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In 1981, this Sondheim musical flopped. Now 'Merrily We Roll Along' is a hit

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Stephen Sondheim's 1981 musical, "Merrily We Roll Along," closed after only 16 performances. Since then, it's developed a cult following, and now it's a Broadway hit with seven Tony nominations, including best revival of a musical. The person behind this new production is my guest, first-time director Maria Friedman. She's nominated for a Tony, as are the three leads - Jonathan Groff, who's also with us, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez.

This is Friedman's directorial debut. She's also an Olivier Award-winning actress. She worked closely with Stephen Sondheim. She co-starred in a London revival of "Merrily" in the mid-'90s under Sondheim's direction. She also had leading roles in British productions of the Sondheim musicals "Passion," "Sunday In The Park With George" and "Sweeney Todd." She became good friends with Sondheim, and he became the godfather of one of her children. Jonathan Groff won a Tony for his performance in "Hamilton" as King George III and was nominated for his performance in "Spring Awakening." He's also known for his performances in movies and TV shows, including "Frozen," "Mindhunter," "Looking" and "Glee."

People sometimes complain that Sondheim doesn't write hummable melodies, which isn't true, but it's particularly not true of the songs in "Merrily," as you'll hear when we play excerpts from the new cast recording. The story begins with three old friends. Jonathan Groff plays Frank, a composer turned film producer. Daniel Radcliffe plays Charley, a lyricist and playwright who wrote songs with Frank and thinks Frank abandoned his calling as a composer to make money as a crowd-pleasing movie producer. Lindsay Mendez plays Mary, a bestselling novelist-turned-theater critic who has become bitter and drinks way too much. Charley and Mary feel abandoned by Frank. The story spans 20 years, starting in 1976. Each scene goes further back in time until 1957, when the friends first meet. Let's start with Jonathan Groff singing "Old Friends" from the new cast recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD FRIENDS")

JONATHAN GROFF: (As Franklin Shepard, singing) Hey, old friend. Are you OK, old friend? What do you say, old friend? Are we or are we unique? Time goes by. Everything else keeps changing. You and I, we get continued next week. Most friends fade, or they don't make the grade. New ones are quickly made, and in a pinch, sure, they'll do. But us, old friend, what's to discuss, old friend? Here's to us. Who's like us? Damn few.

GROSS: That was "Old Friends" from the new revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along." Jonathan Groff, Maria Friedman, congratulations on the show. Congratulations on your Tony nominations. I love this revival so much. I'm so happy to have you on the show.

MARIA FRIEDMAN: Thank you. We're happy to be here.

GROSS: Sondheim songs often have a different meaning than you'd think out of context, and this is sung after a fight between Jonathan's character, the composer Franklin Shepard, and Daniel Radcliffe's character, the lyricist Charley Kringas, after their collaboration keeps getting - putting on hold because the composer has become a successful film producer and isn't writing music. And the lyricist is really frustrated 'cause he thinks that the composer is a genius, and he's not fulfilling his true worth. It's also very syncopated, this song, and I always think of "Merrily" as Sondheim's syncopated musical. So many of these songs are syncopated. And Maria, I'm wondering if he ever talked to you about that.

FRIEDMAN: No. He'd always talk character and story, and that's what drove him to write in the rhythms that he did for different people. It's a very, very good question, by the way, that you notice that it's quite spiky, and it becomes more rhapsodic and luscious as we walk backwards towards the hope. And there was a point where they really have a row, and finally - an argument, I think you call it. I call it a row in England. And the syncopation is about the edginess of the way they feel. It's not just there as a kind of add-on. It's driven by the narrative.

GROSS: So, Jonathan, what was it like for you to sing that song? And maybe you could clap out or sing out or point out the syncopation in it?

GROFF: Is this in the melody? In, like, the...

GROSS: In the melody. Yeah.

GROFF: Yeah, yeah. So...

GROSS: Even the opening line.

