Home > Interviews > Applause Magazine March 1997

Interview: Maria Friedman

Applause Magazine, March 1997

A dedicated actress who has had no formal training, Maria Friedman talks to David Nathan about her passion (and Passion), and about her latest role as a woman discovering herself through pschotherapy in Lady in the Dark.

It is possible that Maria Friedman, in one of the dream sequences in Lady in the Dark, opening at the Lyttelton in March for the Royal National Theatre, will walk a tightrope. She may even sing at the same time. It is a ready-made metaphor for the way her private life and her performing life are linked by the same means that keeps them apart.

It is a precarious exercise, for her performance, so frank and open, depends for its power upon personal memories which are never revealed. This lady always keeps part of herself in the dark. Once, shortly before her one-woman show at the Whitehall Theatre 18 months ago, I asked her the commonplace desert island castaway question of what her choice of music meant to her personally. She would not, could not tell me, except to say, "songs have deep memories, but I never say why I sing a particular song because that's private. I want people to feel what I'm feeling, but not to know details. They are their songs, not just mine."

This time she told the story of a champion javelin thrower she saw being interviewed about his technique. "He tried to describe it and afterwards, this man who had broken records, began to lose. What had been instinctive, unforced and natural became self-conscious and he was trying to recreate what he had said rather than being in the moment."

In the moment?

"One of the hardest things as an actor - no, one of the most glorious things as an actor - is when you are in the moment, a quiet, safe, concentrated space. If you start to do stuff when you are out of the moment it becomes acting. I am very protective about my work process because, so far, it works for me. When it stops, I'll chat to you all day long about it."

The tightrope sequence, for which she was being trained by an acrobat from Circus Space, may be dropped as, at an early stage in rehearsals, she could not bear anyone to watch her while she was on the rope. This, she realised, could cause a problem with an audience. She has the gift of vulnerability, but hanging in mid-air with only the slenderest means of support can take it too far. For the rest she is confident enough once the nightly moment of fear is banished as she steps onto the stage.

She has had no formal training as an actress. Her family was musical, her mother a concert pianist, her father, Leonard, a violinist. So is her brother, Richard. She was born in Switzerland and they moved to Germany when her father was offered a post with the Bremen Philharmonic. German - and she finds the fact "bizarre"' - is her first language. She came to Britain when she was five years old, 31 years ago.

Her parents divorced amicably and in the mid-sixties her father moved to Scotland where he founded the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Opera and the Scottish Baroque Ensemble. He was a director of the Mendelssohn on Mull Festival when he died. But before that he was able to bear witness to a seminal moment in the family's life.

Maria had started singing with a close harmony group, had spent eighteen months in a touring version of Oklahoma! which ended up in the West End, had appeared in Blues in the Night at the Donmar and was now cast in the National Theatre production of Joshua Sobol's Ghetto. Set in the town of Vilna, now Vilnius, in Lithuania, it is a musical play that tells the story of the Vilna Yiddish Theatre group and its extinction, along with its audience, by the Nazis. She had not known that her grandparents came from Vilna until she received a telegram from her father which read: "Your grandparents love and thank you for keeping their thoughts and words alive."

When, a few years later, her father died between her two one-woman shows at the Donmar, it was a devastating loss. She told me then, "I'm lucky in that I can put pain into my songs. It's a gift I got from him and my mum and probably from generations before them. For me, music is a need, I have to do it."

Her music is of the undying kind, the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, Weill, Sondheim, Arlen, Brel, Bernstein, Harnick and Bock, Rodgers and Hart, Comden and Green, Porter and Vernon Duke. The Beatles and Randy Newman come into it too. "I love songs with stories," she says, "songs with character. Most of the pop songs talk about one emotional state. I go for things I can characterise. My singing, I like to think, is acting."

Where she can, she takes great pains - and goes to great expense - over the arrangements of the songs, paying for the best, working with the arranger for hours at a time. This is not too difficult when the arranger is Jeremy Sams, the composer, lyricist and theatre director, her partner and father of her three year old boy, Toby. "We treat a song," she says, "as if no one has ever sung it before, as if no one has ever heard it."

She could not be expected to resist Lady in the Dark with its score by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill. To those two, she adds Moss Hart. "That," she says, "is a pretty heavy cocktail." There was the script, too. "I loved the idea of a play set in the 1940s with the world at war and a woman in a position of authority running a very successful company and finding that her life, her work and her relationships were all imperilled because of her emotional state.

"It has resonance and relevance for today, too. What isn't so radical today is that she takes her problems to a psychiatrist. Then it was absolutely new ground. Her fantasies become realities in her dreams and you are not quite sure which is which as the two worlds collide. Nearly all the music happens within the dreams; the rest of it is like a straight play." The acting is now as important to her as the music.

She harks back to Ghetto, in 1989. "It was after Ghetto," she says, "that I decided I was passionate about what I did and that I didn't want to do anything else. Up until then I had loved what I did and always took it seriously. But I didn't have a lot of self-belief. I had an agent who filtered auditions for me but not someone who could guide my career. So I just took the jobs I was offered.

"They weren't all singing jobs. I had done lots of straight theatre before, but I never got auditions with the big companies, so I did the less exciting stuff, things like Butterflies are Free. I did Therese Raquin in the top room of a pub in front of five people in anoraks. And an abridged version of Romeo and Juliet for schools. But with Ghetto I met Nick Hytner (the director) and I suddenly felt that being an actor wasn't just singing, dancing and entertaining, that you could really communicate something to people. It is too huge a thing to say that it can change people's lives because it doesn't. But it enhances them, makes people think. I felt that I could be involved in something that was testing and demanding, both for myself and, hopefully, the audience."

She has no problem with making herself ugly if the part requires it. In the Stephen Sondheim/ James Lapine Passion last year she became quite sour and mad as a woman who obsessively stalks a man. It ran for its scheduled six months in the West End but lost money and divided theatregoers and critics alike. "It wasn't about perfect love," she says, "but an uncomfortable, distressing story to watch."

She was offered other West End shows - "big, commercial things" - and turned them down, despite the loads of money involved. "I love going to see these things" she says, "but to do them eight times a week!" She pulls a face. Nor was she interested in the television offers. She describes them as "girl-friend parts, the kind of woman who has a pulse only when the man's in the room." If television had offered her her own song show she would have jumped at it. But only if she had complete control of the material. More than anything else, she would like to take over the Albert Hall to "get my music out to lots of people."

After Lady in the Dark she has the more realistic, still risky, ambition to take her one-woman show, which includes a lot of Broadway show songs, to Broadway. "I'm not frightened of that," she says. "I feel I'm very safe with a 12-piece band and the support of the music, all those wonderful chords, notes and words."

Whatever comes up, the only offers she will refuse are, as she puts it, "the things that do not make my heart beat faster." It seems that she needs that tightrope.

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