The Sisters Who Turned a Sondheim Flop Into a Tony Winner

The Sisters Who Turned a Sondheim Flop Into a Tony Winner

The Friedman sisters have been making artwork collectively since they had been little ladies. Their London childhood was chaotic — they had been usually left to their very own gadgets — however the household’s 4 kids discovered solace in storytelling.

Now Sonia, 59, is without doubt one of the most profitable theater producers within the English-speaking world. Maria, 64, is a celebrated actress and singer. Their sister is a scientist, and their brother, who died final yr, was a violinist.

Sonia and Maria have sometimes labored collectively over time, however hardly ever with as a lot emotional funding as on the present Broadway revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” which Maria is directing and Sonia is producing. The revival has been transformative for the present, which, regardless of much-loved songs by Stephen Sondheim, was a well-known flop when it first ran in 1981, and is now one of many hottest tickets on the town.

On Sunday evening the Friedman sisters’ manufacturing gained a Tony Award for finest musical revival, in addition to appearing prizes for 2 of its stars, Daniel Radcliffe and Jonathan Groff, and one other for its orchestrations. It didn’t, nevertheless, win for Maria’s path, which made their night bittersweet.

“My coronary heart went into 2,000 items,” mentioned Sonia Friedman, who has a shelf stuffed with Tony Awards, however simply needed recognition for her sister. She mentioned she needed to step out of the theater to gather herself. “The little sister in me was in agony for an older sister who’s solely ever held me and supported me.”

A couple of minutes later, the sisters went as much as the stage collectively to gather the Tony for the manufacturing, which Sonia devoted to Maria.

“Winning the Tony was implausible, for Steve and for the legacy,” Maria mentioned the subsequent day. “Losing was painful.”

But she additionally mentioned that, throughout the Tony season, she had develop into pals with the opposite nominees, and admired all of them. She significantly praised Danya Taymor, who gained the directing prize for a brand new musical, “The Outsiders.” “I noticed her work, and I believe she completely deserves that,” Maria mentioned. “I don’t have a sense like I used to be robbed.”

“Merrily,” with music by Sondheim and a e book by George Furth, is a reverse chronological depiction of the implosion of a three-way friendship. The revival, which ends its restricted run on the Hudson Theater on July 7, is each acclaimed and worthwhile — in different phrases, to cite a tune title from the present, “It’s a Hit!” This week, the Friedmans plan to seize the revival on movie.

The two sisters mentioned their lengthy historical past with “Merrily,” and their even longer historical past with one another, in a joint interview over steak salads at Gallaghers, a century-old theater district hang-out. The late-afternoon lunch — they’d been up till the wee hours, first at a “Merrily” after-party on the Ascent Lounge, after which at a stars-plus-show tunes after-after party on the Carlyle Hotel — had been scheduled earlier than they knew how their night would go.

They each mentioned they noticed the manufacturing as a tribute to Sondheim, with whom Maria had a detailed friendship cast by years of performing his work in England. The “Merrily” manufacturing had been deliberate earlier than his dying in 2021; Maria mentioned that when he died, she considered canceling, however was persuaded that’s not what he would have needed.

“As I began to work on it, within the room, I spotted he hadn’t gone anyplace,” Maria mentioned. “He’s in each nook of this piece. He’s in each molecule. And so the truth that it gained finest revival is past something.”

The two sisters are fairly shut. As kids, Maria usually sorted Sonia; as adults, Sonia has returned the favor, significantly throughout Maria’s two bouts with most cancers. They are fiercely happy with one another, and likewise clearly keen on one another — at any time when the dialog grew to become emotional, every sister turned to the opposite for consolation. Sonia described them as “on a raft collectively.”

Their childhood was, at finest, unorthodox, and sometimes fully neglectful — they are saying that, had they been born a couple of many years later, they might have been positioned into foster care. Their father, a outstanding violinist, left across the time of Sonia’s delivery; their mom, a polymathic pianist, had no aptitude for or curiosity in parenting, and the kids had been largely left to fend for themselves when it got here to basic items like discovering meals, or getting to high school. They describe themselves as having been deserted and disrespected; Maria referred to the kids as “feral.”