GROFF: (Singing) Hey, old friend. Are you OK, old friend? One of my favorite ones - one of my favorite parts though is when I say, (singing) most friends fade, or they don't make the grade. New ones are quickly made.

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: The spaces are so delicious to play in the writing of the music. And Maria, oftentimes in rehearsal, would talk with us about how the pauses are just as if not more important than the notes, the pauses in between the notes, and understanding the life that happens in those pauses are so major. And in that song, there's a kind of - because the character of Frank is trying to persuade, trying to manage Charley's spikiness, there's almost, like, a playfulness I find in the pauses, particularly in that one line where I'm waiting for him to break. I'm waiting for him to melt a little bit. And it's - that tension is so fun to play.

GROSS: The original 1981 production of "Merrily We Roll Along" was a big flop. It closed after, I think, 16 performances. Maria, you were close friends with Sondheim. You became close friends. So why did you want to do a production, a new revival of "Merrily," knowing that previous attempts also failed? And I don't think they were necessarily artistic failures. I've seen a few productions that I thought were great. Had they tried to diagnose why the show had never succeeded before?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And what was the diagnosis?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I never knew what - their diagnosis was what they've put in this show, so they didn't discuss that with me. I'll tell you one thing they were absolutely adamant about is that we didn't ever refer back to the old version, that this was the version they wanted done, that they themselves had rejected the old version that they had written, so - which was deeply painful for them, but they were starting afresh. You know, the - a couple of people have taken bits from the old one. That was just an absolute no-go with Steve. He did not want his other version ever done again.

GROSS: This is the first commercially successful production of "Merrily." In the show, when the characters have the first successful production, they're standing outside the door listening for the applause. And when they hear the applause, they sing, (singing) it's a hit. It's a hit. So did - where did - where were you on opening night on Broadway for this show? And I'm also wondering, like, if you all went somewhere afterwards and sang "It's A Hit."

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDMAN: Well, I was in the auditorium. I can't tell you how much I missed Steve that night because for me, this has been a love letter to him from Day 1 Not that he wanted the love letter, may I say - he always just said, for God's sake, don't do it for me. Do it for you. And I'll come and see it, and if I like it, I'll let you know. And if I don't, trust me, I'll let you know.

GROFF: (Laughter).

FRIEDMAN: But I went into this - if it any way sounds arrogant, then I've not made myself clear. I was really calm on opening night. I sat in the auditorium. I did a lot of people watching around the applause, and I watched a whole audience sitting at the front of their seats. I heard an opening night that was quiet, sort of - I don't know. It felt like the whole room was pushing as one towards the story. I felt totally relaxed because I've been with this show now on and off for 30-something years, and it was what I - everything I wanted on that stage, there it was.

GROSS: Jonathan, were you listening carefully to the applause to see which way it was going to go?

GROFF: It's so funny you asked that because like Maria, funnily enough, the success you could hear in the silence.

FRIEDMAN: You could. It's absolutely like Jonathan...

GROFF: (Laughter).

FRIEDMAN: It's in the silence...

GROFF: Yes.

FRIEDMAN: ...In the breathing as one...

GROFF: Yes.

FRIEDMAN: ...When they heard things that - they collected those moments a bit like a sleuth. They're going...

GROFF: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: ...Backwards. They were like - you could just hear the whole audience...

GROFF: Yes.

FRIEDMAN: ...As one.

GROFF: Yeah. There's some lines that happen two hours and 40 minutes into an evening after an audience - one line that has been laid out, one line that takes over the course of maybe three seconds to say. And now you've had a whole show, a whole intermission, and this - it reappears. Several of these lines reappear at the very end. And when you feel those land, it's like, whoa. This - these people are really listening and picking up that detail that he - that starts with his writing. It's - it feels incredible to be inside of those moments.

GROSS: Are you talking about lines in the song "Our Time"?

GROFF: Yes. I'm thinking about a specific dialogue line. It's just after - can't talk about it without crying. It's like...

FRIEDMAN: It's so beautiful.

