Home > Interviews > Show Music Magazine Fall 1997
Making Up Her Mind
Show Music Magazine Fall 1997
Unlike her stage counterpart, Liza Elliot, Maria Friedman knows exactly what she wants. By Piers Ford.
There is a deceptively elfin, fragile quality about Maria Friedman, both vocally and in person. At 36, great things have already sprung from deep inside this slightly built, charming actress. She is widely regarded as the British Stephen Sondheim muse of her generation, acclaimed for her performances as Dot/Marie in the National Theatre production of Sunday in the Park with George (1990) and the disfigured, troubled Fosca in Passion (1996). She has just completed another season at the National, this time as the complex Liza in the first London production of Lady in the Dark.
Along the way, she has gathered an Olivier Award for her solo show, By Special Arrangement, and released a well-received album, successfully blending in both projects an unconventional selection of show tunes, chansons, and pop numbers where others would merely have sounded pretentious.
It isn't that Friedman flies deliberately in the face of convention. But she has, on the whole, avoided the relative security of the certain West End hit in favour of the untried and untested. A risk taker by nature, her preference for roles and projects that offer more than the basic security of eight performances a week for a year's contract means that she has managed to escape the frustrations of type casting and the limitations of a compartment into which the lazy tend to place all singing actresses, regardless of their individual qualities.
Friedman is neither snobbish about commercial theatre nor overridingly opinionated and ambitious. Quite the reverse, in fact. But she clearly has an acute instinct for material which is right for her. And she reserves the freedom to follow her own path and, if necessary, make her own mistakes. Not that there have been too many of those. Even when critics have been divided on the overall merits of a production (as was the case with Passion and Lady in the Dark), they have been unanimous in their recognition of Friedman as one of the brightest stars of British musical theatre.
"I've never said that I don't want to do overtly commercial things and I haven't deliberately shied away from big blockbusting successes," she says. "It's more that they haven't come my way or I haven't wanted to do the particular ones which have been offered. I will only accept a project which I find interesting and challenging, with music that really moves me. I like to be involved in something that no one really knows is going to work, including the director and the cast. We're all together in a creative process. There is room for all sorts of things and entertainment for its own sake is great. I mean, I like 42nd Street as much as anyone else, but I couldn't do it eight times a week and feel fulfilled.
"Being on stage, for me, is about discovery. I am somebody who gives 100 percent of myself. People tell you to pace yourself, but I can't. Anyway, people have paid a lot of money to see the show and it wouldn't be fair to give any less. Anyone will tell you that doing a musical is usually more physically draining than doing a play. For one thing, if your voice goes, you're screwed."
For another, Friedman is also a mother. She and her partner, musical director Jeremy Sams, have a little boy named Toby. "I love being a mother and I love performing, which means I don't have much left after that!" she says. "So if I am going to commit myself to a project, I've got to like it!"
Leaving aside the practicalities of working motherhood, Friedman's instinct for making the right professional choices has evolved through a number of key experiences. Although born into a musical family (her late father Leonard was an accomplished violinist who founded the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Scottish Opera, her mother a concert pianist), she had no formal theatrical training. She started out as a singer with a close harmony group, moving into acting via the chorus line of Oklahoma! and Blondel in 1983 and small parts like Gemini (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and Fanny (Cavalcade) during the next two years before achieving her first notable success as the Girl with a Date in the 1987 London production of Blues in the Night.
Does she think that the more formulated structure of a drama school education might have pushed her into the commercial mainstream? "I have no idea," she says. "But I do think that if you don't know the rules in the first place, you end up breaking them without being aware of it. So I probably wouldn't have arrived at where I am in the same way. Some people might have classed things I've done as chutzpah, but I just wasn't aware that they weren't things a young actress was supposed to do.
"Things like gate crashing auditions when I didn't have an agent. Or understudying Ado Annie in Oklahoma! and ending up playing the role. I just thought that kind of thing happened. My ambition didn't mean I was trying to knock people out of the way. I didn't know about career structures or rules and I certainly didn't perceive myself as different from anybody else, although I think there can be a hierarchical structure in this business which I don't particularly approve of. In the early stages perhaps I wasn't very diplomatic, so I always thought I could talk straight to the director, even if I was in the back row of the chorus! With a formal training, I might have been more reticent or timid. It's not that I was ever bolshie or rude, but I think I was quite precocious. Now, people might think I had every right to my own opinion about a move or a step, but when you're 18 and in your first job, it's easy to offend someone."
