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Best Thing That Ever Could Have Happened: The Triumph of Maria Friedman's Merrily

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“It is, make no mistake, one of the great musical productions of this or any other era,” raved The Independent of Maria Freidman’s Merrily We Roll Along. The universally celebrated revival, which garnered a record-breaking number of five star reviews during its West End run, makes its American debut at the Huntington Theatre Company this fall. With a show that contains some of composer Stephen Sondheim’s most beautiful songs, including “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going,” the resounding success of Friedman’s production seems intuitive. Those familiar with the play’s history, however, will know that Merrily We Roll Along has proved notoriously difficult to direct. Sondheim regularly challenges the most consummate performers with his fondness for complicated rhythms, tongue-twisting lyrics, and surprising harmonies. George Furth’s book for Merrily We Roll Along, based on the original play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, adds the additional challenge of a nonlinear storyline. This puzzle of music and story confounded the original Broadway production, which closed after just 16 performances. Friedman’s success, therefore, shocked critics and proved that — under the right director — Merrily We Roll Along could be a hit. Most astonishing was the fact that this production marked the four-time Olivier Award-winning actress’s directorial debut. The key to Friedman’s success? As The London Telegraph put it, she “really understands what makes Sondheim tick.” While she may have been new to directing, Maria Friedman’s facility with Sondheim did not develop overnight. As an actress, Friedman has spent the better part of her career studying and perfecting the art of interpreting Sondheim onstage. Friedman’s first Olivier Award nomination came from her portrayal of Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, and her later role as Fosca in Sondheim’s Passion won her the award. While she has since enjoyed an illustrious acting career, which includes a long run on BBC’s “East Enders” and a starring role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Woman in White, Friedman continues to revisit Sondheim time and time again. “Maria Friedman: Master of a Thousand Sondheimian Disguises” read a New York Times review of Friedman’s solo concert, entirely composed of Sondheim songs. “He appeals to every part of me as a performer,” Friedman explained. “He’s just got his finger on humanity and its foibles and difficulties.”

The choice to make her directing debut with a Sondheim piece was an easy one. “I think you should always do things you love and have a connection with,” she revealed. “Merrily We Roll Along is a musical close to my heart.” Fittingly, love and connection are the themes at the heart of Merrily We Roll Along, which follows the friendship between three promising young artists: Charley has a knack for writing lyrics, Frank is a gifted composer, and Mary is an aspiring novelist. From their serendipitous first encounter atop a roof to watch the launch of Sputnik, the three form a bond and a vital artistic partnership. As the years pass, however, ambition, romance, money, family, and heartbreak push and pull at the trio, changing the shape of their friendship, perhaps forever. The keen ability to track this friendship through Sondheim’s melodies and George Furth’s plot proved the key to success for Friedman’s revival. “She brings to the table a blazing inwardness,” writes critic Paul Taylor of The Independent. “Above all, this revival lays out —with a more biting (yet compassionate) clarity than any I have seen hitherto — the tricky narrative and emotional logic of [Merrily We Roll Along].” Perhaps the highest praise for Friedman’s production came from the emotive response of Stephen Sondheim himself. “He cried,” Friedman reported of Sondheim’s visit to the Menier Chocolate Factory, where her production played before moving to the West End. “This production of Merrily We Roll Along is not only the best I’ve seen,” Sondheim wrote, “but one of those rare instances where casting, direction, and show come together in perfect combination, resulting in the classic ideal of the sum being greater than the parts.” A tip of the hat from the master only reflects what the critics felt when they watched her production —Maria Friedman has found a way to solve the Sondheim riddle onstage. As articulated by Ian Shuttleworth of The Financial Times: “The truisms about Sondheim are that he is both an acquired taste and the object of a fervent cult of devotees; Friedman’s production is likely to lead many through the first phase and quite a few into the second.”

 

– SARAH SCHNEBLY


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