Maria Friedman

Published April 17, 2008

Maria Friedman is one of the world’s most renowned and versatile musical actresses, who has wowed audiences in a host of shows ranging from Oklahoma! to Chicago. She is currently playing the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical extravaganza, The Woman In White, at the Palace theatre. Tom Bowtell caught up with Maria on the eve of this year’s Olivier Awards to have a chunter about the show, her career and the allure of Michael Crawford’s fat suit.

For a woman who has earned more Olivier nominations than I have had hot dinners (well nearly, she’s had seven, including three wins) Maria Friedman is remarkably down to earth: she begins the interview by giving me half her chocolate biscuit and ends it promising to smuggle illicit champagne out to me during the Olivier Awards ceremony. Sitting in her very pleasant dressing room at the Palace theatre, which has been wall-papered with good luck cards from the great and the even greater, Maria in real life is every bit as lively as the sparkily irreverent Marian Halcombe she plays in The Woman In White.

With biscuit crumbs cascading from my mouth in a highly professional manner, I begin the questioning. Is Maria excited about the opportunity of retaining her title as Best Actress In A Musical? “I think it’s a pretty outside chance quite frankly – it would be lovely – but I don’t think it will happen.” Seeing as this will be her seventh Olivier Awards in all (she has won Best Actress In A Musical twice, Best Entertainment once and has been nominated on four other occasions) does Maria find it difficult (or expensive) having to find new dresses each time? “I don’t buy dresses! I absolutely don’t. I’m not that sort of human being. I don’t know what I’m going to wear even now.”

“I don’t buy dresses! I absolutely don’t. I’m not that sort of human being.”

While Maria may shun the fashion obsessions of many celebrities, there is no doubting that she is firmly ensconced at the top of the musical theatre tree. Her trajectory to the top has not, however, always been entirely traditional. Born in Switzerland in the sixties, Maria moved to the UK as a child. She then embarked on a rather unconventional education (apparently taking in around seven schools) which ended with her moving to London as a teenager.

While her exact direction might not have been apparent, from her early beginnings as a promising cellist, it was clear that Maria was going to end up doing something very creative: “It was probably inevitable that I ended up in the Arts, although my parents were both classical musicians and had no history of theatre at all, so I was the first to do that and Sonia loved it and was sensible enough not to become a performer [she chuckles mischievously] – but a boss.” (Her sister is Sonia Friedman, one of the West End’s leading producers.)

While she flitted between various creative roles, acting in shows from Chichester to Chesterfield, it took Maria a fair while to finally settle down into her career as an actress: “It wasn’t until after I worked with Nick Hytner in Ghetto in the National [in 1989 – nearly a decade after her professional debut] that I realised that it wasn’t just showbiz and that theatre could actually move people and make them think – I felt that it was a worthwhile thing to do after that. It was never fame and fortune that made me want to do it, I love to communicate.”

In between leaving school and her professional debut in 1980, Friedman spent several years searching for a career, trying out several jobs (14 according to one source) including work as an au pair, a Kindergarten teacher, and a delicatessen salesperson. “My acting has been hugely influenced by that time. For a long time I had a life just like any ordinary person. I was lost, completely without focus and that’s quite a scary place to be. I was always looking and searching for something that was going to be stimulating and satisfying and coming across one dead end after another. So when I did finally find something that I loved, I felt so grateful for it; and I still do. The stage here at the Palace is just the most beautiful, beautiful space and every night when I walk out there I think to myself that this can’t be bad, being allowed to do this job and get paid for it. It’s such a privilege.”

“The stage here at the Palace is just the most beautiful, beautiful space.”

Around about this point in procedings, Maria’s little boy Alfie, who is an impeccably behaved observer of the interview, briefly twiddles his mother’s nose. His timing is clearly excellent, so would she encourage or discourage her children to go into the business where she now feels so at home? “Umm, I think it has huge drawbacks in terms of having a conventional life. If you are a conventional human being this is not the industry for you. I think it will really depend on what type of personalities they turn out to have: if they’re a bit left-field there’s no point putting them in an office: it’s not going to last. I’d only encourage them to do what would suit their hearts and abilities. There are losses in working for six nights a week. When everyone else is doing what they do, (I don’t know what they do – I’ve never done it!) you don’t get asked to as many parties or weddings because you’re always working.”

