Bridging Screen and Stage: With Help From Jason Robert Brown’s Songs, Kelli O’Hara Takes on a Challenging Role

Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in 'The Bridges of Madison County.' (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale in ‘The Bridges of Madison County.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

As they used to say in old movie ads about screen reteamings, Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale are “together again!” Last year, Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, they were Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid in a musicalization of Far from Heaven. This year—Feb. 20 at the Schoenfeld Theater on Broadway, to be precise—they’re Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in a tuned-up retelling of The Bridges of Madison County.

During the run of Far from Heaven, Ms. O’Hara was pregnant and had her costumes let out almost daily (as did, ironically, Ms. Moore during the original filming). New motherhood kept Ms. O’Hara from making Bridges’ first stop on its way to Broadway—the Williamstown Theater Festival—so Elena Shaddow stepped in for her, winning some good notices for it.

Both shows are multidimensional portraits of women agonizingly divided, and they won Oscar nominations for Ms. Moore and, of course, Ms. Streep. This presents no pressure for Ms. O’Hara, herself a four-time Tony contender. In fact, she’s happy to have such musical misery dumped on her doorstep. “I feel lucky to get to play these roles once they’re musicalized,” she said in a recent interview. “And I want to think I have more to offer than just the singing. I want to make a whole world out of these kinds of roles.”

She has had to act up a storm between songs. In Far From Heaven, she came on as the picture-perfect Hartford housewife—one who, on closer inspection, was toting a mother lode of ’50s-vintage angst: While her husband indulged in some surreptitious gay sampling, she consoled herself with her black gardener, to the disapproving glares of neighbors. The neighborhood patrol is also out in Bridges where Ms. O’Hara’s character is once again married with children. This time, the romantic complication is a four-day affair with a National Geographic photographer who shows up to shoot the seven covered bridges of Madison County; he can’t find the last one and asks her for directions. Evidently, it’s easy to fall in love with a lost man who asks for directions.

What the two musicals have in common, beyond their stars, is that, like the original films, they’re lovely to look at and listen to. Heaven was a slide show of a red-and-gold New England autumn; Bridges basks in the heat of an Iowan Indian summer, with lush lighting by Donald Holder and abstract sets by Michael Yeargan that don’t bother to cover the bridges or put roofs on farms but do move at lightning speed.

Michael Korie and Scott Frankel’s score for Heaven was so overwhelmed with gorgeous orchestrations that one was never really certain there was a melody. Jason Robert Brown, as is his wont, did his own orchestrations for Bridges and, thus, has the upper hand in accentuating the hooks, beats and breadth of his score.

In Bridges, Ms. O’Hara, a blonde from Deer Creek, Okla., plays Francesca Johnson, an Italian World War II bride transplanted to Iowa. Mr. Brown’s songs helped make her appear more Italian. “It’s the key to her character,” he said. “Some part of her heart is still over in Italy.”

Additional help in getting her into character came from a David Brian Brown wig, and from dialect coach Deborah Hecht.

Francesca has no real connection to the land or life she has married into. Along comes a stranger who offers her the world, and she falls in love. Then comes the heart-tugger of what to do with that love—run off with it or throw it away and “be responsible.”

“She’s a combination of so much that I feel right now,” said Ms. O’Hara. “[Director] Bart [Sher] said to me, ‘Doing the right things at the right time is a gift.’ I’ve just become the mother of two. I’m very heavy, very tired—with deep emotion, in a good way. My heart’s kinda bursting away. At the same time, my operatic background informs the Italian in me. As for being a farm wife, I grew up on a farm and watched my maternal grandmother break her back every day of her married life tending to her family. All of these things make me feel like I know this woman.”

As for the music, “Jason Robert Brown promised to write something for me, which is difficult, because I want to sing operatically sometimes, but I’m still a musical-theater person. Somehow, he found those two worlds and gave me this voice that still goes along with the earthy tones of the other actors in this musical. It’s as if he created magic. It just flows out of me like something I was meant to sing.”

Robert James Waller’s slender best-seller—the most popular book in America until The Da Vinci Code—barely provided enough material for a two-hander on film. Book writer Marsha Norman populates the musical more densely with area rustics, who arrive with the opening number, “To Build a Home” (which delivers Francesca’s Italy-to-Iowa backstory). Toting minimalist set material out of Our Town, they not only build her a house but, while they’re at it, a farming community.

“We were very much inspired by Thornton Wilder and wanted the show to be as theatrical as possible,” said Mr. Brown. “So we thought we should take the opportunity to build a home and a community right there on stage.” There’s another echo of Our Town late in the second act—a rainy funeral, framed in black umbrellas.

Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter rates a slight bow as well when the lovers’ last precious moments are interrupted by an oblivious busybody (Cass Morgan, in a nosy neighbor role played on film by her co-Dinette, Debra Monk). Ms. Morgan sticks around to sing a radio song for the couple to dance to. “I thought of that song more like a Dinah Washington kind of song,” said Mr. Brown. “But when Cass sings it, it gets a nice country belt. I think Patsy Cline would have done a nice job of it.”

The score, a good 20 songs long, has its share of soaring ballads, punctuated by novelty numbers. “Whatever kind of music you might have heard on that farm in Iowa in 1965, it was my obligation to get it out there,” Mr. Brown said. “There’s a little bit of jazz and country music. Francesca’s music is a planet away—music from Italian opera.”