The Lustful Iowa War Brides and Sensitive NatGeo Photographers of 1965

Culture Watch
tags: play reviews

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

The Bridges of Madison County
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
236 W. 45th Street
New York, N.Y.

Image via Wiki Commons.

There is a large population of former European women living in America, the ‘war brides,’ who came here after they married GIs they fell in love with during World War II. They left their family, friends and old country behind and, with their new husbands, moved to a new land and raised families. Later in life, some began to yearn for the old country and some wondered if they were right to leave, and right to marry their soldier boy so very long ago.

That’s what happened to Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County, a musical that just opened in New York. Francesca, originally from Naples, Italy, is stuck in her tedious life with her husband of nearly twenty years, two teenaged sons and a gossipy neighbor. She lives in a small town in Iowa, a place she calls “black” and is struggling with a mid-life crisis in the year 1965. She dreams of her life in Italy during World War II, her beloved Naples and the men she left behind to move to the United States with her wartime love.

Then a handsome, rugged photographer for the National Geographic Magazine walks into her yard asking for directions of one of the county’s old covered bridges. Her husband and children are away for four days at a state fair. She and the photographer are alone. She falls head over heels in love with him. He wants her to run off with him and tour the world. What to do?

The Bridges of Madison County was a best-selling book in 1992 and then a hit movie three years later starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. You would think that it would be hard to make it soar all these years later, and as a stage musical, no less, but it does. It is a majestic triumph, an emotional heart tugger of the first order – love amid the cornfields.

The director, Bartlett Sher, gets sensational performances from Kelli O’Hara as Francesca and Steven Pasquale as Robert, the photographer. The pair, and a glittering cast, makes Bridges not only a monumental contemporary drama, but a satisfying history play as well. It probes World War II, post war life in Italy and America and the historical strings that connect Francesca, and all World War II brides like her, back to the 1940s.

The play, with wonderful sets by Michael Yeargan, starts off innocently enough. Husband Bud (Hunter Foster) is taking the kids, Carolyn (Caitlin Kunnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena) to the state fair, leaving Francesca behind. She plans to clean and read for four dull days when her life is turned upside down by the photographer. The strength of the play, with its lush music (Jason Robert Brown) and book (Marsha Norman), is the way that the love slowly builds from sheer lust to a deep romance.

It is the story of two people who meet, fall into each other’s arms and plan to live happily ever after. She can let him sweep her off her feet and carry her away to a dazzling life with him as he travels the world for the magazine. Or she can stay in “black” Iowa with her family and get her kicks from watching corn grow.

The strength of the play is the romance, but the history in it is wonderful.

The history scenes in the play bring back memories of every World War II movie ever made. Francesca had a number of boyfriends, as did her sister Kierra, the town trollop. Then she met Bud and left home. Ironically, the photographer was recently in Naples and photographed much of the city. In the pictures, Francesca finds the neighborhood where she lived in the 1940a. They bring back vivid memories.

So many foreign women married GIs in World War II that they could have made up their own country. Altogether, about 450,000 women from foreign countries married U.S. soldiers they met in World War II and immigrated to America. There were so many of them that in 1946 Congress passed a special ‘War Brides Act’ to permit them entry to the country, waiving all immigration laws to do so. Nearly 50,000 ‘war brides’ emigrated from England to Canada, too, carried there after the war in a fleet of ocean liners, dubbed the ‘war bride ships.’ At first, there were restrictions. Soldiers were not permitted to marry German women; that ban was soon lifted. All women had to be processed and this could take months or years.

Did the new brides from Europe have problems in America? Of course. They did not know anyone, lived in brand new towns and had to learn a new language. They not only survived; they thrived. Poll after poll showed that the overwhelming number of them believed that they were right to do what they did and never looked back.

The Bridges of Madison County touches everybody, regardless of age or gender. There is an historical tug in it for all us. At some point in our lives, we remember the past and think about what life would have been like it we had made other choices. Many people today, tired with their lives, run off with the “photographer” they meet by chance one day.

Director Sher has done a splendid job of using a large cast to tell his story amid the quick movement of sets and careful lighting. He gets magnificent performances from O’Hara and Pasquale, a pair of lovers to rival any in entertainment history. Sher also gets fine work form Foster, Kinnunen, Klena, and the rest of the cast.

You wish for a bit more on the history in Bridges. We see Francesca looking at photos in a book, but they could have been projected on to a big screen at the rear of the stage. There might have been larger sets for the World War II scenes, too. The play is also a bit long, at two hours and forty minutes. There is no mention of the student unrest, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, all growing in 1965, and there should have been. These are just minor quibbles though.

The Bridges of Madison County, bridges to life and love, is a rich and lovely play with tender and alluring music. It is a valentine to Iowa, World War II and anybody who has ever fallen in love.

PRODUCTION: Producers: Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Stacey Mindich, others. Sets: Michael Yeargen, Lighting: Donald Holder, Costumes: Catherine Zuber, Sound: Jon Weston. The play is directed by Bartlett Sher. Open run.

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