GROFF: The line comes after the character of Mary - this is in the first scene, which is chronologically the end of their story, but it's the first scene that the audience is seeing. And Mary, who's the dearest friend of Frank, leaves. And it's like his heart walks out the door. And just after that happens, this young - sort of like what would be the young version of Charley - this young writer says, how do I get to be you? Devastating line - that's a devastating line. And Frank says to this young man, don't just write what you know, pointing to his head, write what you know, touching his heart. And some nights, that line gets a bit of a laugh because maybe it's a bit of a douchey thing to say. And it's called upon again. At the end of the show in the very final scene, Charlie says it to Frank, and it starts everything. It starts their collaboration. It starts their love story. It starts just - it's the beginning of everything.

FRIEDMAN: And it's just thrown away.

GROFF: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: He says, you really like what I wrote?

GROFF: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: He says yeah. What is it he says? You don't...

GROFF: You don't just write what you know. You write what you know.

FRIEDMAN: Oh, that's it. And that's two hours...

GROFF: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: ...Including an interval...

GROFF: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: ...Later. And the whole audience just go, oh. You just feel the pain. There's just many, many moments like that that start collecting.

GROSS: Jonathan, how could you tear up after having done so many performances of this? How is it that it's still so emotional for you?

GROFF: It's such a good question. I think that they wrote something really personal. Stephen Sondheim and George Furth - feels like just, here, let me take my heart out of my body and just place it at your feet - feels like that is in the energy of the writing. And then Maria came in and asked us all to do that. They did it. They had the bravery to do it. And so everything actually is a word that comes up a lot in the music and in the script, this word, everything. And in a kind of cosmic sense, Maria gave us the gift of inviting all of us that - our mission, should we choose to accept it, to give everything. And, I mean, we've - including off-Broadway, we've done this over 300 times. Instead of it getting rote or instead of it getting stale, it's just - goes deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper.

GROSS: That's a quote.

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. Yeah, it is. There's another thing, though. What I find really interesting, both as a performer and watching people like Jonathan, is that we have one tool that is our very, very best friend as an actor, and that's staying present. The greatest actors are present. They're not doing yesterday's show or a plan in their head. And because we change and the audience change - you know, we have different days. We're tired. We've had an argument. We've fallen in love. Whatever it is, whatever it is, our life is running in turn, in - you know, in - alongside the play, that if you are skilled enough and open enough as a performer, the person in front of you will be changing slightly every day.

And when an actor presents you with something different, you can do two things. You can resent it because it takes you away from what you plan to do, or you go with it, and it makes you richer and deeper. And hopefully, ultimately, they come back to something that you need and want - that it's a conversation. It's a constant conversation. And I don't know if that's right, Jonathan, that - I see you every day. Every time I pop in and see you, it's - it feels fresh because it's now. It's today.

GROSS: We need to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, we're talking about the Broadway revival of "Merrily We Roll Along." It's now nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. My guests are two of the nominees - Jonathan Groff, the show's star, and Maria Friedman, the director. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview about the Broadway revival of the Sondheim musical "Merrily We Roll Along." My guests are the show's star, Jonathan Groff, who's nominated for a Tony, and Maria Friedman, who's nominated for directing the show.

Jonathan, you mentioned that the word everything - that you were encouraged to give everything. And the word everything is mentioned in the song "Our Time." So I'd like to play that. And just to set the scene - this is on the rooftop of an apartment building that both Charley and Frank are living in. Charley has been listening to Frank's music, like, through the walls, and he had given Frank a copy of his play to read. And they both really admire each other's work. And Frank has this idea. We should collaborate. You write words, and I write music. We should be a team. And it seems like a new world because, you know, they're on the verge of a new career. It's a new generation, it's a new time, it's a new world. And he sings "Our Time." And there's such sadness when we hear it in the audience because we all know how things have turned out, the compromises, the disappointments, the anger between the two of them, the frustrations. So anything you want to add to that, Jonathan?

