Dallas — When James Lapine calls and asks if you’re available to adapt one of the most popular American novels of the past two decades into a musical, you seriously consider it. Especially when your composer/collaborator could be Jason Robert Brown.
“Jason and I had been talking about what we were going to do next,” says Marsha Norman about the duo’s first full musical together, The Bridges of Madison County, based on the 1992 Robert James Waller novel. “We had done a big symphonic project for [E.B. White’s] The Trumpet of the Swan, and we had so much fun working on it.”
Norman won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for her play ‘Night, Mother, and was known for plays such as Getting Out and Traveller in the Dark in the 1980s. In 1991 she collaborated with composer Lucy Simon for a musical of Frances Hogsdon Burnett’s The Secret Garden, winning a Tony for her book.
Norman would also write the librettos for the musical The Red Shoes and The Color Purple, and a symphony with actors for Swan, her first time working with Brown. That experience led to The Bridges of Madison County, about an Italian war bride in 1965 Iowa who has a brief affair with a photographer. The show ran for just three months on Broadway in 2014, but the experience was enlightening. She and Brown are now working on a musical of King Kong, rewritten from an earlier version by Marius de Vries and Craig Lucas.
The national tour of The Bridges of Madison County is playing at the Music Hall at Fair Park, presented by Dallas Summer Musicals, and Norman chatted with TheaterJones about collaborating with Brown, her start as a pianist, and the effects of winning a Pulitzer and a Tony.
TheaterJones: You and Jason have worked together before. Is there a secret to finding the right collaborator?
Marsha Norman: You have to have great chemistry. We laugh at each other’s jokes; that makes it fun. Musicals are hard, they really suffer when people are having to cover for each other, and we never had to do that. We have fun with each other. Sometimes we talk to each other in funny accents.
Boris and Natasha, that’s our most common one. We once got in trouble in an audition because we invented a lyrics game we would play with each other. We had so much fun. I think his work is magnificent and that makes it easier. You have to be on the same page.
Have you ever been on a different page than the composer?
I worked on one adaptation for 11 years, and [the composer and I] finally realized we had a different idea of the story. That happens sometimes. You have to be wound up about what you’re doing. You don’t want to go on a trip where one person thinks you’re going to Ohio and other person thinks you’re going to Sweden.
What are some of the other obstacles?
The thing that’s an issue in musical theater now is that people are so bombarded with projects you can’t always stay with the same partner. I feel lucky to have worked with Jason several times.
Your writing career began as a playwright, with Getting Out and ‘Night Mother, among others. Did you grow up listening to musical theater albums?
I grew up playing the piano, and I played my way through school on music scholarships. My saving grace was accompanying dancers in college. They wanted to dance to the Broadway songbook, and I had to learn those songs. I learned every single Broadway song there was. I came to college loving theater but my job there was playing for the dancers. I couldn’t become a concert pianist; I never had the fortitude to stay in the room until I got it exactly right.
What is your strength as a collaborator with a composer/lyricist?
I’m able to get you into the song and get you out of the song, and I can tell you what the song needs to do. I often hear, from people who don’t like musicals, that “people don’t just burst into song.”
Of course they do. They rant, they talk to themselves walking along the street, they sing to themselves. We don’t think about it as bursting into song, but that’s what it is.
You won a Pulitzer Prize for ‘Night, Mother as a young writer. How does that affect your career?
The Pulitzer permanently changes your name to “Pulitzer Prize-Winner Marsha Norman.” It guarantees you can earn a living teaching, and it guarantees you get an obituary in the New York Times.
One downside is that people think you’ll keep writing in that vein. But you usually win it because you’ve gotten to the end of the train that got you there—I’m paraphrasing Goethe there. And if you do write something different, the critics get angry that you don’t give them what they know from your winning play. The play after the Pulitzer Prize—they’re going to hate it.
The Pulitzer doesn’t necessarily get you jobs. Winning a Tony get you jobs, which is what happened with me after winning a Tony for The Secret Garden. The producers have a stake in that, they benefit from that award you just won.
It’s a small gang, there are people who should have won the Pulitzer 40 years ago, but because of the luck of the draw that year, they didn’t. When you win the Pulitzer you have to start over.
Your musical work has been adaptations of existing material. Ever think about an original story?
The problem with original books is there are so many opportunities for people to disagree what the project is. When you have material that it’s based on, you can all agree on what it should be. A piece of material that is known to all; it cuts all the arguments in half. You try to get through before you’re dead.
What was your first thought when that opportunity to adapt Bridges came at you?
I had read the book and seen the movie. My initial thought was we couldn’t write a musical for two people. I wanted to know in what context did she make that decision. Everybody knows what you’re doing in the small town, she knows she’s making the decision to have the affair or reject him and stay with her family. That’s what that first song [“To Build a Home”] is about: about home and the isolation of being away from home.
There’s no formula for figuring out which musicals will work and which won’t, but were you surprised that Bridges didn’t have much of a New York run, despite Broadway star Kelli O’Hara?
We opened in a February with 42 inches of snow, and then there was the Super Bowl. This is all hindsight of course. Maybe with a different media campaign, a different time of year, it could have been an entirely different story. André Bishop, who runs Lincoln Center, ran up the aisle after he saw it, sobbing, and found Jason and me and said it’s perfect. But for some reason we couldn’t audiences to come.
People have said so many spectacular things to me about Bridges, so I know that the people it moved it moved to the bottom of the souls. That’s the review I hang on.
Thoughts about the revival of The Color Purple?
It’s brilliant. John Doyle has focused the direction with Celie and the letters, like I focused the book. I didn’t do a single word of change to the book. The composers surrendered about 20 minutes of music that was mainly instrumental. It was mainly scene changes that were tightened. It doesn’t give people any opportunity to escape. It’s a very young cast, and that’s really exciting. I love the positioning of Jennifer Hudson, who is brilliant.