Last summer when I was in London, I had the opportunity to see one of the most under-rated shows of Stephen Sondheim’s career, Merrily We Roll Along. It’s got some of his best songs, but as a show, it is difficult to stage it successfully. The great singer and actress Maria Friedman, in her directing debut, clearly figured it out as the show was awarded the best musical prize at this year’s Evening Standard Awards.
The musical will be available to be on the big screen here in the US from December 23-February 23.
Friedman answered some questions (by email) about her work and the show.
You are best known for your performance abilities so why did you decide now to take up directing?
I was asked to direct something for the Central School of Speech and Drama drama school. It turned out to be a really wonderful showcase. The very next day I was asked to mount my production professionally at the Menier Chocolate factory. Also it’s just great to have the opportunity to try something new isn’t it? And I’ve discovered something I love doing very much.
And why Merrily We Roll Along which has had such a difficult life as musical?
I think you should always do things you love and have connection with, if you can – and Merrily We Roll Along is a musical close to my heart. I was in it as a young girl.
Your production seems to be one of the most successful productions of the piece. Why do you think it worked well this time?
The casting was central to its success – fantastic actors, every one of them. And of course a great score, a gripping story and complex rich characters.
How has your experience as an actor/singer helped you as a director?
I think my experience as an actor let me care for, respect and understand my cast. I hope I created a happy, safe space for them to do their wonderful work.
You and your sister — producer Sonia Friedman — are quite a formidable team. What is it like having a sister in the theatre business who produces your shows?
I think Sonia (my sister) is right up there as one of the best producers in the world, so, I’m the most fortunate sister ever.
What was the biggest challenge for you as a director?
The biggest challenge was the technical rehearsals. I had never led one before. Lighting, staging, sound, orchestra, set issues, props, costumes, hair departments all needing their time. Everyone looking to you for quick decisions. You have to drive people to work unbearably fast to achieve the goal of getting to your first preview on time. We only had three days. I was, thankfully guided by my DSM Ciara Fanning. Without her I think I would’ve probably ended up weeping in a corner somewhere. However when we transferred to the West End I actually enjoyed the tech.
You have a very close relationship with Stephen Sondheim. Why do you think his work is so enduring?
Stephen is simply the best – musical theatre’s Shakespeare.
How do you think we can get more women into the theatre in creative positions?
It’s really tough, I don’t have any answers. It is changing…slowly, we just have to keep bashing on doors putting ourselves out there and let our collective good work do the talking.
What is the biggest thing you want people to take away from seeing your show on the big screen rather than live?
The fine emotional detail in the performances. And to recognise Merrily as the masterpiece it is. Written by two greats. Steve Sondheim and the sorely missed funny, brilliant George Furth.
Do you have any advice for women who want to become directors?
Take every opportunity that comes your way, find opportunities, and make opportunities. Work with students. Work for free if you have to. Assist someone wonderful if you can. See lots, read lots, keep dreaming and creating.
What’s next for you? More directing or acting or both?
I’m doing concerts all over the world and am coming to Pittsburg in June to sing with the Pittsburgh philharmonic. Actually, it’s to do a beautiful concert for my great friend Marvin Hamlisch. His widow Terry Hamlisch and Kevin Cole, the brilliant pianist, are putting together a season which I’m very proud to be part of. I’m also doing concerts in Britain and Europe and Kuwait. And I’m directing three different projects. So all in all, happily busy.
Check out the trailer for Merrily.
Information on tickets in your area here.