InDepth InterView: Maria Friedman Talks MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG From Stage To Screen; Plus, Sondheim Comments!
Today we are talking to a three-time Laurence Olivier Award-winning actress who has made a major mark on the West End with her peerless string of richly varied performances - ranging from premiere UK productions of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and PASSION to LADY IN THE DARK, RAGTIME and THE WOMAN IN WHITE, as well as her various solo engagements, who now also excels as a director of theatre and opera, as well - the gifted Maria Friedman. Discussing all aspects of the recent West End production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's anomalous musical experiment MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG - cited by the master himself as the best production of the show to date - and now the fantastic Fathom film presentation of it arriving in movie theaters nationwide (and around the world) on October 23. Detailing the finer points of the reverse-chronological tale of show business ambition and its effects on friendships and relationships, Friedman paints a vivid portrait of her process in bringing the emotionally bracing and musically thrilling stage show to the big screen byway of this passionately played, dramatically captivating and incredibly detailed film preservation. Additionally, Friedman also sheds some light on participating in the Haymarket Theatre production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG herself as an actress nearly twenty years ago and the effect, if any, that experience has had on her perception of the dense and fiercely idiosyncratic musical now, as a director of the piece. Plus, Friedman also touches upon some of her most celebrated roles to date in other Sondheim shows as well as abundantly imparts her deeply held appreciation and affection for his work and personal friendship in her own life, citing his elemental influence on MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG as well as her career in general. All of that and much, much more awaits! "To be accurate, I gave detailed notes on the first edit and they re-edited wherever they could (i.e., some shots simply didn't exist in other forms)," Sondheim said of his part in shaping the final finished film.
I recently reached out to Stephen Sondheim to seek his opinion of the new Fathom movie theater presentation of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG and he was generous enough to offer me some fascinating insight into the process of bringing the new revival of the show to the screen as well as outline his actual direct involvement with it, having "edited the editing" himself.
Also, when asked if the editing room process is one he finds particularly satisfying, even as a man known as being largely of the theatre (Academy Award notwithstanding), Sondheim said, "I've been a fan of movies all my life and love editing (I made a few amateur movies in my twenties and thirties)."
Today we are talking to a three-time Laurence Olivier Award-winning actress who has made a major mark on the West End with her peerless string of richly varied performances - ranging from premiere UK productions of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and PASSION to LADY IN THE DARK, RAGTIME and THE WOMAN IN WHITE, as well as her various solo engagements, who now also excels as a director of theatre and opera, as well - the gifted Maria Friedman. Discussing all aspects of the recent West End production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's anomalous musical experiment MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG - cited by the master himself as the best production of the show to date - and now the fantastic Fathom film presentation of it arriving in movie theaters nationwide (and around the world) on October 23. Detailing the finer points of the reverse-chronological tale of show business ambition and its effects on friendships and relationships, Friedman paints a vivid portrait of her process in bringing the emotionally bracing and musically thrilling stage show to the big screen byway of this passionately played, dramatically captivating and incredibly detailed film preservation. Additionally, Friedman also sheds some light on participating in the Haymarket Theatre production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG herself as an actress nearly twenty years ago and the effect, if any, that experience has had on her perception of the dense and fiercely idiosyncratic musical now, as a director of the piece. Plus, Friedman also touches upon some of her most celebrated roles to date in other Sondheim shows as well as abundantly imparts her deeply held appreciation and affection for his work and personal friendship in her own life, citing his elemental influence on MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG as well as her career in general. All of that and much, much more awaits!
"To be accurate, I gave detailed notes on the first edit and they re-edited wherever they could (i.e., some shots simply didn't exist in other forms)," Sondheim said of his part in shaping the final finished film.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG will be presented in Fathom-equipped movie theaters nationwide on October 23, followed by international showings after that.
More information on MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is available at the official site here. Good Thing Going
PC: You famously performed the most spectacular "Broadway Baby" to date alongside an assortment of major talent at HEY! MR. PRODUCER. Was that experience a particular thrill for you as a performer?
MF: Of course. Of course. I'll tell you a funny story: my dressing room - I stole the dressing room plate, actually. [Laughs.]
