Elizabeth Stanley (left) and Andrew Samonsky star in the national tour of "The Bridges of Madison County," which opens at the Wharton Center tomorrow.
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Some children know exactly what they want to be when they grow up. That was never the case for Broadway actor Andrew Samonsky.

“I was definitely not a born performer,” Samonsky said. “I was a shy kid. I sang and did little shows as a kid, but I never took it very seriously.”

Samonsky plays the lead male role, Robert, in the touring version of “The Bridges of Madison County,” opening at the Wharton Center Thursday. He has appeared in Broadway productions of “South Pacific” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and he starred as Phoebus in the U.S. premiere of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in La Jolla, Calif.

But Samonsky took a meandering path to Broadway success. He attended California State University, Northridge, after high school. He stumbled into a music degree when no other subjects piqued his interest.

“My voice teacher said, ‘Why don’t you give music a try?’ So off I went,” he said. “I thought that sounded kind of fun, at least.”

He ended up with a bachelor’s degree in opera, but decided that wasn’t where he wanted to be, either.

“I thought that was a little too stuffy for me,” he said. “I decided to go get some acting training. All the actors seemed to be having much more fun than us classical singers.”

He moved on to University of California, Irvine, where he earned a second bachelor’s degree in musical theater and a master’s degree in acting. Shortly after, he moved to New York.

Samonsky’s first introduction to “The Bridges of Madison County” was the Broadway version of the show. He instantly fell in love with the lead role.

“I rarely let myself do this, but it was one of the few times that I saw that role and thought, ‘Wow. That would be a real dream, to play that role,’” he said. “When the auditions for the tour came up, I made sure my agents knew I was very interested. It was extremely gratifying to get the part.”

After landing the role, Samonsky read the book and watched the movie. But he didn’t want to let those versions color his interpretation too much.

“We’re not trying to emulate anything that has been done before,” he said. “We’re re-creating the show for ourselves, making it very personal for us. It was very fulfilling — one of the most fulfilling shows I’ve been a part of.”

The Tony-winning score to “The Bridges of Madison County” was written and orchestrated by Jason Robert Brown, whose Broadway credits also include “Parade” and “The Last Five Years.” The score draws on influences outside of Broadway to give depth to the characters.

“I think what’s really beautiful about it is you have these two different styles — Francesca sings in a more classical style, and my character, Robert, sings in a more folk style — but he blends the two,” Samonsky explained. “The music becomes this third character that you don’t get in the movie or the book.”

For Samonsky, this “third character” is the key to unlocking the musical’s emotional power.

“It’s a very complicated, challenging romance, and the music allows us to dive into the emotions of the conflicts more than I think we could without the music,” he said. “It’s why I love musical theater. When it works, I don’t think there’s anything better.”

“The Bridges of Madison County”

7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 19;
8 p.m. Friday, May 20;
2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 21;
1 p.m. Sunday, May 22
Tickets start at $40/$25 students
Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com