I suggest that all those Olivier Award ceremonies make up for that a bit, but Maria disagrees: “when you’re nominated the whole thing is appalling from beginning to end. It’s ghastly.” Perhaps seeing that, as an emissary of SOLT, I’m a tad non-plussed at this, she quickly explains “if you win then it’s fine, but you go through such horrors for the week before, knowing that you’re going to lose – and quite often you do lose. It’s horrible losing. Just horrible. Ghastly… which isn’t to say that it’s not really, really wonderful to be nominated! It’s great that people like the work, it’s just that the waiting is tortuous.”

(Maria then embarks on an effort to persuade me to tell her who the winners are, an approach I managed to resist manfully on the grounds that I didn’t know the winners myself…)

Twenty five years of success as a musical actress (even if for ten of them she wasn’t convinced she actually wanted to be a musical actress) mark Maria out as one of the most resilient theatre stars around, what is the secret of her longevity? “Being useless at everything I’ve done” she quips with trademark bathos before adding “well I’ve got a very low boredom threshold so if I’ve done something that smacks of anything I’ve done before then I’m just not interested. The thing about theatre is that you’re always a year older by the time you’re ejected out at the other end – you’re ready for a fresh challenge.”

“I’ve got a very low bordom threshold.”

This easily distracted attention span (coupled with talent) is clearly why Maria has continued successfully to reinvent herself on stage: from Sondheim starlet to Chicago minx and now zesty, inquisitive Victorian heroine. What was it about this role that appealed to her? “The Woman In White was one of the first novels I ever read and really got hooked into – it’s definitely one of my favourite books ever. I love the idea that I’m kind of a 19th century female detective – this girl from an aristocratic family who is trying to solve this crime with absolutely nothing to guide her except for her own wit and intelligence. I knew that if the show was faithful to the Wilkie Collins genre of story telling it would be great, and I also had never done a thriller before, which I’d wanted to do.”

One of the slight controversies around the adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s novel for stage is the alteration of certain aspects of Marian Halcombe’s character. Here’s Maria’s take on the glamorisation of Marian: “I was very intrigued about playing the character because she was fantastically plain and manly in the book and I love character roles. But the writer [Charlotte Jones] persuaded me – and I think she was right – that was actually too much of an obvious choice. What they didn’t want Marian to be was ugly and clever, they just wanted her to be bright. Why did she have to be with a hump or something just to be bright? I mean as a modern woman reflecting a 19th century woman I think they made the right decision. This also means that the sacrifices she makes are genuine: it’s not just a case that nobody wants her. She could have love, but makes her choices.”

Before Maria gives away too many spoilers of the plot, I quickly move on, asking how performing in her first Andrew Lloyd Webber masterpiece compares to her more extensive experience working on Stephen Sondheim shows: “it’s interesting that people always want to compare it. I mean it’s like asking to compare reading Graham Greene or Brontë: it’s different – they’re both books!” Maria guffaws at this. “I mean they’re both [we’re back onto Lloyd Webber and Sondheim now] music, great music, and they’re both good at story telling. I guess Sondheim is entirely interested in the domestic and the vulnerability of the ordinary human being and Andrew Lloyd Webber tells epic grand stories. They’re absolutely different animals, they just both happen to write for the musical genre.”

The Sondheim / Lloyd Webber comparison is clearly something Maria gets asked about a lot: “I really find it an extraordinary question. I mean each time you a do a Sondheim it’s different: playing Dot in Sunday In The Park With George is entirely different from playing Fosco in Passion which is entirely different from playing the Countess in A Little Light Music.”

“Sondheim has a wonderful way of articulating – with humour, thank God – struggle.”

