Five Questions with Jason Robert Brown

How would you describe your style as a composer and how does it fluctuate based on the material you’re working on?

As a composer, I’m primarily interested in writing for character, so my style adapts for whatever the project is based on whatever the characters are. Having said that, I have certain proclivities as a musician that I like. I’m sort of a jazz/gospel guy at heart, and I think that informs the writing at the time. But for a piece like THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, where that wouldn’t necessarily be germane to these characters’ lives, I had to find a different style that really spoke to who they were.

When Bridges was first being produced as a musical, it already existed in multiple mediums. What about this show made you think it would translate well to stage?

What was obvious from the beginning was it was a piece with very passionate characters, and passion is the only thing that’s really easy to sing about. Music that has passion in it is very natural, whereas music that’s analytical is a much more difficult thing to pull off. Because these characters were so passionate, I thought they naturally lent themselves to singing and I thought there was, in fact, something kind of operatic about the way the book was written. It sort of wanted not just singing, but large-scale vocalizing.

Do you prefer working on musical adaptations of previous stories or crafting something new and original? Also, what are some of the joys and challenges of both?

They’re both challenging in their own ways, and I wouldn’t say I enjoy one more than the other. Either way, I’ve got to tell a story and sometimes it’s easier if you know what the contours of the story are before you begin, and sometimes it’s better to just be free to explore whichever way the story wants to take you. With THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, it was a book and a movie that, in both cases, I found sort of flawed, that there were things I wanted to make better, things that the characters did that I wanted to improve, things that the storytelling did that I wanted to take on, and I just felt like music would be a much more natural way for those characters to speak. When I do something entirely original, like ‘The Last 5 Years,’ then I’m really coming up with an entire vocabulary from the ground up for how this piece is going to exist. But much of the vocabulary for THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY exists already and so for me, it was more about melding my vocabulary with the piece that already existed.

What was the hardest aspect of adapting BRIDGES to the stage?

All things told, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY was not one of the hard shows to write actually. The hardest thing I think was just figuring out how deep I was really allowed to go with these characters. There’s not a whole lot of plot in the novel, so how much can you really do? How much can they sing about? Just things that they’re feeling and how what they’re feeling is changing over the course of those two and a half hours. So I think the real challenge was just making sure that the music showed up in the right places all the time because the book is very ruminative and doesn’t have a lot of action so it wasn’t very obvious where all the songs were supposed to go.

What was one moment from the source material that you wanted to include but never made it into the final draft? Conversely, what is your favorite nod to the original source material that did make it into the stage version of BRIDGES?

I’m not sure there’s anything in the book that I wanted to put in the show that I couldn’t. Again, the book is very short and there’s not a lot that happens, so I felt like, in a lot of ways, it was my job to get away from the book as much as I could. But there is one thing that I loved in the book that I was really able to make something of. I think there are about two sentences that talk about Robert’s first marriage to Marian and they go by really fast. But for me, the minute I read those two sentences I thought, “Oh wait, there’s something there. There’s a character there that I didn’t realize we had.” And I knew then that we could use Marian, his first wife, to tell us this story about who Robert was and to give us a whole lot of exposition that we otherwise were never going to be able to get. And so I was very grateful to that. And so that’s the thing that I was really glad I was able to pull out of the book that I don’t think has ever mattered to anyone before, but it was very valuable to me.

—Abi Sneathen, Aurora Theatre Company, Lawrenceville, Georgia

Watch a New York Times behind-the-scenes look at the BRIDGES sitzprobe, a theater tradition that is the first time a show’s cast and full orchestra practice face-to-face.