Hayes Theatre is yet again bringing a hidden gem of a show to Elizabeth Bay. This time, it’s The Bridges of Madison County.
With book by Marsha Norman (The Secret Garden, The Color Purple) and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Parade), the story follows a lonely Italian-American war bride, and the affair she engages in whilst her husband is away. The show won 2 Tony Awards, 2 Drama Desk Awards, and an Outer Critics Circle award in its initial Broadway run, yet is rarely produced in the mainstage theatre space compared to other works from its writers.
In the lead role of Francesca Johnson is Kate Maree Hoolihan. Known for her Helpmann Award winning performance as Scaramouche in the original Australian cast of We Will Rock You, Kate Maree has done it all. From Mamma Mia! (u/s Sophie) to The Boy From Oz – The Arena Spectacular (cover Liza), Little Women (Jo March) to A Little Night Music (Petra), Evita (cover Eva Peron) to Mary Poppins (Mrs Banks), she has a truly diverse catalog of roles under her belt. Francesca is no exception. We had a chat about taking on this beast of a show, and what audiences can expect to see next week on the Hayes stage.
How have you found taking on such a well-known character?
Very overwhelming kind of challenge because it is such an iconic story. And of course, Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood have made it iconic forever in everybody’s hearts who’s seen [the movie]. It’s a really special story, and we’re trying to treat it with a lot of respect and love, and kindness. It’s quite challenge to make how you marry the two things – this love comes along, but it comes out of an affair. It’s a very delicate balance to get right, to make it believable and make it still likeable and understandable, to show how this can happen and it can still be wonderful and beautiful. The complexities of life, and how our relationships work. There’s no black and white to love.
Is Francesca different to other roles you’ve played?
Very different! [laughs] This is the first role I’ve played with adult children. I did play Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins and I had small children in that, which was a bit more like my life, I had small children at the same time so it made sense to me. Having adult children in this is very different. And I’ve played a lot of big, ballsy, strong characters – Little Women I played Jo, and Scaramouche in We Will Rock You is literally one of the ballsiest rock show characters. So I tend to play character with a lot of steam. But she’s a lot different. She’s still got a lot of fire in her, but 40-year-old fire. It’s a different kind of mellow, wisdom, energy… she’s been through a whole heap, so many layers, so much complexity.
Jason Robert Brown is notorious for his complex composition – how has it been tackling his score?
It’s a mammoth task [laughs]. An absolute marathon. We’re very aware that Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale have recorded this beast, and they’re two very unique voices. We’re sort of doing our own take on it because, obviously, I’m not Kelli O’Hara and Ian [Stenlake] isn’t Steve Pasquale. I have a very different voice type to Kelli. We’re doing our own version which I think is very important because… well, who wants to see me try and do Kelli O’Hara? You want to see a new version every time you put it on stage, and that’s what we’re hoping to bring to it.
And the show’s score errs on the more ‘folky’ side – is this something you’re familiar with?
I’m traditionally music theatre/opera background. Doing We Will Rock You was actually a stretch to start with, and this is probably more where I sit naturally. Traditional musical theatre sound. I’m really enjoying the change in the style. It’s a challenge, but in the 20 years I’ve been in the industry I’ve been switching around. The musicals we do are pop, rock, folk, traditional music theatre, opera… I’ve done everything. So you sort of have to switch, which is always a challenge. Coming from Evita last year and covering Tina, that’s a totally different sound and expectation on the type of singing and sound, and even character. Most people nowadays are switching styles pretty much every show.
Do you have a favourite song in the show?
I don’t know. I enjoy singing all of it, for different reasons. But probably the last song, “Always Better” because of what it says. It wraps it up… it’s all about love. Love comes in may shapes and forms and sizes and times in your life, and none of it is wrong. It’s all important and valuable and it’s such a beautiful way to explain her. It’s a beautiful song and does that really well.
Why should people come and see The Bridges of Madison County?
It’s a beautiful story. It’s a challenging story. It challenges your ideas of right and wrong, your ideas of what love is, loyalty, responsibility… it makes you question your own life and the choices you have made, and how those choices have shaped your life as it is now. It just makes you think.
The Bridges of Madison County opens on March 6 at Hayes Theatre.
Tickets and more information are available at the Hayes Theatre Co. website.