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Interview: Kate Baldwin Is Falling Into Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County

Baldwin stars with Aaron Lazar in Hunter Foster's new production of the Jason Robert Brown-Marsha Norman musical.

This month, Kate Baldwin returns to the stage to take on the role of Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County at New Jersey's Axelrod Performing Arts Center. Based on the novel by Robert James Waller, the Jason Robert Brown-Marsha Norman musical tells the story of Baldwin's Francesca, a war bride who develops an unexpected affair with photographer Robert Kincaid (Aaron Lazar) in Winterset, Iowa. The highly anticipated production is directed by original Broadway cast member Hunter Foster and runs March 11-27.

Baldwin spoke with TheaterMania about the role of Francesca, reuniting with co-star Lazar every decade or so, and the message that will resonate with audiences when they walk out of the theater.

Kate Baldwin
(© Tricia Baron)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get involved with this production of The Bridges of Madison County?
I think it was in October or November when they offered me the role of Francesca. I spoke with my friend Hunter Foster about his ideas for the show, and we talked about what it could be. Francesca is a role that is really attractive. It's a fabulous score with some of the most beautiful music you've ever heard written for musical theater.

What was your first introduction to The Bridges of Madison County?
I saw the movie in theaters when it came out and admired it. It was the mid-'90s, and I was probably in college. A story about two people later in life finding each other was a little over my head. I didn't really grasp the real depths of what they were doing. I went to the closing night of the Broadway production and I remember Kelli O'Hara came forward and gave a speech. I've been talking to her about our production. I loved the musical, and I thought it should've had a longer life on Broadway so more people could've seen it. When Hunter offered the part to me, I picked up the book. So I had all three versions of the story to marinate on.

Tell us about Francesca.
Francesca is an immigrant from Italy. She's a war bride who came to the United States at the end of World War II. In our version, she was born in and grew up in Naples, Italy, which was one of the hardest hit cities in World War II. It was devastated by the bombs and occupied by Germans. The city itself was a dangerous place to live. In my imagination, Francesca escaped the way that many women did. She married an American soldier and came over to the United States not really knowing anything about it. She was hoping for the best and for the American dream she heard about to become a reality for her.

She comes to Winterset, Iowa, at a farm that was owned by her husband's family for over 100 years, and becomes a farm wife in rural Iowa. It's a very different existence than what she had dreamed of as a girl growing up studying art. In our production, I pull out my sketchpad and I draw the bridge and the cornfields. I sort of leaned into the idea that she was an artist first. Maybe her artistic eye and love of something that is seen as less than useful in Iowa makes her an outsider in a rural community. Francesca's Italian heritage also makes her an outsider and still has her accent, even though she speaks perfect English and has lived in the US for 20 years.

What do you bring to the part that is different from those who previously played Francesca?
My version of Francesca always tends to go towards humor. I always want to go for a joke because I think life is funny and the absurdity of life is a great thing to play. I think audiences enjoy watching awkwardness and a person who is trying really hard to keep themselves together but failing. That's what lights me up when I look at a person like Francesca who is pulled in so many different directions. Part of my vision in telling the story is to make the audience root for Francesca and Robert and believe in them. I think humor is a great way to do that, showing how the two of them get each other and lighten each other's burdens.

What has it been like working with Aaron Lazar again?
It's fabulous. We've worked together every 10 years and have known each other for 20 years. We worked on a show that didn't go anywhere and became friends. About 10 years ago, we reunited for another show. Here we are 10 years later, at the beginning of the third decade of our friendship working on this show together. He is just fabulous. He is a terrific actor, spontaneous and fun, and also incredibly real onstage. He has a voice that just won't quit, and he's gonna be so good in this show.

Do you have a favorite scene or song from the show?
My favorite song is the one I get to sing at the very end; it's called "Always Better." It's a song that, when I saw the show, made me well up with tears. I finally stepped back and said, "OK, I get it. I get what they're trying to do here." The message of the song is that love is always better when you have a choice. Choose to love. That's a wonderful message.

What do you hope audiences will take away from The Bridges of Madison County?
That love is always better. There's room for all kinds of love in the world and in your heart.

For tickets to The Bridges of Madison County, click here.