Maria Friedman offensive? Few things could be more difficult to imagine. If there is a streak of naked ambition, it is very well concealed. In fact, she stresses that she is always on a learning curve, looking for new ways to stretch her abilities. In Blues in the Night, for example, she found herself performing alongside the notable blues talents of Carol Woods and Debby Bishop.
"I learnt an enormous amount," she recalls. "At the beginning, I felt I was disastrous. I was completely in awe of their talent, the naturalness of it and the way peoples' histories came out in the music. I am still intrigued by that the way Kurt Weill's history comes out in his music or the Jewishness of Sondheim. I tried to mimic them but that was unsatisfactory because I was nowhere near as fluent with the music as they were and it took me a long while to recognise that what I had was my history and my own internal voice. Once I tapped in to that, I think I was a good contrast. I went through a lot of pain feeling I wasn't up to it. But with blues as with Jewish music, what follows through is a fantastic spirit of survival. The music allowed me to find that little part of my background."
That background and a sizable chunk of Friedman's professional destiny came together in 1989 when she took part in Ghetto, Joshua Sobol's musical play about the lives of the Vilna Yiddish Theatre Group and its demise at the hands of the Nazis, at the National Theatre. Touchingly, her father sent her a telegram saying: "Your grandparents love and thank you for keeping their voices alive." She had previously been unaware that they came from Vilna. The whole experience was a turning point. "For the first time, I recognised that the theatre can be a very powerful place for communication," she says. "For the first time I was so involved in what I was doing that I forgot myself. I was singing songs written by people who were shot, who were part of my history. It affected and moved people very deeply and I met a lot of survivors from that time. I suppose I just connected with the material more than anything I had done before. I was very proud to be in it."
Anyone who wishes to sample the poignancy to which Friedman refers can check out "In the Sky," a song on her 1995 album, written in 1941 by a 12-year-old boy who was living in the Vilna Ghetto.
"I realised that from that moment on, I could say 'no' to things which didn't move me in that way, that I didn't want to do anything which didn't have that effect," she continues. "Of course, you have to wait a long time for them and those feelings don't come with every job. But at least you are always searching for them. In Lady in the Dark, I've learnt a lot about personal courage, for example. Sometimes, I failed to take it by the scruff of the neck. In that case, you have to take a deep breath and approach the next scene with even more commitment."
It was while she was appearing in Ghetto that Friedman's professional relationship with the work of Stephen Sondheim first took root, almost by chance. At the last minute, she was asked to step in and sing "Broadway Baby" at a gala concert held at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Sondheim sought her out after the performance to congratulate her, then, unbeknownst to her, came to watch her in Ghetto. With Sunday in the Park with George in the early stages of preparation, he suggested her for Dot/Marie and guided her through a rigorous series of auditions until Steven Pimlot, the director, agreed to cast her. With that, she joined that small, select group of actresses who can credit Sondheim with having a significant effect on the development of their careers. In fact, Friedman's appreciation of Sondheim's work was forged many years before, along with a kind of sixth sense that at some point in the future, he would be an important influence.
With absolute conviction, she states: "I can honestly say that Sondheim is the reason why I do what I do. It's as simple as that." When she was 14, her parents took her to see the West End production of A Little Night Music. "My father had been to see it already," she says. "He came back and told us that he had discovered this extraordinary composer. He couldn't believe it. So he took us out to the theatre. Both my parents sat there with tears pouring down their faces. I just remember thinking: 'This is really adult stuff.' The more I got to know it, the more I studied the score, the more- I recognised that this was like all good things. With a bit of study and listening, the doors will open. I fell in love with it, although at that stage I had no direct ambition to go into the theatre or musicals."
Then, in 1980, when she was 19, she saw Sweeney Todd and the signals were even stronger. "It was as if someone had put me in a rocket at a very high velocity," she recalls. "The lights were switched on. I was completely determined to work with this man, although I had no idea how it would come about. It's odd really because he writes so much for sopranos. I'm not a soprano. So there I was listening to these top Cs and thinking that I could never be good enough. But that's what I aspired to."