PC: No way!
MF: I did. My dressing room was Julie Andrews, Julia McKenzie, Elaine Paige, Millicent Martin, me and Judi Dench and all of them were listed on it, so I took it home with me. [Laughs.]
PC: That's most of female British musical theatre history in one room! Was there a performer in particular you looked up to growing up? Julie Andrews and Gertrude Lawrence, I would assume.
MF: Both those people in particular - yes; for different reasons. I also love Bernadette Peters, I don't know how old she is, but I am not that much younger than her, yet she is just a bit older so I could really look up to her when she was out there doing stuff that I really wanted to do when I was in school. So, yeah - Bernie, definitely.
PC: Any others?
MF: Angela Lansbury. I remember one of the first concerts I ever did, it was with Angela Lansbury, Elaine Stritch, Bea Arthur - you know, all of these titans. You just sort of think, [Pause. Sighs. Drawn Out.] "My... God!" [Big Laugh.]
PC: Special concert events are a special kind of treat, then, in your experience?
MF: Oh yeah - I remember Angela Lansbury was onstage in front of me because we were onstage together the whole time and I could just feel the energy coming out of her back and to those of us behind her! Honestly, Angela Lansbury's back was more interesting than most people's whole performance.
Good Thing Going
PC: HEY! MR. PRODUCER also contains the unforgettable Stephen Sondheim/Andrew Lloyd Webber duet. Having worked extensively with them both, how do you compare them? Is it even possible? PC: Do you think an important new avenue for the performing arts will be these showings of productions such as Fathom is presenting in movie theaters here in the US with MERRILY - allowing access to the arts for all?
MF: Well, I know both of them really, really well and I think that people make up most of that stuff that supposedly goes on between them - any rivalries or anything. I mean, they are totally different animals. Totally. There is room for both of them and they don't tread in any way on each other's territories, I don't think. There is room for both of them. It's funny, though, because it's not like there isn't room for both, anyway - at any time, there is always more room for great contemporary artists!
PC: We live in such special times that the world's most successful composer and the modern Shakespeare both are alive producing new works for the theatre. Don't you agree?
MF: Oh, yeah! Absolutely! It's marvelous - it's marvelous.
MF: Yes, I do. Absolutely. I mean, I want to get on a plane and see it in one of those theaters in America myself - I have this fantasy of turning up at one of those theaters in a really, really, tiny, tiny, sleepy town and seeing it with a group of people who could never have possibly hoped to see it otherwise, you know?
PC: What did you want the immediate feel of the film to be to anyone coming to it fresh?
MF: Well, in terms of the style, I wanted it to be truthful and raw and without artifice... and, I think we succeeded in that.
PC: Is this the first time that you have ever gone back to a show you had done before as an actress, now, as a director?
MF: That's an interesting question - yes, it is. Let me tell you something, though - and I've talked to so many other actors about this - when you are in a show, you know it probably less well than anybody else because you only see it from your own perspective. So, as far as I was concerned when I was in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG was that the whole show was about Mary and that's how it should be when you are doing it - every actor should be feeling their part like that all the way through. So, it was like discovering a new show when I did it this time. From the perspective of it, it appeared to me that it was Frank's show - or, at least that was the person I was most interested in following. So, as opposed to being about three friends, I feel that it is a show that comes through Frank's memories in the way we have done it.
PC: Do you think an important new avenue for the performing arts will be these showings of productions such as Fathom is presenting in movie theaters here in the US with MERRILY - allowing access to the arts for all?
PC: Charley has been star-cast in many productions, which can throw off the balance, yet in this production it seems that Frank definitely dominates the proceedings - even remaining a reactionary to "Franklin Shepard, Inc." PC: Did you venture to YouTube to get a feeling for the original production or any of the many others to see there? PC: Intense is a word barely even fitting for that kind of moment.
