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Revival of Sondheim's 'Merrily We Roll Along' gains rave reviews and Tony nominations


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: When Stephen Sondheim died in 2021, he was remembered as one of musical theater's all-time greats, creator of masterpieces like "Sweeney Todd" and "A Little Night Music."

But one of his musicals, "Merrily We Roll Along," never achieved that success. Now it has, and the show actors and director, Maria Friedman, are all up for Tony Awards this Sunday.

Jeffrey Brown recently joined Friedman on Broadway for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a musical about making friends and making art and how life can go very wrong.

Maria Friedman has spent much of the past 12 years trying to make it right.

Is obsession the right word?

Maria Friedman, Director, "Merrily We Roll Along": Passion.

Jeffrey Brown: Passion.

Maria Friedman: Passion and a deep love for the material. I love -- yes, and the man who wrote it.

Jeffrey Brown: The material is "Merrily We Roll Along," now on Broadway with rave reviews and star turns by Jonathan Groff as Frank, a composer-turned-film-producer, Daniel Radcliffe as Charley, a playwright, and Lindsay Mendez as Mary, a novelist-turned-theater-critic.

Actress: Congratulations on the movie. Your performance will stay with me for a long time.


Jeffrey Brown: The man who wrote its music and lyrics, theater legend Stephen Sondheim, working with a story by George Furth. But "Merrily" has long been seen as Sondheim's major flop.

When it first arrived on Broadway in 1981, it closed after just 16 performances. When we recently met at Broadway's renowned Sardi's Restaurant, Maria Friedman: spoke of first working directly with Sondheim in 1992, when he and Furth tried out a new version of the play for a production in England.

Friedman, then a young actress and singer, played the role of Mary.

Maria Friedman: Being in a room with Stephen Sondheim and George Furth rewriting a piece, new songs, new dialogue every day. And Stephen -- everybody knows Stephen Sondheim, when you're working with him, is completely exacting. When you're working with him as an actor, he just drills into your psychology and expects the world from you.

Jeffrey Brown: How does he do that? I mean, what is it like?

Maria Friedman: Like, lots of questions, asking you about, why would you be singing this? And how -- he would offer you the internal dialogue that you need in order to sing the actual material.

So, every -- and he had a reason for every single note and lyric he wrote. So I was full up as an actress. It just felt like this was like the greatest gift.

Jeffrey Brown: She would go on to work with Sondheim in other plays and regularly perform his music.

When he died at age 91, they'd been friends for decades. In 2010, Sondheim spoke to us of the intensity of his approach to writing lyrics, put forth in his book "Finishing the Hat."

Stephen Sondheim, Composer: If you think of a lyric as a little one-act play, then each line is a scene. And a quatrain becomes an entire act.

Jeffrey Brown: Each line is a scene.

Stephen Sondheim: Each line is a scene. And you have got seven words in a line. And so we have got -- so let's say each word is a speech. Well, if you're writing a play and something's wrong with a speech, you cut or change the speech, the same you have got do it word by word. It is as focused as that.

Maria Friedman: What he always said to me, whenever I was working, he said, "Story, story, story, character, character, character," but story, story.

You have got to be interested in the narrative, where you put the anchor down at the beginning, keep the tension and make sure that you keep your audience with you all along.

Jeffrey Brown: Friedman says her biggest task, without changing words or notes, was to bring out the essence of "Merrily We Roll Along," a story told backwards through several decades, with scenes and songs that take us through life's loves and betrayals, successes and failures, back to the first moments of friendship and sense of possibility.

While others have regularly attempted to revive "Merrily," Friedman first took it on as a director some 12 years ago, slowly developing it production by production, finally bringing it back to Broadway last fall.

Maria Friedman: My job is to get the authors, Stephen's words and music and George's text, the story, the story, the story, the characters out to the audience in my most -- in the most direct way.

Jeffrey Brown: Did you see yourself as kind of giving this a deserved new life or bringing it...

Maria Friedman: Well, every time you do anything you want to, you want to give it a deserved life, whether it's -- I never saw myself as saying, like, you know I'm going to run to victory with this thing.

Jeffrey Brown: You're not resurrecting...


Maria Friedman: No, I never -- no, no, that would be really arrogant of me.

No, what I did is, I had a point of view. And I think you need a point of view as a director. And I didn't know that point of view was not something that everybody had seen. I was very lucky. I had never seen a production. I'd been in one.

Jeffrey Brown: Really?

Maria Friedman: But I'd never seen a production of "Merrily We Roll Along"." So it was a clean sheet for me.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Sondheim had seen Friedman's vision of the play in an earlier production and, Friedman says, was thrilled it would come to Broadway. Soon after the announcement, however, he died.

It must be bittersweet that he wasn't alive to see this success on Broadway.

Maria Friedman: Yes. Yes. He meant that -- I didn't have a dad. And he took that role for me. Anyway, sorry. That's why I don't talk about it.

There's a wonderful line in the piece where he -- there's a young man standing on the rooftop looking at the universe, and he says to these two frightened friends, he says we could -- we can have everything. Look -- look at the possibilities.

I know it's a wonderful bubble of fantasy, but he changed my world with music and words. And I know that if he saw the commercial success that he is having, his foundation is now having, thank you very much, for his -- this money will be going, a lot of it will be going to future composers -- he would take me out for a very big drink.

Jeffrey Brown: Now Maria Friedman and her cast and, through them, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, may well find themselves having a very big night at the Tony Awards on Sunday.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Broadway.

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