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Musical Really Does Go On as Star Is Treated for Cancer

London's Broadway Baby

Published: November 12, 2005

Maria Friedman, the star of the new Andrew Lloyd
Webber musical, "The Woman in White," stood at the
center of the stage of the Marquis Theater on Thursday
night, accepting a sustained standing ovation for her

performance as the show's plucky Victorian heroine.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Maria Friedman in "The Woman in White."

The Woman in White

While the applause was no doubt for her performance,
the fact that she was onstage at all was more
remarkable. Just 10 days before, breast cancer had
been diagnosed in Ms. Friedman, 45. Since then she had
undergone surgery to remove a malignant lump the size
of a marble from her left breast.

"I found the lump on a Monday, and two hours later I
had a mammogram," Ms. Friedman said. "And three days
later, I was in surgery."

And a week after that, with an $8.5 million musical
just days away from its opening night, Ms. Friedman -
bruised, bandaged and with a doctor in the wings -
sang and danced for almost three hours in a preview
performance, nearly bringing much of her cast and crew
to tears.

"I was just proud to be onstage with her," said
Michael Ball, who plays the show's villainous Count
Fosco. "It's just proper old-school theatrical heart."

Perhaps no one was more moved than Sonia Friedman, the
actress's sister, who is a producer of the show and
thus in the unenviable position of deciding whether to
delay the opening - set for Thursday - or see her
ailing sister perform so soon after surgery.

"To open a show on Broadway is bad enough," she said.
"But then to have this?"

For her part, however, Maria Friedman, an accomplished
British actress who is making her first appearance on
Broadway, said it was never a question of whether to
go on.

"We have a deadline, a committed company, a lot of
people's livelihoods riding on this show," she said.
"And I felt I dropped the baton at the last hurdle."

Sonia Friedman and Bob Boyett, another producer, were
with Ms. Friedman on Oct. 31 when doctors took a
biopsy and diagnosed Stage 1 breast cancer. The
actress had found the lump that morning, and both
producers considered delaying or even canceling
performances to allow their leading lady to

But by early this week, Maria Friedman had signaled
that she would not only be back onstage soon - she
rehearsed on Tuesday afternoon - but that she would
also make opening night.

"What kept me going is that Maria is not going to let
this thing get in the way of her Broadway debut," said
Sonia Friedman. "She'd be damned before she'd let that

Similarly, Maria Friedman said she drew strength from
her sister's determination to get the musical, which
had its premiere in London last year, to Broadway.

"I wouldn't do it, except for I've watched Sonia work
round the clock for a year to get this show here," Ms.
Friedman said. "I'm not going for hero status. I'm
doing what I can do, with enormous support."

That the offstage drama involved sisters was all the
more apt considering that "The Woman in White," based
on the 1860 Gothic novel by Wilkie Collins, tells the
story of two sisters fighting for their lives in
Victorian England. Ms. Friedman plays Marian Halcombe,
the show's heroine, who is onstage in almost every
scene, with lengthy vocal solos in each act. Her role
requires ample dancing, running and even fighting, as
Marian does battle with a group of street thieves and,
in one case, Count Fosco, a lustful Italian doctor.

Ms. Friedman, who created the role in London, had
performed just five previews in New York before her
surgery, which left her dark, painful bruises on her
chest, a still raw incision and extremely tender ribs.
"It's like a large elephant sat on me," she said.

For Thursday night's performance, Ms. Friedman had a
bandage tightly wound around her upper torso, a
medical dressing that she said made it hard to breathe
during the show's first act. So, at intermission, the
dressing was reapplied by Dr. Abraham Pollack, the
radiologist who first detected the tumor and who
monitored Ms. Friedman's condition during the show.

"I'm not an avid attendee of the theater; I usually
fall asleep," he said. "But I didn't fall asleep in
this one."

Ms. Friedman and the show will face critics next week;
the musical received mixed notices when it opened in
London. Mr. Boyett said that news of Ms. Friedman's
illness had not affected ticket sales, for good or
ill, and that the decision to publicize her disease
was hers. "She felt that if it leaked out, people
would see it as a negative for the show," he said. He
said the musical had no insurance if Ms. Friedman's
illness were ever to cause performances to be
canceled. (Lisa Brescia, Ms. Friedman's understudy,
played the previews that she missed.)

Of course, the theater, where "break a leg" is a
good-luck cheer, has a long tradition of bucking
personal malady for the good of the show. And while
critics will no doubt know of Ms. Friedman's
condition, there is no indication that they will pull
their punches.

Barry Weissler, a Broadway producer whose lead
actress, Christina Applegate, broke a bone in her foot
just weeks before opening in "Sweet Charity" in May,
to mixed reviews, said critics were no easier on his
production because of offstage turmoil. "It certainly
didn't help me," he said. "I don't know how they'll
treat a thing like this. I only hope they treat her
professionally and with sympathy for what she's going

Ms. Friedman said her goal was simply to "get to the
finishing post."

"We can reassess after that," she added.

But as is often the case with cancer, it is uncertain
exactly where that finishing post is. Next week, Ms.
Friedman will receive word on whether chemotherapy is
necessary. Dr. Pollack said yesterday that the success
rate for treating the type of cancer Ms. Friedman has
is excellent, and that her particular tumor seems not
to be highly aggressive.

Regardless of whether chemotherapy is necessary, Ms.
Friedman will begin radiation treatments next month, a
seven-week cycle that will certainly tax her energy,
but she said she planned to perform throughout. "And
if I have to do chemo, I already said they can stick a
wig on my head," she said.

In off hours, she has been kept busy by her two
children, Alfie, 3, and Toby, 10, who are living in
New York during the run of the show, and spending time
with her boyfriend. Ms. Friedman said she would stop
performing if her health suffered at any point. Until
then, however, just like the show she is in, she just
wants to "get to the next week, and then the week
after, and then the week after that."

"Right now, I'm cancer-free," she said. "I don't have
cancer; they cut it out. Until I do again, why waste
my time?"

Wow....thats all I have to say. Wow. Thanks to Laurie for posting it.