Maria Friedman knows her way around Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical Merrily We Roll Along.
Early in her theatrical career, before this Swiss-born, England-raised West End legend amassed three Olivier Awards (for her solo show By Special Arrangement and the musicals Passion and Ragtime), Friedman starred in Sondheim and Furth's legendary Broadway flop in a 1992 mounting at Leicester's Haymarket Theatre. She played Mary Flynn, one of the three protagonists of Merrily, a musical famous for being told in reverse chronology, from end of story to origin.
"It was intoxicating," Friedman remembers. "Steve and George were making a new script, so I was very lucky that I got into their heads. To work with them was just so exacting and exciting and demanding. They were intensely creative. You used all of your skill set but always left feeling, 'God, if only I could just be that bit better.' Always."
Twenty years later, Friedman was back in the Merrily rehearsal room, this time as director. She had never directed anything before a drama school asked her to helm a bare-bones, all-student production of the musical. Friedman attempted to keep the doors closed, but executives from London's Menier Chocolate Factory worked their way in and essentially hired her to direct their 2012 production on the spot. That production later transferred to the West End's Harold Pinter Theatre and was broadcast in cinemas around the country in 2013.
Now, Friedman has brought her Merrily We Roll Along stateside to Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. Her original U.K. stars, Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley, are also back as feuding writers (and former best pals) Franklin Shepard and Charley Kringas. Broadway vet Eden Espinosa takes on the role of Mary (and an assortment of Boston theater vets complete the company).
Friedman took her (re)introduction to the cast seriously, having her three leads meet in the Merrily-est possible way: on a rooftop, just as the stars came out.
How did the Boston run of your Merrily We Roll Along come about?
Peter DuBois, the Huntington's artistic director, came and saw it in London. We met and talked, and he said he would very much like to do it. He wanted to go through the entire Sondheim canon and freshly produce a lot of the shows here, but he also wanted to bring over what he considered "definitive productions." Happily for me, Merrily was one of them. How do you beat that? It was so ridiculously flattering. I'm really excited that I get another chance with it, to bring it here.
How did starring in Merrily as a young actress, and then directing both students and older actors in it, help you discover your take on the show?
As an actor, I thought the whole play was about Mary because actors play it as if the show is about them. I was so surprised to find out that somebody else was the lead. You really must invest in it because every moment is about you. That's how I want everyone to play this piece, from the smallest part to the biggest. I say to everybody, "If I put a camera on you for the rest of the piece, I need to be interested. You need to be alive. You need to be thinking and focusing." I want everyone to be the principal.
I spent six months casting the Menier production. What I had learned from the student version was that the second part of the play works very well in young people's hands, but you can't believe that these wonderfully young, beautiful, optimistic, hopeful innocents have been through what these people have been through in Act 1. It defined that I needed to cast older people.
Tell me about the casting process for this particular production. Were Mark and Damian part of the equation from the initial discussions with the Huntington?
No, absolutely not. I'm very, very grateful that the Huntington allowed me to bring them over. It's not that I couldn't have found people here; I'm sure I could. That kind of relationship took quite a while for us to build, and they got to play it for such a long time that they've got all those nuances that we would not get in such a short rehearsal period. I wanted to offer that as the template. We're digging deep.
I can now give my huge attention to Eden and Aimee Doherty, who's playing Gussie, and I can spend time with them. If I had a new Charley, a new Frank, and a new Mary, I don't feel I would give this production its due. Once we started auditioning in Boston, I got so many of the cast from here that I think they felt it was a reasonable request that I bring Mark and Damian over for the sake of the production. We all met last night on a rooftop with a glass of wine, and they clicked exactly how I dreamed it would be. They were chatting and laughing, and I was just very happy.
Is a New York run in the cards?
When we were doing it before, that was absolutely the hope. Encores! had just done it, and that was it. I think we need to do it for the Huntington and Boston with all our love and heart, and make it beautiful for here and hope that it sings loud enough to make a journey.
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