MF: I felt it was very important to keep Frank very much in the frame during "Franklin Shepard, Inc.", where, you know, Charley genuinely shocks and horrifies with this sort of soliloquy about all of Frank's problems. But, you know, I hope that in the piece and the way it is done that the central source of everything is coming from Frank - you are constantly wanting to know how Frank feels about this or how Frank feels about that. The way that the show is written, Charley does get some pretty great firework moments, though - he gets some really great, funny lines. It would be very easy to tip it in that balance, I think - it's a delicate balancing act with this piece. But, I had such an incredible trio - who were generous actors, all three of them, which made it easier for them to step back and let the others shine.
PC: Have you seen other productions of MERRILY at any point?
MF: No! I had never seen MERRILY in my life until I directed this.
PC: You weren't curious to check it out at Encores! last year knowing you would be involved with this?
MF: Yes! That's right! I, on purpose, did not come to that because I am such a huge fan of James Lapine and I respect him hugely and I knew that I would be massively influenced. So, I think I have been very lucky in that I haven't seen anything! It's fresh because it is fresh - I didn't have too many references, apart from George Furth and Stephen talking about the piece when I worked on it many years before. How many years has it been? Eighteen? Anyway, I remember them bringing great heart, great joy, great wit to the rehearsal room back then and I just wanted to recreate that kind of environment as much as I could working on this production.
MF: I can promise you, on my life, that I did not! [Laughs.]
PC: MERILLY presents such an evocative portrait of the disillusionment of many baby boomers and the squandered dreams of many in the mid-twentieth century. Did you find numbers like "Bobby And Jackie And Jack" to be particularly illuminating in establishing that chronology for the audience?
MF: Oh, yes - oh, my God. Such a poignant song now! I mean, they're all dead and some people were worried at the time that they would be around forever! And, of course, it's so extraordinary to see that in context of what really happened with all of them now, looking back. Extraordinary.
PC: How did you arrive upon producing this particular version of the show? Did you ever attempt getting permission to do the original version, if possible, or to create a new edition of MERRILY?
MF: Well, it was very easy for me in terms of the fact that the Donmar did the original production and I thought - having such huge respect for that director and that cast - that it would be more interesting to do the one I knew most and the one I knew most was the script that I ended up doing. That was the script I originally worked on with Steve and George as an actress all those years ago. That was the one that I relate to. And, moreover, I found that "The Hills Of Tomorrow" is a giveaway to the end - at least for me. For me, I prefer to see the characters as toxic as they can get at the start and then getting to see them become the sweet people they are started out as through the course of the piece. That's what I was most interested in seeing when I set out.
PC: Did you want to especially exacerbate the grotesquerie in the first party scene, then, I take it?
MF: Well, I certainly didn't want to do any rose-colored spectacles! If this is the scene that led to Frank's meltdown, then let's look at it: you have a sycophantic group of people who are all there because of Frank's money; you have a young, beautiful starlet blinded; you have a best friend finally walk out on Frank and create an enormous scene; and, you have your wife throwing iodine in someone's face. In case you don't know, back then, if someone did that there was a very good chance you would never see again.
MF: Not baby stuff. Not at all. So, to go to all those places, you have to be grown-up about it and go to that place. I thought it was essential - essential - for the piece to then start unraveling after that. I felt that was Frank's breakdown - the end of that scene. Then, after that, we start going back - but, that's also where we really start the journey.
PC: Did you ever consider requesting if you could choose eliminating the graphic iodine attack?
MF: No. This woman, Gussie, is fed up - for her, as far as she can see, there's no way to change; there's nowhere to go. She says, you know, "One day I made myself up and now I never change, I just change the people around me." And, the other thing is that I really wanted to explore people who really don't know how to love - I think Gussie loves Frank and it comes from a very real place, but she doesn't really know what to do with it. I do think she really loses something over the course of it all - not just her looks, not just her career, but her hope. That's the thing about it - how long does it have to go on and how hard does it have to be hit for hope to be gone. She has a real fragility to her despite this Broadway toughness. You know, when she says things like, "Tonight I thought I could lose you," when she arrives in the flat, she thinks she is going to come back and make love to him, not that his friends will be there and he has other plans. Well, his friends have plans for him.
PC: He's in-demand, to say the least.
