Home > Interviews > The Guardian December 1998

"It's my show and I'll sing what I like"

The Guardian, 2 December 1998

Expect fireworks when Maria Friedman takes over in Chicago. Lyn Gardner reports.

When Maria Friedman sings, people listen. Maybe it's because she knows that singing isn't about sound, it's about soul. "It is a liberation of something," she says.

Tonight this pretty, delicate blonde takes over as the celebrity-struck murderess 'Roxie Hart' in the West End hit Chicago. This is a very different Friedman from the one whose bell-clear tones haunted Nicholas Hytner's production of Ghetto. Or who moved Stephen Sondheim to tears as the ugly and reclusive 'Fosca' in Passion. For that, Friedman transformed herself into a hunched imp who, through sheer force of longing, could make a handsome young man love her.

The British stage has a promising clutch of high-kicking, full-throated singer-actresses at present, including Ruthie Henshall, who preceded Friedman as 'Roxie'. But Friedman is in a league of her own, transcending the stigma that still seems to attach itself to the term singer-actress.

Inevitably, comparisons have been made. Her expertise with Sondheim's music has seen her dubbed a junior Julia McKenzie. When By Special Arrangement, her Olivier Award-winning solo cabaret, premiered in the West End a few years ago, you would have thought she was Barbara Cook, Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli rolled into one.

Sure, Friedman can do torch songs like they're going out of fashion; she can do the I'm-going-to-embrace-the-whole-world Minnelli numbers. But she can also do Hanns Eisler, Benjamin Britten, Jacques Brel, Kate Bush and, of course, those gut-wrenching, almost unaccompanied songs, written by the doomed Jewish inhabitants of Vilnius, Lithuania, that virtually became her trademark in solo performance.

Though she came up through the chorus, she does not come from the hoofer tradition. By both birth and temperament she is European - a genuine chanteuse. Her stamping ground has been the National Theatre, rather than the big block-busting musicals.

Whatever she does, it is her way, whether it is a salsa version of 'The Blue Danube' or 'If You Go Away' with just a hint of the phrasing that made Sinatra sound like liquid gold. As she announced in By Special Arrangement: "What the hell, it's my show and I'll sing what I like." What Friedman likes are songs and shows with a bit of dramatic meat, which make you feel, rather than just feel good.

It was after Ghetto that Friedman decided that she didn't want to be in just any kind of show. When Jeremy Sams, her partner at the time and father of her four-year-old son, returned from the US with a tape of Sondheim's Passion, which he was hoping to direct, the chord heralding Fosca's entrance told Friedman the part was made for her.

"I told him to turn off the tape immediately. I had to play that role. He pointed out that I hadn't heard her songs yet. But I knew I didn't need to," says Friedman. It was an exhausting role, but one she was to make her own. "It was so extraordinary to play a woman who has only a few days left to live but is still getting it wrong. 'Fosca' was so human, not one of those fluttery heroines who die prettily." Such determination and focus would appear to be characteristic of a woman who comes from a family of high achievers. By the age of 22, her violinist father was co-leader of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; her mother is a talented pianist. Her siblings are all high flyers. Sonia is a theatre producer; Sarah a successful academic; and Richard a much-admired violinist. At home in north London, the family could have raised its own small orchestra.

"You could always hear our house from down the road. We were vital, volatile children with parents who loved to talk. There were no rules in our household, no bedtimes. You went to bed when you were tired and you ate when you were hungry." In many ways it sounds like an idyllic upbringing, yet Friedman says that until her early twenties she was a bit of a drop-out with no direction.

Born in Switzerland, she moved with her family to Germany. The Friedmans were of Russian extraction, but in Germany, just 15 years after the end of the war, her father changed one of the 'e's in the family name to the German Jewish 'i' to make the point that he was a Jew living and working in Germany.

On the opening night of Ghetto, Friedman's father sent her a telegram. It read: "Your grandparents love you and thank you for keeping their spirit alive." Her grandmother had been born in Vilnius.

Already aware, while living in Germany, that she was set apart from the local children by both her nationality and her Jewishness, Friedman arrived in Britain a fully-fledged school-phobic. She had been to seven schools by the time she dropped out, aged 16.

"I was unhappy and disruptive. Now that I teach, I always gravitate towards those children who perceive themselves as children who can't." It was singing that turned her life around. Just before leaving school she discovered that she could do impressions of singers such as Billie Holiday. The talent didn't save her from a string of dead-end jobs, but her boyfriend at the time, a dancer, encouraged her to use her gift and subsequently wangled her a part in the chorus of Oklahoma! Slowly she began to work her way up by the understudy route.

After 19 years adrift, she suddenly became focused. "People sometimes say I seem driven. But I'm not running away from anything; I'm running towards it. When I die, 1 can't think of a better epitaph than, 'She never wasted a minute.'" Once upon a time, 'taking over' a role that somebody else had created was looked down upon. The advent of Art, with its regularly changing threesome, has changed that. Even so, when the phone call came offering her Chicago, Friedman didn't leap at the chance. It was only after she met choreographer Ann Reinking that she felt certain Chicago was worth her attention.

"It's sexy and funny, and has a difficulty that appeals to me. But there is also something very freeing about its physicality. For many years much of the work that I've done has been in my head." The physicality has brought her face to face with another childhood phobia. As a young girl she was picked out as a promising dancer. Then she auditioned for the Royal Ballet School and was rejected. They said she was not going to have the right kind of body as she grew older. Worse, somebody said she looked like a duck. So, little Maria looked in the mirror and saw a duck. All the joy had gone out of dancing, and she gave it up.

After all these years, the joy is back. Maria Friedman is dancing again. A child who couldn't; a woman who most certainly can.

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