GROFF: I thought you set it up beautifully.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I'm going to write it down and copy it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I should also mention, you know, we know that Frank has lost friends and family because he stopped paying attention to them to devote all of his time to his career and to success. So let's hear Jonathan Groff sing "Our time."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR TIME")

GROFF: (As Franklin Shepard, singing) Something is stirring, shifting ground. It's just begun. Edges are blurring all around and yesterday is done. Feel the flow. Hear what's happening. We're what's happening. Don't you know? We're the movers and we're the shapers. We're the names in tomorrow's papers. Up to us, man, to show them. It's our time. Breathe it in. Worlds to change and worlds to win. Our turn - coming through - me and you, man, me and you.

GROSS: Jonathan, when you sing that, what are you thinking about? I know you're thinking about being Frank, but what do you connect it to in your own life? Because he's thinking about, you know, it's our time, the generation is different. But there's this line, and yesterday is done. Can you talk a little bit - is it too emotional?

GROFF: No, no, it's OK (laughter). It's great that you bring up that line, too, because that is also the first line of the entire show. Yesterday is done. And I'll say that the special gift of being an actor inside of this piece, one of the many special gifts, is that because the show goes backwards, it forces the actor to be ultra-present because unlike most shows where you build over an arc of an evening - you start at the beginning and go to the end, and you carry with you the whole show to the final moment - in this, you start at the end. And you spend the show shedding your life until you're - until we're at the purest version, which is on the rooftop singing "Our Time."

And yesterday is done, to hear that at the top of the show and to start performing is such a reminder every day for me to be present. And when I've made my way through the story and I get to the end, I feel like I am 18 years old. I feel full of hope. It's funny because it makes me emotional when I think about it as an adult. But when I'm inside of it, I really feel like I'm 18. And then at the same time, I feel like I'm talking to Daniel Radcliffe.

And there are moments when I feel like there is no character there. It is, of course, Frank and Charley. That's them, we're trying to tell the story, that's the most important thing. But at the exact same moment, I'm saying these things to Dan, into his eyes, and looking out at this audience on Broadway, like 40-plus years later, on the edge of their seats at this show. And it feels like anything is possible. It's, like, the most inspiring, buoyant, life-affirming, exciting vibration to be inside of.

GROSS: My guests are Jonathan Groff, who's nominated for a Tony for his starring role in the Broadway revival of Sondheim's musical "Merrily We Roll Along," and Maria Friedman, who's nominated for directing the show. We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with actor Jonathan Groff and actor and director Maria Friedman. Friedman directed the new Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Merrily We Roll Along," which has received seven Tony nominations. She's also an Olivier Award-winning actor and starred in London productions of the Sondheim musicals "Sunday In The Park With George," "Passion" and "Sweeney Todd." Back in the '90s, she starred in a London production of "Merrily" and was directed by Sondheim. She's now nominated for a Tony for directing the Broadway revival of "Merrily," and Groff is nominated for his leading role. He won a Tony for his role in the musical "Hamilton" as King George III and was nominated for his first starring role on Broadway in the musical "Spring Awakening." He starred in the TV shows "Mindhunter," "Looking" and "Glee," and the movies "Frozen" and "The Normal Heart."

So, Jonathan, you're tearing up talking about some of these songs and what they mean to you, but you can't really do that on stage because you have to be in the moment.

FRIEDMAN: Yes he can (laughter).

GROSS: And how does that work? How do you get your voice out? I know when I cry, my voice just kind of quivers...

GROFF: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And it's hard to speak.

GROFF: It's interesting. Right before we started rehearsals, I was obsessively listening to the music, became obsessed with the score, and I was trying to know the music before the first day of rehearsal, because the music is not changing, because this is a revival of a famous Sondheim show. And I would get to learning "Our Time," and I would just weep. And I was like, OK, I guess once I'm in rehearsal, I'll stop aggressively weeping and will...

FRIEDMAN: (Laughter).