MF: Well, he has such natural charm, charisma, talent... I mean, right at the end, when they are on the rooftop, you can see it. After all, he is the one who says, "This is what we can do. This is how we can do it," and, then, they actually go and do it! At least Frank does. Everything he asks for happens - they do it - but, it's just not necessarily the way that he wanted it or that they all wanted it. He never made any promises, though. That's one of the things that I find most interesting about this piece, actually - Frank had more life-force and drive in him but the other two were basically more interested in vicarious living through Frank. I don't see any of them as guilty or as bad people, though - I just seem them as fallible; people who find some things in life a bit tough.
PC: Did you venture to YouTube to get a feeling for the original production or any of the many others to see there?
PC: Intense is a word barely even fitting for that kind of moment.
PC: Is Frank an individual who things happen to or who makes things happen?
MF: I think he motivates things happening - I think he takes charge. I mean, right at the beginning - right at the beginning of the story - he says, "I think we can change the world. We can be in the papers. We can do this," and, then, he is the one who says, "I did it! I booked the theater. We're doing a revue!" And, they say, "What? You're joking!" and he says, "No, we're doing it!" And, then, he says, "I am going to marry Beth. I love her," and he does. He absolutely does. After all, you know, until Charley leaves, he hasn't really done much of anything up to writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel! [Laughs.]
PC: He's too busy waiting on Frank!
MF: Right! He's constantly looking for Frank and Frank is making movies and doing all kinds of things instead. Frank is a doer - he makes things happen. That's why his lawyer stays with him for so long - all those people at that party, that cabal of people, stick around because he is producing a lot of money.
PC: Did you intentionally put a bit of a COMPANY feel into the opening "Merrily" title song staging with the chorus surrounding the central figure, seemingly conjured up from his memory? Did you discuss any parallels between the shows with Sondheim?
MF: I didn't, I didn't - but I will do. I was just so completely and utterly focused on this that I didn't want any outside influence at all - but, since you mention it, I will tell you that I really, really want to direct COMPANY someday. I really do.
PC: Would you play Joanne? You must! PC: Was the final musical coda always included in this production? PC: How did you arrive upon casting Josefina Gabrielle in the part?
MF: [Big Laugh.] Oh, I'd love it!
PC: Of course, COMPANY preceded MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG as a Fathom movie theater presentation a little over a year ago.
MF: That's right! Unfortunately, I haven't seen it yet.
PC: What can you tell me about the last image and what the folder Frank is holding actually contains? Have we just seen the result by seeing this show - is MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG what is in the folder?
MF: I am leaving that up to you! I wanted it to be ambiguous. I mean, I've got what I think it really is and so far there have been seven or eight other things that people have said, too...
PC: Such as?
MF: Well, it's a kind of realization of what he's lost - it's the first thing we see him doing and the last thing; carrying that folder. The question is, what is he going to do now? Is he going to pick up the phone and call Charley? Will they write a new show? Will they finally do what they talked about doing? It's that question. The actual thing that he has in his hands, though, is the same script as when he says, "I've been reading your plays all night," and then he says, "I have a better title: TAKE A LEFT." So, it's actually TAKE A LEFT he's holding.
PC: And now he is going to take a left and follow through with Charley! Two roads - how Robert Frost.
MF: [Big Laugh.] Exactly! Exactly. Whether it's his life or whatever it is, the next thing he does is going to be taking a left.
MF: Well, we rehearsed it both ways so that if Stephen didn't like it we could have an alternative. But, with anything, he's the master, so whatever he says goes! Of course, he's such a genuinely open, open man - he's extraordinary. He really believes in the whole idea of letting people have a go at what they want to do and he is very, very encouraging.
PC: From the end to the beginning, what can you tell me about the specific stylization of Gussie's Act Two opening number? And, by the way, where exactly did you manage to get glowing feather fans?
MF: Ah, yes! The fans! [Laughs.] That's all absolutely, stupidly me. For me, what it was was, without the budget of a couple of million, was to just kind of offer a different flavor - and, in a smart and sophisticated show like MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, I felt it should represent something of another; not bad, but entertainment with a capital e. So, that's what we did with Gussie's big song.
PC: Why is that?
