In Robert James Waller’s best-selling novel “The Bridges of Madison County,” a lonely war bride in 1960s Iowa has a three-day affair with a handsome National Geographic photographer who came to town to shoot the community’s covered bridges.
Published in 1992, Waller’s work sold more than 60 million copies around the world. In 1995, a film version followed, starring Meryl Strep, Oscar-nominated as the housewife, and Clint Eastwood as the photographer.
With a lush score by Jason Robert Brown, a musical adaptation premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2013. A year later, the show opened on Broadway and was subsequently nominated for multiple Tony Awards.
SpeakEasy Stage at the Calderwood Pavilion on Tremont Street presents the Boston premiere of the musical from May 6 to June 3. Boston’s award-winning Jennifer Ellis stars as Francesca, the Italian war bride, opposite Christiaan Smith as Robert, the photographer.
Ellis has been critically acclaimed for her work in everything from “Nine” to “Far From Heaven,” “1776,” “Carousel” and more. She has also appeared in “Shear Madness” in both Boston and New York. In 2016 she received the Norton and IRNE Best Actress awards for her performance as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” at Lyric Stage. And last summer she achieved a personal dream when she sang the National Anthem before a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway Park.
A Whitman native, Ellis now lives in Dorchester with her husband, an organic chemist. Together, the couple has traveled the world, swimming with sharks in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and staring down a lion while on a safari in Africa. She is also an animal rights activist.
With a warm personality and an easy sense of humor, she spoke about the show as she was mastering her lines. Here’s an edited look at our conversation.
Q. “Bridges” is a popular novel and film. What’s your creative process when dealing with a story or a character that brings its own audience recognition.
A. When I did “My Fair Lady” with [director] Scott Edmiston, on day one he held up a picture of Audrey Hepburn, just put a big X through it and said, “We will not be doing this. Expectations aside, we going to do our own thing.” And that’s the approach I’m taking with this. I can’t live up to anyone’s expectations. I can just put myself into it as honestly as I can, approach it that way and hope that it resonates with people.
Q. Your character faces a life-altering emotional choice. Does the tragedy of the story lie in Francesca betraying her husband or in staying with him?
A. There’s a beautiful song at the end, which is, I guess, a spoiler alert. She sings about how maybe it would have been better it Robert didn’t come to town. Then she wouldn’t have this pain that she has to live with. But she also wouldn’t know that she could love in that capacity . . . It’s so complex.
Q. The situation she faces goes far beyond the setting of time and place.
A. It is a very relatable story, which is funny, because it’s about adultery. I think people either see themselves in Francesca or Robert, or the husband, Bud. It’s funny that it’s sort of an immoral thing that happens, but you root for them at the same time.
Q. Of course, over a three-day period it’s tough to fully experience who the other person really is.
A. Right, all the warts and scars. That’s so true. Just three days is not enough time to get on each other’s nerves.
Q. You’re so well known for your musical roles here in Boston. Is your family musical or are you the lone artist?
A. I was the lone artist. It turned out my Dad’s Mom played piano beautifully, by ear, and that really fascinated me as a kid. So I would always bang on her piano. And then she eventually gave it to me . . . I feel like I got that sort of musical element from Nana Ellis. But we’re Irish, so there’s always a lot of singing. I was about about six when I joined the choir at my church. Someone gave me a solo, and that was just a big mistake because I wouldn’t step away from the microphone.
Q. You’re a member of the “Shear Madness” club, having done the show both here and in New York.
A. Man, I love those guys. I was so lucky to get into that. It’s kind of like an institution . . . like Comedy Improv Boot Camp. It’s its own type of family because so many people have done it. Some really great actors have done it and said, “The improv element is terrifying and I can’t do it.”
Q. What was it like swimming with sharks in Australia?
A. They’re huge, but they’re reef sharks . . . they’re like big dogs and they’re afraid of people . . . They’re so beautiful. They’re swimming by you, not at you -- there’s a big difference . . . There was something very ethereal about them . . . I actually started to swim after one of them, and my husband made this face in his snorkel mask like, “What the hell???”
Q. Tell me about your Irish roots.
A. I just did the “23andMe” thing. We’ve always given my Mom kind of a hard time because she’s always said we’re 100 percent Irish (on her side) . . . We always thought she was making it up, but it turns out she was right. We’re from the Connemara region.
Q. Have you visited?
A. Oh my God, it’s such a beautiful place . . . My Mom said, “You have to go to Inishmore, Dingle, the Ring of Kerry and Kinsale.” Inishmore, in particular, because I knew some of my ancestry was there . . . It was so beautiful. Just crossing to get there on the boat was one of the most terrifying boat trips of my life. It was so rough. They were like, “Focus on the horizon.” But you’d look out the window and it was either sea or sky . . . Imagine doing this in a wooden boat a hundred years ago!
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com
“The Bridges of Madison County,” SpeakEasy Stage, May 6 – June 3, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston. Info: speakeasystage.com or 617-933-8600.