GROFF: ...Be able to sing this song. And then our first day of staging this song on the show, sat there with Maria and Dan and Lindsay, and we're just all weeping. And we're just crying. I don't know, we're mourning the inner child, we're - the dreams, all of it. And it wasn't really until we had the audience there that I could actually pull myself together, because understanding, OK, this is a story that we're telling for an audience. And what Maria, especially in the intimacy of the off-Broadway experience at New York Theater Workshop, where we were for three months before moving to Broadway, and the audience is really in your lap. And that, for me, brings up a lot of self-conscious feelings.

And Maria would - helped me by saying, the ideas that you're articulating are more important than you're feeling embarrassed that the audience is so close to you. Say what they wrote. You have to send these ideas into the audience and out into the street outside. And so connecting to the importance of telling the story and communicating the ideas was essential in getting me over that kind of crying that makes it unable to speak. And so I still feel quite emotional when I'm singing it. And tears do come. But the necessity and the need to articulate the thoughts and the ideas took over.

FRIEDMAN: And to - the same thing. I don't know about you, but I have cried probably almost as much over joy and beauty and possibility. So I say use it. You know, if it comes because you're excited, and you're sitting with your best friend, and it's possible, I know I have welled up and teared up with pure joy and hope many times - a beautiful sunset, a moment where I'm sharing ecstasy with friends. I don't mean that in the chemical sense, I mean in the...

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDMAN: But that will make me cry. So if that's what Jonathan feels when he's feeling those things, let it happen. Why not?

GROSS: Maria, how did you cast Jonathan in the role of Frank?

FRIEDMAN: By meeting him. We talked on a Zoom, and then I took him to Steve Sondheim's house, who had already passed away, because I wanted Steve to be - I don't know - somehow part of the decision. I wanted Steve to meet Jonathan properly. And we sat and we talked in his house for ages. And then Jonathan drove me to my hotel, and I got out of the car just going, well, that's that, then. It did mean that we all had to wait an enormous amount of time for him, but I would do that 10 times over.

GROSS: How did you cast Daniel Radcliffe? Did you have any idea that he sang?

FRIEDMAN: Yes, I knew he sang. He'd come to see the show in London and had photographs with the cast. And I remember thinking, if I was Daniel, and I was watching that show, and I was watching that part, I'd think, that's my part. Because, I mean, he is Charlie. He is just a - I mean, he's that kind of brilliance. And, anyway, he's Charlie. And then, lists arrived, and he was on the list, and he's with my agent. And so I think they - we'd just done availabilities on across a, you know, a range of people. And my agent called me saying, we've just had an availability on Daniel. And I just thought, well, that's that, then, isn't it? If that means he - you know, the fact they'd called me meant that there was a big possibility he was at least interested. And then I think I was auditioned. I mean, I had to go and meet him a couple of times to see whether he would get on with me. And he's a proper, true, brilliant, brilliant actor. So we immediately started talking about character and the detail and things that he was concerned about. And he asked me as many questions as I asked him. And that was that.

GROSS: We need to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, we're talking about the Broadway revival of "Merrily We Roll Along." It's now nominated for seven Tony Awards, including best revival of a musical. My guests are two of the nominees - Jonathan Groff, the show's star, and Maria Friedman, the director. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY CECIL AND BILL MAYS' "OUR TIME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview about the Broadway revival of the Sondheim musical "Merrily We Roll Along." My guests are the show's star, Jonathan Groff, who's nominated for a Tony, and Maria Friedman, who's nominated for directing the show.

Maria, you played Mary, one of the three leads in the show, in the mid '90s, and this is the time when Sondheim was rewriting it as you were rehearsing it. How did he direct you as - he wasn't directing the show, but I'm sure he was making suggestions to you.

FRIEDMAN: No. He was directing the show.

GROSS: He was directing it. OK.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Like, literally or actually?

FRIEDMAN: I mean, he's a great collaborator, so he wouldn't step on the toes of the staging, but the staging is only part of directing.

GROSS: So how did he direct you in that character? And could you compare that to how you directed Lindsay Mendez, who plays Mary in the new revival?

