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Releative Values: Article on Maria and Sonia

London's Broadway Baby

From the Sunday Times Magazine on Sept. 4th, 2004

Picture from the article of Maria and Sonia as children and Maria and Sonia now.

Relative Values: Maria Friedman and her sister, Sonia
Maria Friedman is an actress and singer, and her younger sister, Sonia a theatre producer
Sonia Friedman's production of the Lloyd Webber musical The Woman in White, starring her sister Maria and Michael Crawford, opens at the Palace Theatre, London, on September 15. She is also to produce Whose Life Is it Anyway?, starring Kim Cattrall. Sonia, 39, lives in London. Maria, 44, lives in London with her boyfriend, Oleg Poupko, their son, Alfie, 2, and Maria's son, Toby, 9, whose father is the writer and director Jeremy Sams. The sisters have a brother, Richard, 48, a sister, Sarah, 46, and a half-brother, Ben, 23.

Maria: Sonia is one of the great blessings of my life. As a child, I just adored her, and I still do. She was born when my parents were in the process of separating €” a tiny, beautiful thing needing love and care, who became a great distraction and saved us from the terrible sadness of that separation.

My parents were academic and huge achievers, which made me feel like a failure. Mum had to work after Dad left. She tried to get au pairs, but they'd arrive  and we children would stand glaring at them, saying: "We don't want you."

We were a self-contained unit. We didn't have a television and we were left to our own devices. We'd all get into one bed and Richard would make up stories, and we spent hours creating plays.

There were no bedtimes or get-up times or set meals. There was just chaos and noise and laughter. We'd sleep when we were tired and not if we weren't. We'd eat when we were hungry, and we went to school if we wanted to and not if we didn't. The only rules that Mum had were about honesty, integrity and loyalty.

Sonia was a beautiful child, with white-blonde ringlets and darting, interested eyes. In pictures she looks like a street child. I remember her as very feeling, imaginative and passionate.

I had big responsibilities for her. I think we're all defined by our position in the family. Our brother, Richard, was brilliant, as was our sister, Sarah. Then there was me. As the youngest, Sonia had to come in with all guns blazing to find her place. She had great determination and absolute focus and a real concern for others €” and that has helped make her into the great producer she is. We would all be talking and no one would shut up. I still remember her saying: "Listen to me."

Mum was absolutely incredible, but our lives were fairly chaotic. And today Sonia's job as a theatre producer is perfect: she can order chaos in a very easy way because she understands it.

By the time she was 11, I was madly in love with my first boyfriend and we older siblings had all left home. Sonia had been one of four children who'd been very close, and then suddenly she was all alone. It must have been really awful. She hated school and got into truancy behaviour. Shortly after that, she went to boarding school, St Christopher's at Letchworth, which took so-called "troublesome" children €” which she was. And it was the making of her. In her school holidays I got her jobs in the theatre working backstage, operating the winch and assisting stage management. She was proud of me, but she had this idea that she, Sonia, was running things. She was very intense and determined to be the best winch operator or the best technical operator.

After studying at the Central School for Speech and Drama, she went to work at the National Theatre, where people were impressed but unnerved by her. She had all these ideas that worked. She was in her early twenties, very bright and fabulously good-looking. She had this big mop of hair, and she wore trendy miniskirts. Everybody wanted to go out with her. But she got up some people's noses, and they stopped her getting on in that theatre. Then she met the director Max Stafford-Clark; they got on very well, and he taught her to read scripts and to do a budget. After that she took the plunge and went into commercial theatre €” which was incredibly brave.

Men have always adored Sonia, but she spent many years totally focused on her career. Now she's with this lovely guy, Jasper, and has been for a few years. People used to say to me: "Isn't she frightening!" And I'd say: "Who? Sonia? You can't possibly mean my sister!" But she's in a very tough, fast environment, and she has developed a side that is protective of her softness. Occasionally, I'd get glimpses of this fierce, frightening person, and I'd say to her, "You have disappointed me," or: "You have gone too far this time." Poor Sonia.

When we work together, like we are now, she signals, saying: "You can't sit at this table at lunch." I used to mind a bit, but I don't any more. And it was tricky when she started being "in a meeting" when I'd phone, but now she knows I won't be calling for a girlie chat €” it'll be something important. 

In the past few years I've felt that she's far more comfortable with her success. She meets extraordinary people €” she spent the other weekend with Franco Zeffirelli in Tuscany €” but she's never blasŽ. She manages to straddle being a sister and a producer with huge grace. We were helped by having a father who was successful in his work €” even though that meant he didn't see us. And we know as a family that we've both benefited and struggled as a result.