MF: So that we recognize what is different in the way that Charley and Frank are having to work in MUSICAL HUSBANDS and why there is a certain compromise there. The visuals were inspired by this wonderful, sexy French dancer I am a fan of - just a tremendous dancer. The whole flavor of that is sort of kitsch, but not kitsch - it's fun, glamorous and different from the world that we inhabit the rest of the evening.
MF: Well, I had never seen her in anything before, actually, but I thought she was just amazing when she auditioned. You know, I auditioned a lot of people but I felt there was a kind of fragility to Josefina - there was something about her I just believed. You know, Gussie is someone who probably didn't have a great childhood - as a matter of fact, definitely did not have a great childhood - and probably never really learned what love was. So, she claws, claws, claws her way to things that smell nice and look nice - I mean, this is a woman that I would imagine has OCD and has to control every moment of her life at all times. So, while I didn't feel the actress had experienced any of that, I felt when she read for me that she wasn't going for the diva - because, as you know, the diva is there in it how it is written; this hungry, needy woman who was willing to do anything she has to do to get what she wanted. With Josefina, I thought we could explore a different side of the character.
PC: Particularly having played Broadway in THE WOMAN IN WHITE, I'm curious if you have personally met women a lot like Gussie?
MF: Oh, yes, I have! Yes, I did! [Laughs.] Absolutely. And, one thing that I wanted to make sure that was present in my direction of the piece was that every single person has a beating heart - so that they are fleshed out and they are not caricature-like people; they are real people like you and me, it's just that this one happened to be a singer and this one happened to be a writer and so on. I think that the story is so strong in this in what it says about friendship and the importance of it. I mean, before talking to you today, I've just literally come from this premiere of the documentary of a great, great friend of mine, Marvin Hamlisch, who passed away last year, and the thing about Marvin was he always had the same friends. He had such huge success at 29, 30, 31 - three Oscars in one night and all of that - and then he had a period of sadness before he married his wife Terre, who is just one of the most sublime women ever and is also one of my great, great friends, too. Anyway, over the years, I had worked with him a lot and his friends remained the same - they were so loyal and so funny. They would all get up and gather around the piano - he'd say, "Yes, we go around the country touring together, and, yes, we do shows together and make music, but ultimately we love food and gossip and laughing," and that's the area that Frank talks about in "Opening Doors". It's that halcyon moment where they are working, but they are chatting and having fun, too - they talk about who they've been out with the night before and who's doing what. That's the point where Frank is at his happiest, I think - before the success, before everything else; but, he didn't see. He didn't think to himself at that point in time, "God, this is great!" And, that's what we all often do - we have these wonderful people and wonderful times and if you don't cherish them then you pay for it later.
PC: Was the final musical coda always included in this production?
PC: How did you arrive upon casting Josefina Gabrielle in the part?She makes it totally her own.
PC: Did you ever discuss with Sondheim or Furth if Frank was based in any way on any real-life composers or whether the original Kaufman & Hart play was paying any particular homage? PC: And to film it, no less! PC: It brought to mind SWEET CHARITY's "Rich Man's Frug", too, in the way it was staged here. PC: Beth is painted complexly in her introduction and she is given the show's most heartbreaking and emotional song, "Not A Day Goes By". Did you find that scene tricky to stage? She is a thwarted woman, so does that justify her actions, greedy and seemingly outlandish as they may seem? PC: Do you think Mary and Charley are both in love with Frank? PC: On that note, I'm curious about how you made up Jenna Russell to look heavier and lighter at various stages over the course of the show? PC: Reprising songs before the full versions appear - only Sondheim would even attempt it, let alone bring it off like he does in MERRILY!
MF: No, I didn't, but I think it is a much bigger question than it being about a specific person - you know, I've just been directing an opera and it's about a writer a long time ago who could only could be whole when he was writing from his heart; when he was whole and complete in his writing. If you go through history forever and ever and ever, if a writer is compromised then they can't do it - and, I think the same is true for Frank. Frank is compromised, so he goes off to be a movie mogul. Actually, the only time Frank could really write was when it was coming directly from his heart. So, I think that what Steve is really talking about is that push to make a hit and what that feels like for the writer.
PC: What an insightful point.