FRIEDMAN: There's a kind of reverence about Steve, which he hated. So they had the published score, and I was being made to sing like it was Charlie, like down here, because it was printed in that score. So I was, like, Charlie - was like - anyway, he came into the rehearsal room and he just looked at the musical director and so he said, why's she singing down there? And they said, well, it's in the score. He said, I write for people. I don't write an idea. So up it went by a fifth and suddenly it was - guess what? - in my key. And I had been saying to them, he won't mind. But they were like, oh, he's coming in. It's got to be in this thing. So that was the first thing I tore up the, it's got to be in this key. So when an actor arrives with me, and it's out of their - we change the key. We make it fit them. Second thing is, it's all about the detail. So if ever you skimmed past a thought or an idea or a subtext, he would sit cross-legged, looking into my eyes, maybe two foot away and just going, no, what are you thinking?

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDMAN: No. What's that? What are you doing? What are you thinking? And then he would fill you or make you fill up yourself with your ideas. It's what we're talking about. The pauses, the bits in between, the connective tissue that allow you to just be full with that part. That was one thing. The other thing is, I played her incredibly wild. The first scene where she's drunk. And I was, like, screaming and throwing things and falling on the floor and everything. It was pretty - it was really fierce, and always different. So I would every single day do something different so that the cast would jump out of their skin. I'd go up to somebody else, and whatever. He said to me, I'm really worried about you. This comes too easily to you.

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDMAN: And over the years, I was so happy because I thought, oh, my God, maybe this is like a premonition. I'm going to be one of these crazy, angry banshees, alcoholic or whatever. But because he said that, I promise you, I kept an eye on myself. Because it was...

GROSS: Like, in real life?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, because it was easy for me to be that wild. I didn't have a - that kind of safety valve that I see a lot of actors have. It was all-all out (laughter).

GROSS: You - were you letting out your bottled-up anger on stage?

FRIEDMAN: I think probably - that's what he said to me. He said, there's some massive part of you that's angry, Maria. And I'd always thought of myself as playful and funny and good to be around. But then I kind of, I realize, of course, that is the actor I am. I don't say yesterday is done. I'm bringing it all with me. So it's all available. It's all available, that stuff. And I had a very complicated childhood. So all those things that were unprocessed find their way into the corners of what I do as a performer. So I hope that's something that I was given to him, is kind of to be mindful that there's a separation between acting and your real life. Make sure that you're not bleeding the two into one another, that they are - it's a technical requirement that that mustn't cost you so much that it makes you sick, because it could do, when you're asked to do that much.

GROSS: Can you think of an example when Sondheim was sitting down, looking into your eyes (laughter) and said, nope.

FRIEDMAN: I can tell you a story when I was doing "Sunday In The Park With George" where I had cried during when I was playing the Old Marie. And there's a beautiful song called "Children And Art," and I had got a overemotional about, part, you know, part of that - this little old lady's idea about her grandson's art. And he came - he came - it was flying in my dressing room, absolutely raging, saying, what was that? And I was like, oh, I thought - I actually thought I'd been quite good that night.

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDMAN: I was like, ooh - dear, oh, dear. And he just said, it's not for you to cry. It's for the audience to cry. Now that I know goes against what I'm saying. But you have to choose when you cry. And I just become sort of sentimental with the kind of beauty of the music. And it wasn't specific enough. And he loved me being specific, and I'd kind of given it a kind of glow of sentimentality. And he was just, like, fuming with me. And I remember just sitting there shaking. It was the first time he was ever really cross with me, just thinking, oh. And Jonathan and I share an exact same thing is that he came in into the rehearsal room, and he gave me and everybody many, many notes in "Sunday In The Park With George." And I had about 21 different notes where he said, when you do this, do that. When you do that, did that. I just nodded, nodded, nodded. And he flew into my dressing room that evening and he said, I was ready to be really mad at you because I thought, who is this arrogant girl without her notebook and her pencil? She didn't write down one thing I said, and then you did them all. And it's exactly the same. And that's where our friendship started there at that point.

