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The Art's Programme

BBC Radio 2 The Arts Programme 4 April 2003

Sheridan Morley interviewed the actress Maria Friedman and her sister, the producer Sonia Friedman about the musical Ragtime which opened last month.

Extract of interview from the programme:

SHERIDAN: The soundtrack there from the Broadway production of Ragtime. A new, and I think, marvellous new musical which opened last month at the Piccadilly Theatre in London. Adapted by Terrance McNally from E L Doctorow's 1975 novel, Ragtime is set in America at the turn of the 20th century and it combines a cast of major historical figures from that period, even the girl on the red velvet swing with the stories of three fictional families whose lives become dramatically entangled and who represent America in a state absolute change, its the refugee time. It's taken five years for Ragtime to come the West End and it has been brought over here by the producer Sonia Friedman with a cast lead by, I reckon, one of our greatest interpretors of musical theatre, she is Maria Friedman, and ofcourse she is Sonia's sister. We have never had this unique sister act together in the Studio!
I suppose, Sonia, it has to be asked first of all, because you have done a great many a new plays, often with American Hollywood stars, we'll come back to that. But what drew you to Ragtime?

SONIA: The story, although, as you said, it is set 100 years ago, it is so extraordinarily relevant and pertinant for today and I just found it such an uplifting and emotional and moving experience that I just felt it had to be a story first and foremost that we could hear, and then, coupled with that, the most extraordinary score and I couldn't believe that it hadn't been seen in London and a felt I was duty bound to bring it to London.

SHERIDAN: Maria, have you ever worked with your sister before?

MARIA: We have done the odd little thing together, she always gets entangled up in my one woman shows some way or other, so, yes, we have worked together and we've worked together on charity events and stuff - we work very well together.

SHERIDAN: Ofcourse historically, Sonia, this is kind of strange that it had a wonderful opening on Broadway - rave reviews, good houses - but then, through no fault of the show, the management went bankrupt in a very spectacular way and it had to close long before should have, so was that a problem when you tried to get the rights for this country?

SONIA: No, not particuarly. Partly because the management, as you say, that went bankrupt, passed the rights on to another company who then passed them onto another company and passed onto another comany! so by the time I got involved, there was nobody who really was emotionally involved with the show to go for it, so they just let me take it over.

SHERIDAN: Maria, it's a complex plot, as indeed the Doctorow novel was a blockbusting huge book but basically you are the mother of one of these familes who come to represent really what America became.

MARIA: Yes. She is a marvellous woman. All the characters, I think not sterotypical, they are complex, flawed people who are struggling with this extraordinary change going on in the world and she has this wonderful unifying effect she makes decisions instinctively. Freud is yet to permeate the physcology of people there is not a lot of introsepection going on in the world there is a lot of action then having to consider your actions later, wouldn't you agree? THey do things without thinking about it too much.

SHERIDAN: I think that is what makes it so great, if Griffith hadn't stolen the title 100 years ago, it's 'Birth of a Nation', it really is.

MARIA: It really is, absolutely, that's exactly, well said, I wish I'd said.

SHERIDAN: There is also a problem Sonia, that the tale is very complex we are dealing with three families, Maria being the mother of one, but we are also meeting Henry Ford, we are meeting these legendary look-a-likes if you where, the people who founded America who where not Presidents is what is interesting.

SONIA: Absolutely, but that is also why I think Ragtime the show is unusual and epic, because it intertwines the fact and the fiction and I think it gives it a context for its times. I also feel that although it is about the birth of, as you say, the nation of America I also think it is such a universal story that needs to be stressed to anybody listening to it in Britain that it is not an American story, it is not the American Dream by any means. On the contary I think it's very critical of somehow the way America has come together and that we need to all be aware of how societies can sometimes go wrong...

MARIA: And a lot of it absolutely, about asylum seekers, immigration and how difficult it is to assimulate into a society.