MF: It's true of almost every writer I've ever worked with - they have to write from their own history in some way or they can't really put themselves into the writing of the piece; something about it they have to connect with somehow.
PC: Have you been approached to bring this production of MERRILY to Broadway following the already hit status of the film and how well-received the West End run turned out to be?
MF: I think there are very big plans to do that - yes. It's all in the pipeline, as they say. I don't know when or who - there's no casting yet or anything. It's up in the air, but there is a general wish for that to happen and I hope it does.
PC: How satisfying it must be to know that such a troubled show has gotten such a receptive reaction!
MF: Oh, it is! It is. Friends of mine said to me when I told them I was going to be doing MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, they said, "What is the matter with you? You're really going to do that on your first go out?!" [Laughs.]
MF: And, with the film, I have to say that I especially loved being in the editing room and helping direct the edit - I found that so fascinating.
PC: The detail that comes through is almost overwhelming - the film truly packs a powerful emotional punch.
MF: That's the way I hope the piece was onstage, too. Because of the richness of the material, I could constantly keep layering and layering and layering and bring more and more out in the quality of the performance that I wanted - and every time the performers were able to supply it, which was absolutely thrilling. For me, in anything I do, it's all about the detail - so, at the end, to be able to do this as a film is just beyond thrilling.
PC: What a witty real-life wink your inclusion of Frank Sinatra's own "Good Thing Going" cover is in the show, as well. Did that prove to be difficult-to-attain permission to receive?
MF: Well, that happens to be one of the bits I didn't do - I just said I wanted it and they got it, but I'm sure there's a story! All I know is that I asked and it eventually came. I was so glad we got to use it, though. Speaking of MERRILY sort of crossing over, another thing I have to tell you about this whole experience that has been so heartening is the amount of young people we have had come to see the show - I can't tell you how many; and we didn't have any hip, young, famous stars in the show or anything either. For example, there was one day where I was sitting in the foyer and there were three different generations represented throughout the bar - there were people in their twenties, their fifties and their seventies. So, I heard the oldest people saying, "Oh, I remember those days! I remember those terrible mistakes," and then there were the people my age saying, "Oh, God, this is just like my life! I can't bear it!" and, then, there were the young people saying, "I'll never make these mistakes!" [Laughs.] Three totally different perspectives on the same piece, which just speaks so well to the quality of the piece that Steve and George have written.
PC: Was "The Blob" difficult to stage? That scene is so densely-written and presents a lot of information.
MF: No, I really enjoyed it, actually! I staged that as one of the very first things I did and it just seemed clear that it all had to be motivated by Gussie and sort of pulling them around from place to place at the party. I wanted it to be like an amoeba and have that sort of pulse-like energy and feeling to it - you know, with tentacles flying everywhere. They are the fashionistas, after all - the people who have to be at the right place at the right time all the time. Of course, there are two party scenes in the show and I think it's interesting to compare them: in the first scene, the "That Frank" party, everyone there is successful; in "The Blob", it is the people who don't last. Everybody at "The Blob" party are the It people and the celebrities, not the people who are truly famous - they are all just sort of facile. But, no, to answer your question, I actually loved doing "The Blob" - I just loved it.
MF: Oh, I'm so terrible! I don't even know musicals like you. For me, it was as simple as the song is called "The Blob" so I wanted it to look like a big blob. [Laughs.]
PC: Did you ever investigate incorporating additional verses of "The Blob" at any point?
MF: I was aware that there were additional verses to "The Blob", but I felt that we had made the point in the song as it is. I felt that the way that it was paced in this production and this film that that was enough as it was. You know, they are not quick scenes in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG...
PC: The first scene, especially.
MF: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And, then, you get scenes within the scenes within the scenes - you're moving all the time. For me, being a musician, I was very aware of rhythm at all times and I knew when we needed to move on. If ever I felt that the rhythm was wrong, I would look around and see what we could speed up or move around - you just have to keep things going so that when you need to slow down and have those moments you can. And, also, it's about treating an audience with the intelligence that they have and at least going at a pace where they have to sit up and listen - not spoon-feeding them anything. It's such a brilliantly written piece and people get it - they really get it.