“We had been 4 kids successfully left to assist one another, in each respect,” Sonia mentioned. “Our education was inept. We usually didn’t go. But what we did was make tales. We would improvise tales, and music, and dance.”

By the time Sonia was 10, circumstances at dwelling had been getting worse, and all three of her older siblings moved out for self-preservation — Maria was simply 15 when she left.

“There was this fissure, this tear,” Sonia mentioned. “We don’t want to enter the element of what occurred within the dwelling, however the related bit is that I needed to lose myself in tales. I’d misplaced all the pieces.”

Sonia threw herself in her dollhouse, escaping into the dramas she dreamed up in regards to the every day lives of her dolls. At one level, she was expelled from faculty for truancy; she says her life was saved by a neighborhood council that paid to ship her to boarding faculty.

Throughout her childhood, Sonia would tag together with Maria because the older woman acquired theater roles; as Maria started constructing a profession as an actor, Sonia started imagining a life behind the scenes.

They had been each having fun with some success after they first collaborated professionally, in 1994, on “Maria Friedman by Special Arrangement,” a cabaret present based mostly on songs Maria had first carried out at a competition established by their father. Their brother performed within the band; their father, with whom they had been reconnecting as adults, was initially concerned, however then died earlier than the present transferred to the West End.

There had been different joint initiatives over time — “Ragtime” in London in 2003, and “The Woman in White” on Broadway in 2005. But there was nothing like “Merrily,” a present that Maria has been linked to for 3 many years, and which she has now directed seven instances.

Maria’s relationship to “Merrily” goes again to 1992, when she starred in a manufacturing in Leicester; Sondheim and Furth had been each alive then, and revising their work following the Broadway disappointment.

Two many years later, Maria directed a pupil manufacturing of “Merrily” at a London drama faculty — it was the primary time she had directed something, and when Sonia got here to see it, she not solely cried, but in addition had a second of readability about her sister’s ability set as she watched actors devouring Maria’s concepts. “Dammit — she’s a director!” Sonia recalled pondering.

Sonia noticed the college manufacturing with David Babani, the inventive director of the Menier Chocolate Factory in London; the 2 determined to ask Sondheim for permission to mount an expert manufacturing, which he granted. That manufacturing was a hit, and Maria directed subsequent productions within the West End, in Japan and in Boston earlier than placing collectively the manufacturing starring Radcliffe, Groff and Lindsay Mendez, first Off Broadway on the New York Theater Workshop in 2022, after which on Broadway beginning final October.

“Steve wrote a masterpiece, and I’ve given all the pieces I needed to it,” Maria mentioned. “I’ve given it my coronary heart and soul and my thought and my brains and my expertise, and it retains giving me one thing.”

Sonia has been together with her all the way in which. “It’s essentially the most private factor I’ve ever performed,” she mentioned. “Because of the story of ‘Merrily,’ it forces you to look again in your life, and the alternatives you’ve made, the paths you’ve taken, the errors alongside the way in which. And should you’re producing this together with your sister, you’ll be able to’t watch it from the again of the auditorium and never monitor your personal life by it.”

The two reject the concept they’d got down to rescue the present, which Maria mentioned could be “boastful.” Sonia mentioned she doesn’t even consider the unique manufacturing as a flop, however as “a present that hadn’t discovered its path.”

But additionally they mentioned that the present’s intense historical past — it has all the time had a cadre of passionate admirers, although it hadn’t fairly labored — is rather more current within the United States than in England. But as they nurtured it in London, they felt the pull of New York.

“There was like this calling: Please convey ‘Merrily’ dwelling,” Sonia mentioned. “It deserves to be up there, within the lights on Broadway, as a hit. It wanted this redemption story.”

Each of them mentioned, even after years of seeing “Merrily” performances, it continues to resonate deeply. “It’s so elegant, and as we develop, I can’t hearken to it, I can’t expertise it, with out having a deep, deep cathartic response,” Sonia mentioned.

Maria agreed, saying, “It’s a few lifetime, and ‘Merrily’ morphs with us,” she mentioned. “It asks us, ‘How did I get to be right here?’”



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