SHERIDAN: It is also quite difficult to work out who else could have written this, and I guess the nearest equivalent would be Sondheim with Assassins. It is not a coincidence, Maria, that you are a Sondheim singer.

MARIA: No, it is not a coincidence, and I am absolutely drawn to this material, it doesn't have to much resonance in terms of Sondheim in the way the score is actually put together because I think Stephen Flaherty and Stephen Sondheim are very, very differant composers in their style, but they both understand the theatrical pulse that is required to take you from one moment to another. It is really exciting some of the underscoring that goes on, that leads you to sing I mean, my heart, everyday in the wings I just, I just love it, I love it, I'm getting to know it - it's complicated, its fantastically musical and it has got a lot of depth to it and it is difficult.

SHERIDAN: And talking of families, I can't ignore this sister act. You come from a remarkable family - your father ofcourse, Leonard Friedman, a world famous violinist, your mother, a concert pianist, there are infact other children, Richard who is an acclaimed violinist, Sarah who is a sciencist, you as a producer Sonia, and Maria as a stage star, you also have an enchanting baby which has taken you off the stage lately, how is that working out?

MARIA: Oooo, he's just caught us [eye contact] he's dressed as tigger in the other room, he's delicous, he's eight months old and he's been to rehearsals every single day.

SHERIDAN: He sings the score?

MARIA: He smiles and bounces through the score! And I have another son called Toby aswell, who's been very much involved in this rehearsal period which has been great.

SHERIDAN: We have to face the fact that because partly the Iraqi war, because of a downturn in tourism, this is a very rough time for the West End. It can't be ignored, this is a very expensive show, is it going to work, can you hold out against the current climate?

SONIA: Well, obviously I'm hoping we can. My job at this moment has to be to get out to people that this is a show that will uplift that people will just enjoy and it is not about America. I think that that is for me one of the worries that I've opened a show that is percieved to be about America when there is so much controversy.

SHERIDAN: But you have been ahead of this in some ways, in that you've brought over a lot of Hollywood stars, Woody Harrelson, Gillian Anderson from The X Files and Madonna. There's been a very long standing debate before the war about American stars taking over the West End. Was that a deliberate way of facing up to the current economical crisis?

SONIA: No, each of them came about in a very differant way. And certainly I enjoy creating a bit of a buzz, a bit of an excitement, I know not all the critics liked it - yourself included - on some occasions , which is fine, because what we've done with some of those productions is just create a bit of a buzz, put theatre on the front pages.

MARIA: I just want to say something, alongside with Sonia bringing over the Americans, she has also done some other stuff that has been going along...

SHERIDAN: Well, indeed.

MARIA: ...that's been amazing. And the other thing is - a bit like an actor or a singer - you know if you get known for something, what happens is they want her, it's not her seeking them, they want her. Now who in their right mind would turn down Madonna?

SHERIDAN: Well, I could say 'me' but I won't!

MARIA: Would you? As a producer? I doubt it very much! I think one would have to go with that!

SHERIDAN: Maria, we've been hearing for ages about the first major revival of Funny Girl.


SHERIDAN: Is that a plan for you both?

MARIA: Well absolutely it was a thing we where going to be doing next and I got to do this concert and phoned up Sonia and said I really think this is something that should perhaps come first, and we haven't ruled it out at all, but we would have to go back and start that process again, because obviously once you've taken the rights of something and you don't take it up for a year, we'd have to revisit that, but it would be something that I think we're both very interested in doing in the future.

SHERIDAN: Maria Friedman, the actress and singer, and her sister Sonia, the producer, talking about Ragtime which now plays in London at the Piccadilly Theatre and I think is one of the great musicals of all time.

MARIA: And I just want to say, that obviously I've been doing musicals for years, years and years. In my dressing room at the end of every single show I haven't had such a response from collegues that come in absolutely awash with tears of joy and deep emotion, everybody - to a man - has just come in and said "This is amazing".

SHERIDAN: Thank you both very much for joining us.

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