PC: Did you ever fear moments like "The Blob" and some of Gussie and Mary's moments would become slightly camp - they both come across as thoroughly bitchy at the start, as written, clearly.
MF: Well, with Gussie, I never let my lovely Josefina go for those camp laughs because it is just too easy - even though people may love that kind of thing and hoot and scream, that isn't what this is about. For example, when Gussie first comes in and is putting up the different swatches of material and everything - the reason she does that is not to get a laugh from the audience, but to claim her space; to put herself close to Frank. So, the laughs had to come from someone's fragility and something real, especially because when those really funny lines come they just hit you and you are not expecting them. They all come from character - everything in the piece does. And, I think MERRILY is better than having to do anything to get camp laughs.
MF: For me, no. I wanted her to be as tough as possible - as tough as she can be - at that point. Remember, she gave up everything and supported Frank, being a legal secretary for years while he tried to write, and, then, had his child and raised it. Then, Frank goes off and screws Gussie - who probably wasn't the first person he cheated on her with - and doesn't even have the decency to tell her the truth about it when confronted with it. It's not the betrayal, though, it's the lies - she gave up her career and so much more for him and that's his attitude. She's actually broken away from these very, very dominant parents in Houston in order to have a life with Frank in New York only to end up with a child and no husband on her way back to Houston in that scene.
PC: Her parents even offer Frank money to give it all up after the revue scene early in their courtship.
MF: That's right. What's also interesting is that Beth tried her hardest to get away from all that and she ends up losing to exactly that - money. I don't think she is a greedy girl, though, asking for everything in the divorce - she wants to be able to provide for their child. After all, she supported Frank all that time while he was trying to get his career going. She's not an artist - he should have never married her. She doesn't really even understand Frank or why this has happened, I don't think - she's just not quite imaginative enough. "I'll love you, I'll marry you, I'll have your babies and we'll be fine," is Beth's attitude, I think.
PC: Do you think Frank is capable of loving someone else?
MF: I don't. I think that he thinks he loves Beth. I think that the core of Frank is that he is not great at knowing loyalty, though.
PC: Do you think Frank loves himself?
MF: I think so - I think he does love himself. I think he loves Charley and he loves Mary, in a way, but I don't think he notices how much they care for him. I mean, Mary is just happy to share the air that is surrounding him!
MF: Yes. I think that Mary is in love with him and I think Charley is in love with him - though Charley not in a sexual way. I think they love what Frank gives them that they don't have. I mean, Mary is an addict, she has always been an addict and Frank is the manifestations of one of her addictions. She's a drunk, she's an addict, she's an overeater - she's an addictive personality. She's just one of those people. So, for her, Frank is the manifestation of her addiction. For Charley, I think he is one of these inside-out, Jewish, neurotic individuals who lack that joie de vivre and that life-force and that entitlement that Frank just has so effortlessly. I mean, Charley can't believe that Frank even likes his work, whereas Frank knows that Charley is going to make it! [Laughs.]
PC: Do you feel Charley holds any homosexual feelings for Frank? There are many open-ended moments in the piece that could imply those sort of closeted emotions existing in the background.
MF: Well, I'm sure it could be played that way and I'm sure it could be a very good way of playing it, but for me and this production, I think Charley absolutely loves Frank's passion and his life-force. I don't think he's closeted, but maybe he is - though I didn't direct it with that in mind. That's an interesting observation to make, though.
PC: For example, after a photo is taken with Frank's arms around Charley and Mary, they both linger holding the air after he removes his arms - an incredibly insightful directorial accent, I thought.
MF: You noticed! Yes. Gosh, I can't believe you've noticed all these details, Pat - it's almost too much to believe!
MF: Lots of padding! Lots and lots of padding. [Laughs.] It's actually in the script and they talk a lot about her weight in the script - there are lots and lots of references. I'm sure we could have done a better fat-suit, though!
PC: Would you consider or did you consider skewing younger in the casting for MERRILY or do you feel the piece works better with actors in their mid-30s or older? It covers twenty years, after all.
