Home > Interviews > The Independent Weekend Magazine April 1996

Nights of passion with one really bad, bad girl

The Independent, Weekend Magazine 6 April 1996

Nobody does it for your inside like Sondheim does. And nobody does it for Sondheim like Maria Friedman. By Edward Seckerson.

We first noticed Maria Friedman in a show called Blues in the Night. Hard to miss her, really. She was the white girl. Very white, very blonde. Hot voice. Well, we thought so; she didn't. "I spent most of the rehearsal period retreating to my dressing-room and weeping. There I was from a background of classical music singing the blues with three black singers whose whole history was gospel and soul. It was in their blood. Hell, what was I doing there? I tried copying them - I tried the scatting, the improvising. Big mistake. Then it finally dawned. Look, I'm a white English girl singing American music. I can only make it musical and heartfelt..."

So there she was, the first preview, nervous as hell, but heartfelt, when this voice from the gallery yells, "Sing, ya bitch!" Back to the dressing-room. More tears. More self-recriminations. But at the interval, co-star Carol Woods is banging on her door: "Way to go, girl!" Apparently, "Sing, ya hitch" is right up there with "Diva" or "You're bad" in the compliment stakes. So Maria Friedman was bad, really bad. And that was good. "I'd learnt a valuable lesson: you can only tap into what you have to say, what you've got to offer. I needed to go far enough down the wrong road to bring me very swiftly to the right one."

Which was not, as her parents might have envisaged, the straight and narrow path to a classical career. Her father Leonard (who died only last year) was an accomplished violinist, and you'll find her brother Richard occupying the leader's chair in a number of London orchestras, among them the New Queen's Hall Orchestra. The plan was for Maria to become a cellist. And we're not talking rank and file. But Maria was impatient. It was the old story; her musicality romped ahead of her technical ability. She was, by temperament, a soloist, but in practice she was not about to buckle down to the kind of rigorous regimes that a solo career (to say nothing of her parents) demanded. "I couldn't isolate myself in that way. And it was frustrating. I had something to say, but not the means to say it. Actually, it was only when I began working as an actress that I realised what the problem was. I'm very disciplined as an actress, but it's a different kind of discipline. You do a lot of work in your head, a lot of work when you're walking, gardening, cooking, socialising. You are part of the real world, not locked away from it."

So there was the solution: become an actress and see the world. The real world. How's that for a paradox. But then think of the millions, for whom Maria Friedman was the social worker Trish Baynes in BBC TV's Casualty. When art imitates life, who's to say where one ends and the other begins? But Friedman is a realist. With a secret weapon: her music. She brings her musicality to her acting, and vice versa - the one feeds the other. And it's a potent combination. Watch her as 'Fosca' in Stephen Sondheim's Passion, an extraordinary performance (and an extraordinary physical transformation - not so very white, not so very blonde) currently on display at the Queen's Theatre. There's an 'operatic' quality to her performance. She has such expressive hands: it's like she's forming the words with her hands, shaping them, releasing them. And the voice: there's so much tension in the line, you feel it could snap. It's dangerous, this highly strung quality. Dangerous but intoxicating. If there is a break in the voice, the ear doesn't hear it: this lady belts into the stratosphere.

"You're right - I don't appear to have a break in the voice. It's a natural mix between chest and head right up to B flat. I'm lucky. I don't have to think about it, I don't have that problem of leaving my chest voice and going into a kind of choir-boy top... it's a muscle that works for me. But, you know, I still don't consider that I have a voice, at least not in the sense that real singers have voices. I prefer to call myself a communicator. The most important thing for me is that it means something, that the thought and word are carried forward on the musical line. I'm not interested in changing the vowel sound - you know, like opera singers do - to make the most beautiful sound possible. I, don't mind ugly sounds or shocking sounds. It's more important to me that the sounds reflect my thoughts - so if it's a romantic thought, I'll put more air in the voice. Don't get me wrong, it's not colouring by numbers, but your speaking voice does change according to what you're expressing. So it's the same with singing. And I believe that you should sing only when the emotional stakes are so high that you can no longer speak."

Now there's a remark. Is that Maria Friedman talking, or Stephen Sondheim? Either way, it goes to the very heart of what the 'book-and-song' musical is - or should be - all about: the word made song made flesh. And, as Friedman herself puts it, "Nobody does it for your insides like Sondheim does." They first met following a benefit at Drury Lane where she sang 'Broadway Baby' from Follies. "He found me at the party afterwards and said: 'Who are you?' Not much of an opening line, but I thought I'd died and gone to heaven." She was at the National Theatre in a play called Ghetto at the time. Sondheim caught it the following night and, unbeknown to her, lobbied for her to play Dot in the National Theatre's forthcoming production of Sunday in the Park with George. She had died and gone to heaven.

And in the words of the song from that show, it was suddenly a case of 'Stop worrying where you're going - move on.' Nobody does it for your insides like Sondheim, but nobody does it for your vocal cords like him, either. Every number a work-out. Friedman thrives on the muscularity, the complex rhythms, the odd and demanding intervals of his vocal writing. She isn't at all fazed by it, she doesn't consider it un-vocal. I don't suppose it is, if you can sing it: "It all comes from somewhere; there's a reason for every note. It's only problematic if you don't carry the sense, the thought, into the vocal line. You need to be strong, you need a solid instrument, a good range, quick reflexes: the mood might change seven or eight times in one song - you can be saying one thing, thinking another, doing another, all in one phrase. And perfect intonation. Very important. You have to have a good ear for harmony, for where the chords are pulling you. So that, for example, an F sharp flattens to become more of a G flat because the chord is G flat." Singing actress? Acting musicologist, more like.

Friedman is inquisitive by nature. She asks a lot of questions of her material. You hear it in the phrasing. Singing the song isn't enough, she has to perform it. When she was at school, they wouldn't have her in the choir, but there was this one "mad" music teacher who'd dig out classic songs and pass them round the class like sweets. And once a term, each pupil would get to do their song. Maria's always went down well. But they had to be the right songs. Just as they have to be the right parts. New work - new plays, new songs - that's important to her. To be up there at the sharp end. She isn't worried about "so-called failures" (and she's known a few), so long as the challenge is really worth the taking. When she put together her Olivier Award-winning one woman show Maria Friedman by Special Arrangement (and by fair means and foul, a conspiracy of friends and associates press-ganged her into that one), she was all too aware that every single number, every choice she made, was saying something about herself. This time it really was personal. Sondheim himself gave her notes. One in particular struck home. She had to think of the show as more than a collection of songs, but rather as one song, one great stretch from the first she sang to the last. Is that all?

"You know, I was thinking on my way to the theatre today how difficult it is to get a handle on life - to order it and shape it. But when you're in a show, that's exactly what you get to do for the two hours or so on stage. During that time, you are in control. It's a beautiful way of ordering and crystallising your feelings and sharing them with your audience. I always feel that they're me and I'm them, and we're one. That makes my heart beat faster." Ours, too.

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