Entertainment

Tony Nominee Kelli O’Hara Refuses To Burn "Bridges"

Now that The Bridges of Madison County has closed on Broadway, its star reflects on why the show didn’t catch on — and what that means for the future of theater.

Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale as Francesca and Robert in The Bridges of Madison County. Joan Marcus

Kelli O’Hara is no longer singing the stunning “Almost Real” eight times a week now that The Bridges of Madison County has closed, but that doesn’t mean she’s moved on.

For her portrayal of Francesca Johnson, a dissatisfied Italian-American housewife (a role originated by Meryl Streep in the film) who falls for traveling photographer Robert Kincaid in 1965 Iowa, O’Hara earned her fifth Tony Award nomination.

Of the five times O’Hara has been nominated to date, she has yet to win once.

The show itself, which closed May 18, was snubbed for the coveted Best Musical award, as was star Steven Pasquale, who brought down the house as Robert. But Bridges, which did get a nomination for Jason Robert Brown’s original score, found its audience late in its run — and the cast album, aided by O’Hara’s nomination, continues to attract new fans.

“I know there were problems. And I know that it wasn’t for everybody,” O’Hara told BuzzFeed. “But I think there was something about that show that will live on in a certain way, and the recording will help that happen. I’m just really proud that I was a part of it.”

The acclaim O’Hara has received for her performance may have to be enough. While the 38-year-old actor, who previously wowed audiences in 2005’s The Light in the Piazza, is long overdue for a Tony win, the tides may have turned against her thanks to Bridges’ premature closing. The last time the Best Actress in a Musical award went to an actor in a closed show was in 1975 when Angela Lansbury won for a revival of Gypsy.

The question remains why Bridges, one of the standout musicals of the season, failed to connect with audiences and was largely ignored by the Tony Awards. O’Hara, who has experienced both unequivocal hits and more modest successes throughout her Broadway career, can only hazard a guess.

“It’s such a question for the ages,” she said. “Art is a strange beast. Those of us who do it and create it live in a world where something that feels cathartic and wonderful and artistic to us isn’t always what feels that way to the general public. People need art for different reasons.”

Francesca reflects on her transgression with Robert. Joan Marcus

O’Hara’s decision to take on the character of Francesca was less complicated. Though she had never seen the 1995 film adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County starring Streep and Clint Eastwood, she had devoured Robert James Waller’s best-selling novel as a teenager.

For O’Hara, choosing a role largely depends on what her most recent role was. She was last seen on Broadway in 2012’s musical comedy Nice Work If You Can Get It, for which she earned her fourth Tony nomination. O’Hara played Billie Bendix, a Gershwin-singing bootlegger in the lighthearted ’20s-set show.

“I look for things based on what came before and what might come after. I try to change it up a little bit,” O’Hara said. “It probably seems to some people they’re all in the same family, but to me, all my roles have felt very, very different, and that’s the most important thing for me — to keep challenging, keep growing. So if I do a comedy one year, I might want to do something serious. If I play an ingénue type, I might want to play more of a strong kind of woman next, or something like that. I just want to hopefully keep surprising myself and other people.”

Francesca is indeed far removed from Nice Work’s Billie — and from O’Hara’s other notable roles, including cock-eyed optimist Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and woefully naïve Clara in The Light in the Piazza. Francesca is a little older and a lot sadder, the reflection of a less-than-perfect life that has fixed her in place.

“When they approached me with it, I knew that I would be ready at this time in my life. I had started my family and I knew that I’d be ready to play the mother and play something of a woman with some experience,” said O’Hara. “Of course we play the things that we’re right for, that we’re well fitted, well-suited to do. And when you get older, you start wanting to play someone with a lot of history. And she has more history and different history than I ever could imagine. I took on that challenge.”

Of course, a large part of playing Francesca, an immigrant from Naples, was developing her accent. As O’Hara noted, “In all of these things, a lot more goes into it than probably is actually seen in the work onstage.”

In order to find the perfect accent, O’Hara dived into her character’s backstory, imagining a woman who came to a small town in Iowa at a time when her cultural difference would have been something to suppress. Her Francesca reflects someone quietly clinging to her past while still struggling to assimilate after 18 years in Madison County.

“I’m a Southern American woman, so it’s hard for me to give her less of an affect, less of an, ‘Oh, hello, I’m so cheery all the time!’ I felt like she would be more reserved and more guarded and more careful,” O’Hara said. “It all comes from just trying to know she was, and then her voice kind of came alive out of that.”

O’Hara in the 2013 production of Far From Heaven, based on the 2002 film of the same name. Joan Marcus

It also helped O’Hara’s decision that doing Bridges gave her the opportunity to work with composer Jason Robert Brown, best known for his bittersweet love story The Last Five Years.

Over the course of her career, O’Hara has taken on the classics, singing the works of composers like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. But part of her persistent desire to challenge herself — and audiences — is attaching herself to more ambitious, riskier works by up-and-coming musicians and lyricists.

“I’ve had the great pleasure of working with some modern-day composers, brilliant, brilliant musicians — you know, Adam Guettel [Light in the Piazza] and Scott Frankel [Far From Heaven] and Ricky Ian Gordon [My Life With Albertine],” O’Hara said. “These guys are all writing in their own voice, and really writing against, specifically the ones I named, writing against what might be considered commercial or what might sell, but more from just their brilliantly singular minds.”

“Jason has kind of bridged the gap of that,” O’Hara continued. “He fits the bill of that personality but he also writes very accessibly, I think. The difference between Jason and some of the others is that he wasn’t afraid to write very complex and difficult melodies and harmonies and things, while also being accessible.”