MF: Well, I can only talk about the productions I've done, but it's a very complex piece and I think that the characters have been through an incredible amount by the time it is finished, so to have had some of those experiences helps - and, if you cast it young, you always have the problem of the first scene sort of feeling like dress-up. With all those really poignant, dark, difficult moments, I really wanted people who had all of those emotions in their armory as actors. And, for me, I feel 16 all the time, so I have found myself that is easier to feel 16 being 40 than it actually is to be 16 and try to feel like you are 40 considering what I felt like that 40 and later.... [Laughs.]
PC: It's easier looking back with wisdom than looking forward without any.
MF: Yes, I mean, someone throwing acid in someone's face isn't quite a little tiff outside a nightclub, you know?!
PC: "Now You Know" is so much about all of that - you have to live some life to appreciate things.
MF: It gets easier and easier as you get older, I think. The way the songs are a continuation of the scenes is just genius, though - and that's another great example of it. There's such a strong narrative through all of it. It's not dialogue-song-dialogue-song like THE SOUND OF MUSIC or something - sometimes you're just suddenly in a song! The trajectory is constantly moving forward, though - you are constantly learning about these people, all the time. It's incredible.
MF: Yeah! Yeah! It's genius - it's totally genius. And, the more you listen to it, the more you notice. It's extraordinary.
PC: I also wanted to touch upon the smart lighting effects and those various tasteful accents you employ throughout that really enchance many of the scenes, particularly in the film.
MF: It's the brilliant David Hersey - all of it. Brilliant. He is a master of light. I remember talking to the designers - I wanted it to be a Frank Lloyd Wright-style house; a clean, white, sharp thing that I could make into all sorts of different worlds. Later, I realized every other scene - everything else in the whole piece - is set in New York! [Laughs.] But, since it is all his memory... if you were actually able to go into his memory he would be sitting at this house, on a chair, and all of this would be going on internally in his mind and some of it would be focused and some would not. So, David's lighting was very dark in moments when Frank's memory was less clear and much brighter in his more vivid memories. So, I hope that some of that is translated when people see this up on the big screen.
PC: It's intriguing to note you have participated in a number of filmed presentations now - most recently, RAGTIME was aired on TV in the UK...
MF: Yes, yes - a little bit. [Laughs.]
PC: And, of course, JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT was one of the first video presentations of a musical.
MF: Yes, that's right - that was one of the first.
PC: And to film it, no less!
PC: It brought to mind SWEET CHARITY's "Rich Man's Frug", too, in the way it was staged here.
PC: Beth is painted complexly in her introduction and she is given the show's most heartbreaking and emotional song, "Not A Day Goes By". Did you find that scene tricky to stage? She is a thwarted woman, so does that justify her actions, greedy and seemingly outlandish as they may seem?
PC: Do you think Mary and Charley are both in love with Frank?
PC: On that note, I'm curious about how you made up Jenna Russell to look heavier and lighter at various stages over the course of the show?
PC: Reprising songs before the full versions appear - only Sondheim would even attempt it, let alone bring it off like he does in MERRILY!
PC: I also must mention your essaying of Mrs. Lovett for a selection or two on the BBC Proms, opposite Bryn Terfel! Do you have any advice for Emma Thompson, taking on the part next year?
MF: Oh, thank you so much for mentioning that - yeah. That was by far - by far - one of the most extraordinary roles I've ever played. We did five performances at Festival Hall and I loved every second of playing that role. So, all I can say is that I just think Emma Thompson is going to have a ball! Unfortunately, I don't have any advice for her beyond just relish it - relish it!
PC: So, what's next?
MF: Well, I am working on a couple of things that I am not allowed to quite talk about at the moment - but, they are all up in the air at the moment.
PC: MERRILY is certainly a career-high for you as a director thus far - particularly this remarkable achievement of a film.
MF: Thank you so much for saying that, Pat. I love Stephen deeply, deeply, deeply as a friend and he has been so supportive of this production and I cannot express to you how important it is to me that I take absolutely none of the credit for it - it's all because of him.
PC: The genius carries on thoroughly and vividly from creator to final finished product - especially this film. Thank you so much for this today, Maria.
MF: Oh, and thank you so very much, Pat! This was so lovely. Bye bye.
Photo Credits: Fathom, Menier Chocolate Factory, etc.