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Capturing the Friedman

London's Broadway Baby

Capturing the Friedman
minimcgee.jpg
Photograph by Tony McGee

By Robert Gore-Langton --Theatregoer Magazine

Capturing the Friedman
Critics and audiences love sweet-voiced Maria Friedman.  To her
cache of awards she has just added another - for her role as Marian,
the sensual, courageous heroine of The Woman in White.  Robert Gore-
Langston corners the queen of musical theatre.


Maria Friedman is one of the great voices of modern musical
theatre.  From Sondheim to solo cabaret to mainstream blockbusters
such as Chicago and The Witches of Eastwick, Friedman's done it
all.  Yet this petite dynamo goes unnoticed in the street despite
near legendary status in the business.  If she were the American
equivalent (whoever that is), she'd be signing autographs galore. 
Fortunately, as we sit freezing outside a
Soho cafe, we get away
without being bothered by anyone save the odd bag lady.  This, after
all, is
Britain
, where we like our musical theatre stars, but don't
go over the top about them.

Maria Friedman has had an astonishing career.  Last year she won an
Olivier for the musical, Ragtime, her third win out of an impressive
total of seven nominations.  She picked up another Olivier
nomination for her current role in The Woman in White, Andrew Lloyd
Webber's latest musical which transfers to Broadway at the end of
the year.  The users of the website Whatsonstage.com have just given
her a Best Actress in a Musical gong.  She is particularly chuffed
about this, since she was nominated by thousands of theatergoers -
"real people" she calls those who voted for her.

The Woman in White is now in its seventh month, having opened to
mostly great reviews, though the few bad notices were enough to
allow one newspaper, scandalously, to claim they had all
been "excoriating".  "We were disappointed by the tidal wave of
negativity towards Andrew - and how quickly people wanted to jump on
it and for it to be a failure," says Maria.  "But we're packed out
and the show is a hit.  Andrew is really proud of it. Trevor (the
director) loves it - keeps coming in.  I think he feels very
strongly towards this cast.  The show will be changed slightly for
New York
- little bits and bobs altered."

"I'm absolutely loving it," she says of her part as the feisty
heroine, Marian Halcombe.  "I've only missed one show."  By
contrast, Crawford (who plays the evil and very fat Count Fosco) has
been out of the production for a few weeks on doctor's orders while
he recovers from virulent flu.  "We're missing him enormously
because he's such a great performer.  But happily we've got Michael
Ball in until April just to bridge the gap."  There will perhaps be
a handful of theatergoers who won't notice the difference.  Crawford
in his fat suit is virtually unrecognizable (except by his voice) and
there were genuine stories of punters complaining at the box office
that he wasn't in the show when he actually was. When he returns,
Crawford will play the role until the end of May.

Maria Friedman - her hair cropped under a woolly hat - is, in
theory, far too glamorous to play the part of Marian.  Wilkie
Collins' classic Victorian thriller calls for somebody who is ugly
and in her twenties.  Maria Friedman is (on paper) 20 years too old
for the part and far too pretty.  She disagrees, saying her face
is "squished" and can be made up to look like anything.  Certainly
Maria's physical adaptability - in The Witches of Eastwick she went
from downright unfanciable to drop-dead gorgeous in a single
evening - is part of her trademark skill.

Taken at the age of 14 by her parents to see A Little Night Music,
Maria has been associated with Sondheim ever since.  She sings his
complex material like no one else.  Indeed, if you want to see
someone equally at home with hardcore pre-war German cabaret and the
most hummable show tunes, then you need to meet a girl like Maria. 
In the eighties, she rose from chorus work in
Oklahoma
! to leads in
National Theatre shows like Ghetto and Sondheim's Sunday in the Park
with George.  She triumphed (with Michael Ball) in Sondheim's
Passion.  (His move to The Woman in White reunites them for the
first time since then.)  Her tandem solo career as a cabaret singer
has led to comparisons with Millicent Martin, Minnelli and Midler -
all surely wrong.

Although Maria is known for working outside the blockbuster
mainstream, she's been singing Lloyd Webber for years.  "I was 21
when I got the chance to take over the part of Evita after Elaine
Paige and Stephanie Lawrence.  I was tied up in a contract and I
wasn't allowed to do it.  But I've done a lot of demos for Andrew
over the years.  I've helped in the studios with Aspects of Love
before it ever got to the point of casting.  I helped on The
Beautiful Game - he's used my voice a lot.  I did the film of
Joseph.  Our journeys have been very different though..."  In what
way?  "Well he writes and I don't.  He's a multi-millionaire and I'm
not!"

She comes from an almost freakishly talented family.  Her late
father, Leonard Friedman, was an outstanding violinist and musician,
co-leader under Sir Thomas Beecham of the Royal Philharmonic.  He
was leader of the Bremen Philharmonic and founded the Scottish
Chamber Orchestra and the Scottish Baroque Ensemble.  Her Mother,
now 73, is formidable too.  She is still teaching at primary school
and is a bridge grandmaster, opera coach and Egyptologist, among
other things.  Of Maria's brothers, one is a violinist with the
Royal Opera and another works for Ross Noble on the comedy circuit. 
One sister, known as ‘Mrs. Egghead’, heads the Open University research
programme in "something so brilliant I've forgotten what it is". 
That leaves her kid sister, Sonia - the West End impresario who has
changed the face of the West End by importing to the London Stage
most of Hollywood (Madonna included) and is also the co-producer of
The Woman in White.

Maria did a workshop for the show but had no intention of doing it
for real.  The sisters got on like a house on fire but didn't want
to work together.  "We had both ruled each other out.  Sonia didn't
want her first big musical with Andrew to be distracted by
anything.  But the part kept arriving back on my doorstep. 
Charlotte Jones, who wrote the book, and David Zippel, the lyricist,
said 'We want you to play her'.  It was Trevor Nunn and Andrew Lloyd
Webber who sat Sonia down and said 'Look, this is difficult but we
want Maria to play the part - how do you feel?'"

One of the restraining factors in any job she takes on is her
family.  She has a ten year old son, Toby, by the director Jeremy
Sands, and two year old Alfie by her partner, a camera focus
puller.  When I asked about the work/home balance, she shrieks with
laughter.  "Balance! What balance?  There isn't any."  But where she
goes the family follows.  In August, she is to play Mama Rose in the
musical Gypsy in
Texas.  "It's in this mad place called Odessa

It's an old cowboy town.  It's not very big but there are lots of
towns nearby and they fall on this theatre.  I couldn't resist it. 
They are putting the whole family up on a ranch.  Sonia's coming out
too."  The Friedman sisters will need to dust off their cowboy boots.

As she scooted off for the evening performance, I wondered how she
thought her fans saw her.  "I haven't got a clue how people see me. 
I am getting better but one is always waiting to be found out.  I
don't know anyone who really believes they're special.  I just do a
job I love...it's the only way I know how to make a living," she
shouts over the traffic as she disappears through the stage door.

 

Thanks to Fanny for the transcript and the magazine. -LadyLizaElliott

Fanny Rules! Fanny Rules!