This vigorous response has rendered my next question pretty much pointless, but I gamely plough on and ask if, in spite of what she has just said, Maria can pinpoint anything specific about Sondheim’s work which made such a connection with her. “It’s just full of humanity. I like the fact that he sees a large drama in a tiny moment. It’s all about the minute-to-minute struggle of being alive. I think some people find living harder than others and Sondheim puts his finger on it for those of us who find it more difficult. He has a wonderful way of articulating – with humour, thank God – struggle.”

Maria has played a great swathe of Sondheim parts over the last 23 years, ranging from Geminae in Something Happened On The Way To The Forum to her Olivier-Award winning performance as Fosco in Passion. Are there any Sondheim roles she is still itching to play? “Lots! I’m about to play Mamma Rose in Texas and I want to play that whole lot of older women, if I’m still alive: I want to do Mrs Lovett, I want to do Desiree [of Send In The Clowns fame] in A Little Night Music. And I’m still hoping, you know, that he might write something…”

Friedman’s friendship with Sondheim is fairly extraordinary: when I ask her if she liked the recent production of Sweeney Todd at the New Ambassadors she admits that she “loved it” before adding that Sondheim, “really enjoyed it too – we went to see it together”. There is no doubt that performances of Sweeney Todd in London have a special resonance for Maria: “I went to see it at Drury Lane in 1980, before I ever knew that I was ever going to be able to appear in his shows, and it defined what I wanted to do as a singer. I just remember going off in a rocket thinking ‘who’s that composer?’” She pauses before adding “I just knew that I was going to be spending my life doing that man’s work. I promise you, it was a genuine epiphany. Obviously I didn’t know I’d be allowed to do his work, but I wanted to. It just hit me right in the centre of my musicianship.”

Friedman was also the victim of a fairly genius prank at the hands of Stephen Sondheim when she was appearing in Merrily We Roll Along. “Before the first night he gave me a good luck card which said ‘out of the entire cast, you are by far the best’ and I hid it, because I was so embarrassed – but I was also euphoric. I went to heaven and back. But then I realised that he’d written exactly the same thing to absolutely everyone else in the cast!”

While Friedman undoubtedly relates instinctively to Sondheim’s work, she is by no means a one-composer pony and points out that there have been other similar epiphanies in her career. “Funnily enough, in terms of a role, I remember doing exactly the same thing seeing Elaine Paige doing Eva Peron (in Evita). I found myself thinking ‘I want to be able to play parts like that’ so there are moments: there are not just Steve Sondheim moments.”

Has Maria ever considered writing her own musical? “No! – but I want to do directing, that’s the next thing on my list. I’m doing something at the National Studio as a director’s assistant for a few days, just to get a taster of what it’s like.”

Maria credits her self-confessed short-attention span as the catalyst behind her richly varied career, which has encompassed a year in Casualty on BBC1 as well as musicals across the world: “If I look at something and my heart doesn’t beat quite fast then I just can’t commit to doing it.”

“The thought of putting someone’s very smelly fat suit on really doesn’t do it for me.”

Having expended all of my trivial questions, I now move on to the serious stuff: has Maria ever tried on Count Fosco’s fat suit for a laugh? She looks splendidly horrified at the very idea: “No! I SO haven’t! The thought of it. I haven’t done it for a laugh, or for anything. The thought of putting someone’s very smelly fat suit on really doesn’t do it for me.”

And finally, what is Maria Friedman’s favourite musical? Having answered far more peculiar questions with aplomb, she looks slightly panicked by this “I’ve just got to think who might read this – I don’t want to offend anybody – do I have to answer?” As it’s getting late I relent and say that she doesn’t.

The fat suit (containing Michael Crawford) which they’ll all be wearing in Milan this autumnWith the questions done and dusted, there is just time for Maria to attempt to cajole me into telling her the Olivier winners and promise to bring me booze on the night before I leave her and make a secret dash to go and try on that fat suit before anyone notices.

Maria Friedman was pipped to this year’s Olivier for Best Actress by Laura Michelle Kelly, while The Woman In White picked up the Award for Best Sound Design. I can also confirm that Maria Friedman DID wear a nice dress to the ceremony, although I have no idea how much it cost.