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Maria Friedman, a longtime friend of Stephen Sondheim, teaches ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ to sing

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NEW YORK (AP) — On opening night of the Broadway revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” one person in the audience strangely wasn’t nervous — the director.

“It was the only time in my life that I felt completely calm,” said Maria Friedman, who has helmed the show to seven Tony Award nominations, including for the three leads and her direction.

“When you’ve directed something or in something, there’s always this mad rush of adrenaline. I had that, but I had a real quiet feeling that whatever happened, this is the show I wanted to be seeing. This is how I wanted it.”

“Merrily We Roll Along,” the Stephen Sondheim- George Furth musical that flopped when it premiered on Broadway in 1981 has been given glorious life under Friedman’s touch.

“This show has been one of, the most special experiences of my professional career,” said Daniel Radcliffe, who co-stars with Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez. “To get nominated for it and for all three of us to be nominated — and the show and Maria, our director — it’s really just lovely.”

Friedman was in many ways the best person to direct a new version. Her friendship with Sondheim stretched 40 years, she acted in a 1992 British production of the show and she directed a version at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2012.

“It’s in my marrow. It’s with me. It will always be with me,” she said. “I feel continually grateful that this came my way.”

The show goes backward in time from 1976 to 1957 as it examines the friendship of three artists, Franklin, Charley and Mary. It starts with unhappiness, broken marriages and hurt feelings, only to end with hope, making it a bittersweet tale about youth and dreams and how we all eventually careen off the tracks.

The current Broadway revival traces back to the 1992 production, with Sondheim and Furth offering rewrites and changes. Years later, Friedman, having played Mary, initially thought it was, naturally, all about Mary.

“So when I read the script and I was asked to direct it, I was like, well, who knew? Everything was leading to Frank,” she said. “We made this thread which went all the way through, which is that he’s a beautiful leaf blowing in the wind, looking for anchors.”

Sondheim and Friedman were interwoven. She dived into his material for “Maria Friedman: By Special Arrangement,” her Sondheim-heavy one-woman show, and again in Sondheim’s “Passion” and to play Dot in the British premiere of “Sunday in the Park with George.”

“The thing about Steve is he was the most curious person. Like all the geniuses I’ve ever met, he never stopped being interested in anything that was in front of him,” she said.

“I care as much about whether I’m going to have a cup of tea or a cup of coffee as I do about a great piece of work. Passion runs in my veins, my enthusiasm, my curiosity for life. I’m either asleep or I’m on.”

When Friedman spoke with Sondheim about remounting “Merrily We Roll Along,” she told him she wanted to do it for him. “He said, ‘Don’t do it for me. Do it for you.’ That was it,” she recalled.

Sondheim didn’t want to talk about it or explain his work. He promised to see a late rehearsal or early preview when Friedman had established her vision and only then would they have a conversation. “He wanted his work to be interpreted. He was a total collaborator,” she said.

When he did come, they talked about the Act 2 opening number, and she suggested that he change a lyric in “Growing Up” — he had written “folding tents” and she suggested “letting go,” thinking it more colloquial. Sondheim checked with academics and the lyric change was approved.

While he did see the production many times in London, Sondheim died before the Broadway revival opened, to critical and financial success. He knew that Radcliffe was onboard and maybe Groff.

“You can imagine my heart is full. I mean, really full. And it also has a little crack in it because my darling Steve wasn’t there to see the commercial success.”

Broadway is in the midst of a Sondheim renaissance these days, with a starry revival of “Into the Woods” in 2022 leading to a Josh Groban-led “Sweeney Todd” a year later. “Gypsy” with Audra McDonald is set to land later this year, and Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga will do a musical revue of Sondheim’s songs next year.

What makes Friedman happiest is that her “Merrily We Roll Along” — a favorite to win best revival at the Tonys ceremony on June 16 — has now been restored to the cannon.

“The sweetest thing is that it is now up there with the greats, with his ‘Sweeney,’ with his ‘Sunday in the Park with George.’ ‘Merrily’ is being spoken about as if it was the greatest. For some people it is because it’s got so much heart. There’s so much heart.”

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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More on the Tony Awards: https://apnews.com/hub/tony-awards

By MARK KENNEDY
AP Entertainment Writer

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