Bridges also allowed O’Hara to work alongside Steven Pasquale, with whom she has been friends for 15 years. They met back when they were doing small readings together. In the musical, the chemistry between the two stars is palpable — it’s never a mystery why Francesca and Robert want each other, and we root for them, despite her familial obligations.

In fact, director Bartlett Sher asked O’Hara and Pasquale to tone it down during rehearsals, concerned that the obvious affection they felt for one another came too early in the show.

“When there’s an absolute freedom between the two of you, you can actually push it farther than you think for the story’s sake. That came pretty naturally with Steven and me,” O’Hara said. “The harder thing for us was to create the tension in the beginning, before we gave into the love. Bart Sher was always giving us notes about having more nervousness, more tension, because for us, it was always just easy to be together.”

The realism helps contribute to the emotional resonance of Bridges, culminating in the gorgeous showstopping duet “One Second and a Million Miles.” It’s a testament to the skills of the stars, who perfectly capture the desperate yearning of an ill-timed affair.

“I’ve had to build chemistry with a lot of different men in a lot of different ways in my career,” O’Hara said. “And people go on the journey with you. They really believe it. That’s the most fun part. The more and more you get accused of having an affair, the better it is.”

O’Hara as Nellie Forbush alongside Paulo Szot as Emile De Becque in South Pacific. Joan Marcus

With such a talented creative team and cast, Bridges’ failure is all the more frustrating. But the show, powerfully adapted for the stage with a book by Marsha Norman, was always a tough sell. It’s a story of infidelity with a decidedly unhappy ending.

The way O’Hara sees it, the heavy, thought-provoking plot may have worked against the show, particularly for audiences accustomed to something a bit easier to digest.

“We might go deeper and more truthfully than a lot of people want to go, because they want to go to the theater to forget, and to turn off,” she said. “Sometimes shows like this, which I really believed in, might be a little bit too straight-on, too un-cynical and un-numbing. It might be too much.”

It’s true that Bridges is sincere. But perhaps more to its detriment, it challenges its audience by posing tough, uncomfortable questions. The choice Francesca is forced to make — between love with Robert and responsibility toward her husband and kids — is not an easy one. There is no outcome, however justified by the circumstances, that would satisfy everyone.

As a theater devotee herself, O’Hara longs for these theatrical experiences and the complicated moral quandaries that subvert audience expectations. But she also recognizes the way Broadway has changed over the past several decades.

“My feeling, and my hope is that theater remains a place where people can come to learn about themselves and to think, and not be afraid of that,” O’Hara said. “It used to be more for that reason. And I think it gets to be more and more and more numbing as we go on. But I want it to remain the thing that brings the truth out.”

In terms of The Bridges of Madison County, O’Hara also believes that the experience of the show improves on repeated viewings, a luxury that not all theater fans can afford. But any piece of work as complex as Bridges deserves time to unfurl and percolate in the minds of its audience — and because Broadway is still a business, time is not always something new shows have.

“Once the word got out, and once the music started to touch people, or once people came for a few different viewings, they started to see more and understand more and love more about it,” O’Hara said. “Light in the Piazza was kind of like that, where after listening to it, people — the third and fourth time — start to really understand it. And that’s a good sign, too, because that means there’s more to see. It’s not so simple and one-note, you know? It has a lot of layers.”

“We had such good word of mouth that the audience started to believe in us,” she continued. “Just not in time.”

Standing on one of The Bridges of Madison County’s titular bridges. Joan Marcus

There’s an inherent risk in trying out new material. Even The Bridges of Madison County, based on a popular book with a successful film adaptation, wasn’t a surefire hit. O’Hara suggested the title might have worked against it — and indeed, for those unfamiliar with the story, The Bridges of Madison County may recall something insipid and dull.

“It’s not a home run, slam-dunk certainty. I mean nothing is,” O’Hara said. “I think the problem is, it’s too expensive to take the risk anymore. To put up $20 million, $60 million, whatever dollars it is that you’re going to spend on a new thing, you’ve got to have some certainty that it’s gonna do well.”

Now that Bridges has closed, O’Hara has the opportunity to catch up on some of the other shows she missed this season. She cites If/Then — another new musical largely ignored by the Tony Awards — as a thoroughly original show on Broadway this season.

“I was really impressed with the creativity and the performances and the brand-newness of it all,” O’Hara said. “[Book writer] Brian Yorkey’s story’s trying to challenge people, and I’d heard before, ‘Oh, it’s too confusing, it’s too confusing.’ Well, I went in, and I was glad to have to think. I appreciated that I had to use my brain to understand the story that they were trying to tell.”

If/Then is performing decently, though it’s nowhere near the success of Next to Normal, the last musical from Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt. Meanwhile, of this year’s Tony nominees for Best Musical, only one is original. The others are jukebox musicals with previously recorded songs — After Midnight and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical — or based on a popular film (Aladdin).

That lack of recognition — not to mention the early closure of shows like Bridges — can be disheartening for audiences in search of new and unique theatrical experiences. From an inside perspective, however, O’Hara suggests that there are plenty of reasons to keep hope alive. New composers are always writing fresh material, she said. Now it’s simply a question of finding someone to take these risks and get original shows produced.

“I keep believing two things — that we must keep creating the new stuff, even though it’s risky, but we also have to find a way to make people want to believe in it,” O’Hara said. “I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because I have to be. Because I believe in it so much, and I would hate to see it all disappear.”

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