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Brief Encounter with ... Merrily We Roll Along director Maria Friedman

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As Merrily We Roll Along transfers to the West End's Harold Pinter Theatre, we talk to its debutante director Maria Friedman (pictured in rehearsals), who was nominated for a Whatsonstage.com Award for her work on the show

How have you adapted Merrily for the West End?
The heart and the essence of the show are the same, but we've had to re-stage every single number. The Menier Chocolate Factory is like a letter box, now it's a proscenium. So we lost the two sides and the entrances and exits from the aisles and audience. But the show was made for a proscenium and it works better in that configuration - more defined and concentrated. The Chocolate Factory was brilliant but now we're seeing it in HD.

Does it feel scary to bring it into the West End - more exposed?
No, because you're totally supported. I have an incredible production team. Also, we'd done all the important stuff; discovering the piece, finding out how we wanted it to be. We knew who the characters were, the invisible chemistry, we had got that right. It was just a matter of protecting it, making it more focused. So this is less scary, more fun.

You said recently that it took the actors a bit of time to trust you in rehearsals
I had never been in a room full of people waiting for me to come up with the answers, and you have to have the answers as the director. It took us all a week to get to know each other - there are so many different personalities in the room and you have to find out who needs what from you. You can't do that immediately, it takes time. I will not be as unnerved as I was for the first few days again, but it was normal.

Have you modelled your directing style on anyone in particular?
I've based it on what I need myself, as a performer. I hope I give the cast a feeling of the deep respect that I have for them. I am in awe of their abilities, but also a strong guide of where the focus should be and where the story should be. Where the characters should be, emotionally and physically. And pushing, always pushing for the best. Not what they think is good, but what really is good. Sometimes you just need to give a bit of extra encouragement. As an actor I love being pushed and getting noted, and getting criticism, so I give a lot of notes.

Merrily We Roll Along at the Harold Pinter

As an actor turned director, are you ever tempted to show by example?
No, I don't give line readings. The one thing I do is beats, comedy beats - I will say 'one, two, three, speak'. Generally I'll let them find it themselves, and if they're not getting it I will literally go 'beat, smile, beat, speak'; they can speak how they want, but there needs to be a rhythm. Everything is about rhythm.

Merrily seems a great piece to begin your directorial career - a perfect hybrid of play and musical
It's a play. Though saying that, I can feel Stephen Sondheim reeling saying 'No it's not, it's musical theatre'. But what it is in truth is his form of musical theatre, which is always multi-layered and fantastically intellectual, funny and sad. The whole human condition.

Do you feel an especially personal attachment to the story, centering as it does on the artist's life?
It touches on hope, friendship, loyalty, priorities, human frailty, mistakes, journeys - themes that apply to everyone alive. It happens to be about an artist, but it's also about ruthlessness, ambition, knowing how to love - all those things. It does not necessarily have to be about the artist. Frank never sets out to change the world by writing, he loses his way. Frank is a man, people hang on to him, and he never pretends to do anything else. I don't think Frank's guilty and I don't think it's all about being an artist.

Is this the start of a new chapter in your career?
No idea. I've never had a real idea about my career, I just pop along. I do the things that I enjoy.

Do you think the theatre industry pigeonholes people too much?
Yes, certainly. Of course we do. I can see why we do it; it's easier to see what people are doing, be it acting, writing, directing etc. I have no problem with that, but I know I just do jobs that interest and challenge me. I still want to do all sorts of things. I definitely want to sing again, I definitely want to act again, I definitely want to direct again, but have no plan when or what it will be.

Merrily We Roll Along at the Harold Pinter

What's the Chocolate Factory's secret?
It's the small spaces where you learn your craft. Big spaces are harder, the story has to be clearer and you need to project, fill however many seats every night. The Menier is a perfect space to re-explore things on a tight budget with people doing it for the right reasons, not the billing. It's just talented people getting on with the work. Plus, it's must easier to stage - there are fewer options in smaller spaces.

Why do you think the larger producing houses, like the National, have turned their backs on musical theatre?
It's too expensive. They're doing different things with music, like Curious Incident and London Road. Hytner's done incredible things, but consciously gone 'no more big musical revivals'. The cost of a musical is just ridiculous. We had nine in the band for Merrily and that almost broke the Chocolate Factory budget, even with full houses every single night. It's so prohibitive to do musicals.

Is that why we seem to either get chamber productions or multi-million pound West End blockbusters?
I think it is. But the shows can transfer if they are really good, because the producer knows that they won't lose their shirt. Well, 50% anyway! To start a musical in the West End, without millions behind you, is not possible. Dreadfully sad really.

So what's the future for the West End?
I have no idea, but good things will find their way through. Made in Dagenham is coming next year and I've heard some of it - it sounds amazing.

Would you like the next director of the National to turn their attention back to musicals?
I think it should be part of it - it's a publicly funded place and it should feature a breadth of theatre. But I don't think it's right for them to do big hits, I didn't approve of that. It's a place where productions should grow from. London Road is a perfect example of good programming, supporting the creative process. To be able to fail is what young composers should be able to do. Those resources should be used to grow musical talent across the board. Not as a place for safe hits.

Finally, which Sondheim show would you like to tackle next?
One? I can say the next three! Follies, for sure. And just for the sheer entertainment, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with an unusual person to play the lead - I want someone extraordinary. Then probably Pacific Overtures, or Assassins. But I wouldn't do all of them. A Little Night Music for example is quite cool, and I don't like cool. I like a full beating heart.

Merrily We Roll Along has a limited run until 27 July 2013. Come on our hosted Whatsonstage.com Outing on 16 May 2013 and get a top-price ticket, a FREE programme and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with cast members, all for £30.00 - click here for more info


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