Like others before her, Friedman would discover Sondheim's liberal attitude to his work. If he believes a performer can do a role justice, no key is ever set in stone. She agrees that playing Dot/Marie was physically demanding but insists that it was equally liberating. "I always find that when you surmount the initial demand, a beautiful liberation follows," she says. "With Sondheim, it's about a voice that emerges, a combination of his own voice, great tunes, and amazing lyrics. He writes very specifically. Not songs that anyone can sing, but songs which are specific to the emotional vocabulary of the character."
If Dot/Marie was demanding, Fosca in Passion required a complete physical transformation. Friedman says that while she doesn't require great physicality in a role, she does like to inhabit new territory. "I suppose I like bold and definite characters," she adds. "I'm not very good at vapid, but I do understand a character with a big heartbeat. Someone who makes big decisions but who is subtle, too. Layered characters. With all the parts I've played recently, I've ended up three months later thinking, 'Damn! If only I'd done it that way.'"
A second chance to play Fosca recently arose when the London cast was reunited for a live recording (scheduled for release this fall). "It was great to do it again after I thought it had already been put to bed," she says. "It just shows what a colossal piece Passion is. We did the first act and I was awash with it. By the end of the fourth evening of recording, I was heartbroken not to be doing it again."
Friedman's talent has not, however, been confined solely to important roles in musical theatre. She has done a fair bit of television work, including a season as a hospital administrator in the BBC's long running superior soap opera, Casualty. In addition, her one-woman show brought her to the attention of a wider public, causing some observers to liken her qualities to those of Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Noel Coward - cabaret artists in the old fashioned sense.
"When you are doing a solo show, you come out and look into the audience and realise that it isn't hostile. It's friendly and people want to have a nice time," she explains. "I want them to hear the music, the arrangements and the care we have put into it. It isn't nearly as frightening as playing a role that you don't quite get under the skin of, where you're worried that you can't give them what they need because you haven't cracked the part yourself. With By Special Arrangement (1995), I felt so safe because I loved every song I'd chosen. Every song is a little story and that has to be told truthfully. I don't listen to my voice, I just concentrate on the thought that I want to get across. There is a great energy between you as a performer and the audience. You're not alone. You're supported by a two-way thing."
It may not be formally trained but Friedman's singing voice is a rare instrument, particularly in the upper register where it soars with a bell-like clarity reminiscent of a choirboy. Where others might become strident and blur their lyrics, every syllable and vowel can be heard. Surprisingly, Friedman doesn't listen to herself. "I don't really like my voice," she says. "It never does what I want it to do. In my head I'm thinking and feeling something, but when I hear it, it's only part of what I wanted to come across. Maybe when I'm an old grandma, at a distance I'll be able to listen and think I wasn't so bad, after all."
There's good news for those who don't need the distance of time. As well as Passion and her solo album, entitled simply Maria Friedman, this rather good interpreter of lyrics has consigned her Liza to compact disc for posterity on the forthcoming London cast recording of Lady in the Dark. She has also been in the studio with Julia McKenzie, working on a new recording of Anyone Can Whistle. Beyond that, the future is currently free and easy. "As far as any book show is concerned, I have absolutely no idea what will come next," she says. "It's scary!" She has been asked to develop a second one-woman show for the City of London Festival next year and at the same time there have been rumours that she will bring her current one-woman show to Broadway, but Friedman will continue to exert her own professional judgment on both fronts. "I'm quite concerned about making sure the quality is as good as it was the first time," she says.
"I need to think of what it is I want to do and whether I would be right doing it. Broadway in itself wouldn't be such a big step. It's just another country, another theatre and more nice people who want to hear music. The big step would be uprooting a little child. If I really want to do it and feel it is worth doing, then we will go."
Practical, firm of purpose, approachable, and completely down to earth Maria Friedman might be. Dismissive of the superficial attributes of stardom she certainly is, although she acknowledges and is touched by the special attention she receives from fans, going out of her way to sign programmes and photographs. But she is undoubtedly a prima donna in the true sense: A leading lady of considerable charm, constantly seeking to expand her professional horizons through work, which satisfies her need for detailed character exploration and refusing to take the soft or easy option. It can only be a matter of time before she is persuaded to spread her talents further afield geographically.
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