous voice and passionate delivery only served to enhance the glories of the score.
But the critical difference between the shows is that The Light In the Piazza had a beautiful story as well as beautiful music. The primary problem that led to this show’s failure is that, for all its virtues, it still carries with it the problems of its source material.
The original Bridges of Madison County novel was the hacky romance-novel sensation of its time…think Twilight without the fantasy elements, or a much less explicit 50 Shades of Grey. And it shares with those books a conviction that its characters are in some kind of transcendental perfect love, as well as a total inability to demonstrate that claim in the actual writing.
The two main characters are nowhere near as likable as the novel’s author apparently thought they were. Leading lady Francesca, the dissatisfied farmwife entering early middle age, is somehow convinced, despite her lack of any serious problems, that she is a tragic heroine, constantly plunging into self-pitying reveries about her largely imaginary sorrows. Leading man Robert Kincaid, on the other hand, is supposed to be a wandering alpha-male philosopher-king, but comes off on paper as a pretentious bore who is nowhere near as interesting as he thinks he is. Their love for each other is frequently stated in increasingly florid terms to be some kind of magical connection that most people never achieve in their lives, but given that they only know each other for three days, their relationship comes off more as a shallow infatuation between two people who barely know each other and are more in love with the idea of this perfect fantasy love than with anything real about each other.
And while Brown finds beautiful music in Francesca’s melodramatic yearnings and manages to capture Robert’s restless spirit in his complex, shifting music, the fact remains that he’s still dealing with these rather insufferable characters, and for all their shimmering love duets full of vaunted language to match the novel’s, their ‘love’ for each other is never entirely convincing.
Also a problem is that none of the other characters in the story matter in the slightest (except, to a very limited extent, Francesca’s husband). The zombie-like chorus of disapproving neighbors, Robert’s ex-wife (who pops up briefly to sing “Another Life”, which is exquisite and touching but just winds up making Robert look like an even bigger jerk), and even Francesca’s two teenage children, are all essentially irrelevant background characters, of little importance to either to protagonists or the authors (in the novel, the kids eventually state outright their unimportance and unworthiness in comparison to their mother’s ‘perfect love’ for Robert). The leads’ indifference to the rest of the world has less the intended effect of making them seem totally enveloped and self-sufficient in their love and more the effect of making both of them seem like the kind of people who think everything is about them and other people are just extras in their movie, especially since they both have this attitude even before they meet each other.
And frankly, the cuckolded husband, who has the only other role of any significance at all, is much more sympathetic than either of the leads. He has completely accepted the fact that his wife doesn’t love him, and yet still shows her an incredible degree of patience and understanding. There’s a reason schlocky romantic melodramas where the leads are adulterers usually make the husband an abusive jerk; here, you wind up feeling sorrier for him than for the protagonists, and Hunter Foster’s touching and nuanced performance, fine as it is, only exacerbates this problem.
In fact, most of the show’s good qualities just wind up emphasizing the fundamental problems of the source material. This really should have been obvious to Brown beforehand, because there had already been an attempt by much greater talents than him to make this material work…the famous 1995 film version. The film certainly made some improvements…Meryl Streep brought an emotional weight and depth to her character’s self-pity that the Francesca of the novel never even approaches, and of course Clint Eastwood can actually make Robert Kincaid seem fascinating, charismatic, and philosophically deep, simply because Eastwood already is all of those things to begin with. And Eastwood’s direction did provide a number of exquisite visual collages, and did what it could to mitigate the problems of the story.
But ultimately, even if the film is much more successful at its attempts to manipulate than the novel, it is still a tedious and manipulative potboiler whose style-over-substance approach to filming cannot overcome the harlequin-romance schlock that forms its actual story content. If Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep couldn’t redeem this material, Brown should have known better than to try it himself. The show is ultimately, like so many Broadway flops, a marvelous score wasted on a bad story, and while it qualifies for the coveted ranks of what we in the business call “Heartbreaker Flops”, it still pretty much got the treatment it deserved.