GROSS: Speaking of Sondheim, as we've discussed, "Merrily" is told in, like, reverse chronological order. It starts with the present, when expectations have not been fulfilled, and it ends when they're, like, 20 years younger, when expectations are so high and they're so excited and so fresh and the world is so new to them. And several songs are reprised, but often the second time around when they're younger, the song has a much more optimistic flair than the first time around that we heard the song. And that's particularly true of a song called "Not A Day Goes By." And the first time we hear it, Frank's wife is singing it while they're in the middle of this very acrimonious divorce. And the second time we hear it is at their wedding, like, years earlier. And, you know, one of the times I interviewed Sondheim, I asked him about that song and about writing things in reverse chronological order. So before we hear both versions of that song, I'd like to play what Sondheim had to say about it. So here's Sondheim talking about writing the song in reverse chronological order.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Well, I wrote the whole score knowing that it was going to go backwards in time. And I thought, what does that imply? Well, it implies that something that you and I sing today, 20 years from now will have a different meaning to both of us. It doesn't have to be that we get divorced. Maybe it'll be memories of something. But everything that happens at a given time in your life has echoes and resonances afterwards. What I would call, like, reprises, really, of thoughts, of moments in your life that happen in different contexts, or - so I thought, if I'm going to write the show that goes backwards in time, we'll start with the reprises - that is to say, start with the variation on the theme and then go back to the theme.

And that's what happens here. It happens with a lot of other songs in the show, too, but this one very specifically with the lyric because it applies to two very distinct and distinctly defined situations - one, a divorce, and one, a - when they got married. So you're taking two high spots of their lives, the - their marriage and their divorce. Now, I did that throughout the show. I still began, as I always do, writing the score from the first song on but knowing - always making notes as to how I would use it later in the show. So I never wrote blind, so to speak. I wrote knowing, OK, this will be useful when this - because we had plotted out the show, and we knew what was going to happen in the second act. In other words, we knew what had happened in the past. And so, yeah, so I was writing to that kind of plot.

GROSS: OK. That was Stephen Sondheim on FRESH AIR. So let's hear that song, "Not A Day Goes By." The first version we'll hear is Katie Rose Clarke singing it when Beth and Frank are divorcing, and it's a very acrimonious divorce. And the second version is when they're getting married, and she's just expressing her love for him. And Frank, my guest Jonathan Groff, duets with her. So here we go - two versions of "Not A Day Goes By" from "Merrily We Roll Along."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT A DAY GOES BY")

KATIE ROSE CLARKE: (As Beth Spencer, singing) Not a day goes by, not a single day. But you're somewhere, a part of my life. And it looks like you'll stay. As the days go by, I keep thinking, when does it end? Where's the day I'll have started forgetting? But I just go on thinking and sweating and cursing and crying and turning and reaching and waking and dying. And, no, not a day goes by, not a blessed day...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT A DAY GOES BY")

CLARKE: (As Beth Spencer, singing) Not a day goes by, not a single day. But you're somewhere, a part of my life. And it looks like you'll stay.

KATIE ROSE CLARKE AND JONATHAN GROFF: (As Beth Spencer and as Franklin Shepard, singing) As the days go by, I keep thinking, when does it end?

CLARKE: (As Beth Spencer, singing) That it can't get much better much longer, but it only gets better and stronger and deeper and nearer...

CLARKE AND GROFF: (As Beth Spencer and Franklin Shepard, singing) ...And simpler and freer and richer and clearer. In all, not a day goes by...

GROSS: That was two versions of "Not A Day Goes By" from the new cast recording of "Merrily We Roll Along." We'll talk with the show's star, Jonathan Groff, and the director, Maria Friedman, after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOIUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview about the Broadway revival of the Sondheim musical "Merrily We Roll Along." My guests are the show's star, Jonathan Groff, who's nominated for a Tony, and Maria Friedman, who's nominated for directing the show. Maria, another question for you about Sondheim. He became the godfather of one of your children. What did that mean in your life and in his life and your child's life?

