Plenty of Roads to Try
Hilary Paterson on the challenges of playing a lead in Merrily for the second time.
I am known as a creature of habit. I’m often to be found in my usual public house, drinking my usual glass of wine, reading a book that I’ve read at least 10 times before. For this reason, it might be unsurprising that I’ve ended up doing the same musical more than once, on more than one occasion. Over (too many) years I have played two different orphans in Annie, two different disciples in Godspell and two different Cinderella’s mothers (one natural, one step) in Into the Woods. In 2008, I played Beth Spencer in Alan Borthwick and Friends’ production of Merrily We Roll Along in my old home city of Edinburgh. I didn’t know much about the show when I was asked to be in it, but I had loved being in Assassins with the same company the previous year so I jumped at the chance to do another Sondheim show. 6 years later I found myself waiting to audition for GMT’s version. I’m one of those ridiculously nervous types at auditions. I usually exhibit a variety of anxious behaviours such as rocking in a chair, pacing or talking nonsense (although to be fair, I do that normally). That day I was strangely calm about the whole thing as I was only looking to be in the ensemble. I'd been a Beth before and couldn't really see myself in any of the other roles. Then I was cast as Mary. That was a surprise. A nice one, of course! First thought was "Mary’s a drunk...I like wine...maybe this isn't such a weird casting after all!" (said whilst clutching a glass of wine in my hand).
During rehearsals it was apparent that I hadn't really thought about how playing two main parts in the same show might be difficult.
First: "unlearning" the harmony lines in songs you have previously learned. Despite the lapse of time between these productions, Beth's lines kept jumping out at me. I think Sondheim likes to make things deliberately difficult for singers (why else would you write a song in ALL THE KEYS you can?), so when you’ve mastered the harmony you know it’s going to stick for good. The words, maybe not so much, but the harmony, yes!Secondly: forever remembering every detail of the character that your previous co-performer has played, and not playing it the same way. Of course the same could be said of watching a professional production and not copying how the Broadway or West End star has done this, but from the length of time spent rehearsing and performing with the (wonderful) cast I was with in Edinburgh, my friend Fiona Main's Mary was ingrained in my head.Thirdly: getting used to new relationships with the new cast. I am incredibly lucky to be working with Colin Richardson and Gregor Duthie as Frank and Charley. They not only inspire me with their professionalism, but I honestly feel we've bonded as friends both on and off stage.
So, take away the fear of blurting out the wrong harmony, copying previous performances, and forging new bonds with your new castmates; what does it really boil down to, playing two different parts? I'm excited about the opportunity of exploring the two different characters. Both Mary and Beth are devoted to Frank, so I find myself wondering to which character I relate to most.Beth is a very sweet girl, swept up in love but also having to get married early - whether this is because she actually wants to or not is down to interpretation. She says she does. I genuinely think she does. She loves Frank.Mary has been in love with Frank for forever. She would never tell him, for fear it would ruin her friendship with him, and arguably it's better being with someone, and seeing them, even if they don't love you back, than not seeing them at all.On balance, I'm definitely more of a Mary. Happiest being with the friends I love dearly, playing the peacemaker and being careful never to rock the boat. That, and I love wine. Just please someone stop me before I become old, fat and an alcoholic...