How Maria Friedman’s Creative Freedom Revived ‘Merrily We Roll Along’

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Photo Source: Matthew Murphy

At long last, it’s “our Time” for “Merrily We Roll Along” on Broadway. Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical made its inauspicious debut in 1981, closing after just 16 performances and 44 previews. More than 40 years later, the show is a certified hit, stunning audiences at the Hudson Theatre under the assured direction of three-time Olivier winner Maria Friedman and buoyed by a stellar cast and rave reviews. It’s also received seven Tony nominations, including for direction and revival of a musical.

The show unfolds in reverse chronological order, peeling back the story of three friends—Frank (Jonathan Groff), Charley (Daniel Radcliffe), and Mary (Lindsay Mendez)—and exploring how their bond changes over the years, from middle-aged disillusionment to youthful hope. Friedman’s long history with “Merrily”—she starred in a 1992 West End production, directed another London revival in 2012, and shepherded the current iteration from Off-Broadway to the Main Stem—is as essential to the show’s alchemy as its central trio. 

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Her singular experience with the show and close relationship with the late Sondheim (both as a friend and frequent interpreter of his work) gave her a unique window into the musical. “Steve and George were right, and they knew they were right: They’d written a masterpiece,” she says. 

Friedman’s innate understanding of “Merrily” dates back to when she watched Sondheim and Furth retool the show for the 1992 production, in which she played novelist-turned–theater critic Mary. “I saw from a firsthand perspective that it was funny and moving and sad, and encompassed everything an actor wants from a role,” she recalls. 

Merrily We Roll Along

She’s carried that understanding through to her directing work, along with Sondheim’s encouragement to find her own way into the story. “I’d phone him up, and I used to say, ‘What do you think about this?’ And he said, ‘Do not ask me. Do it for yourself, and I will come and tell you if I don’t like it. Just do it, Maria.’ He gave me this wonderful free rein,” Friedman recalls. “I am who I am as a performer and as an artist because of working with him.”

The friendship between Mary, playwright-lyricist Charley, and composer-turned-producer Frank is the revival’s emotional core. Watching them come together and fall apart is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. 

“When you come to the end of the play—[or,] the beginning of the play—you recognize that friendships, whether they’re lost or not, are valuable,” Friedman explains. “Love, relationships—just because they’re over does not mean they didn’t mean anything, or they didn’t teach you something, or you didn’t learn something from the loss of them.” The director staged her “Merrily” as a memory viewed through Frank’s eyes, amplifying the importance of those connections, even—and especially—as they evolve.

In the actors who play her central trio, Friedman found “open hearts and curious people” who all brought their own talents to the story, as well as excitement and gratitude for the work. 

Speaking as both a director and performer, Friedman has a piece of advice for actors hoping to do their best work: “Remember, you have been chosen because you are wanted. I say, Offer, offer, offer. The director can go fishing for the best fish, but you’ve got to show something to be able to hook it and bring it out to the surface.”

She adds that empathy is crucial. “It’s a competitive world; but the minute you let that in, you close down, and the kindness is diluted. Be generous in your observation and love for your fellow artists. The better they are, the better you are.”

This story originally appeared in the May 16 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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