FRIEDMAN: A huge amount. And my other child's mentor, along with - I mean, he mentored a lot of young writers. It meant everything. I asked him, after I had had a big health scare. We were walking along Covent Garden. We were always held hands or, you know, we're just, like, just walking. He loved walking the streets of London. And he - when I got diagnosed, he said, I'm taking you to the hospital. I mean, he was, you know, he was very much - you know, he was a great friend to those of us lucky enough to - I don't want to own him. That's the thing. When I've seen a lot of people come out of the woodwork who claim him as great friends. So I don't want to own him. What it meant to me was everything. I asked him whether he would be, you know, godfather to either one of my children. Toby was the one he'd known longest. So, he said, Toby, but I will - I really wanted to make sure that if I wasn't around, that they had this sort of, you know, contact with the man that meant so much to me in my life. So that's how that happened.

GROSS: Had you asked Sondheim to be the godfather of one of your children afraid that you might not live very long?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And he was very happy to accept. He had no choice, really; did he?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No, thanks.

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDMAN: No, that's OK (laughter). No. But, yeah, it was lovely. It was really, really lovely. Yeah. Outrageous of me to ask, but he was happy, he was happy.

GROSS: Jonathan, a question for you. A lot of people know you from "Hamilton," where you were King George. And so "Hamilton" has such an ensemble cast, but you're always onstage alone. Like, you're the king. You're the British one and everybody in the cast is fighting, like, the Revolutionary War. They want to be done with you. And so in this great ensemble show, like, you're alone onstage singing your King George stuff. Whereas in "Merrily," you're the central figure in an ensemble cast. You're the figure that everybody else revolves around. And so it seems so different to me. Can you just compare those two experiences.

GROFF: When I said yes to signing onto "Hamilton" for a year, I said yes, of course, because I loved the nine minutes that I got to be onstage as King George. But really, the yes was to be inside of that brilliant material eight times a week. Theater for me is - it's almost religious in that, you know, they say you are what you repeatedly do. And when you're doing a show, you show up to the theater eight times a week and you repeat the same words over and over again. And so I take it really seriously, what I - I'm fortunate enough to be in the position where I can, in certain ways, choose the things that I get to spend the eight show a week - the material that I get to spend doing that.

And with "Hamilton," I would stand in the king costume in the box, and I would peek through the curtain and I would watch the entire show. Performing-wise, it's so much more difficult for me to do those nine minutes than it is to play Frank. Because to come out cold and sing and leave, and like you said, Terry, not interact with anyone is not my personal dream of acting. I love interacting while acting. With "Merrily," getting to hear this incredible material and get to have this incredible material inside of my body eight times a week is literally life-changing. Like, the cells in your body, the music, the vibration, it - I feel like I'm 18 when the show is over. And to be inside of something where you can play everything, like, the therapy - can you imagine the therapy of that that we get every night?

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROFF: To scream and show every dark, repressed corner of myself and then lean into the joy, I mean, it really is - it is the gift of gifts.

GROSS: Thank you both so much and thank you for this production. I just enjoyed it so much. Congratulations and good luck at the Tonys. The show is nominated for seven of them, including for each of you. So, you know, I wish you the best.

GROFF: Thank you so much.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure.

GROFF: Thank you for the great questions and the great time.

GROSS: Maria Friedman directed the current Broadway revival of Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along." Jonathan Groff stars in the role of Frank. The revival is nominated for seven Tonys, including ones for Friedman and Groff. "Merrily" runs through July 7. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, MSNBC host Ali Velshi will talk about his ancestors' migrations from a village in India through South Africa, Kenya and Canada. One of the figures in the story is Mahatma Gandhi, who knew Velshi's grandfather and had a powerful influence on the family. Velshi's new book is called "Small Acts Of Courage." I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROY HELLVIN TRIO'S "OLD FRIENDS")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROY HELLVIN TRIO'S "OLD FRIENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 4, 2024 at 7:59 AM EDT
The audio version of this story incorrectly states that Jonathan Groff won a Tony Award for Hamilton. In fact, he was nominated for a Tony for Hamilton.

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