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Between the Lines

The Independent, 28 February 1996

Between the lines: 'The first time I met him, it was like meeting Mozart': the musical actress Maria Friedman on how Stephen Sondheim changed her life. By Maria Friedman.

My childhood was full of classical music. My mother was a concert pianist and I was going to be a cellist. My father, a Russian Jew from the East End of London, was a distinguished musician. He had been a co-leader of the Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham at 23, and later founded the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. But from the day that we saw Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, he would say that only one man was writing important, intelligent stuff.

I was 14 or so at the time. As a family we'd go to the theatre perhaps twice a year, and until that day I had the idea that musicals were fluffy, gingham, happy things, like Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music. But here was something different. It got me in the stomach. I could feel myself well up, and I didn't understand why. It was so theatrical. The extraordinary lyrics pushed the plot forward in a way I'd never seen before, and Sondheim's characters were people I could relate to. They were flawed. They tried to say things for which they couldn't find the words. That struggle to express themselves, which is at the centre of A Little Night Music, was both painful and witty. It always is in Sondheim.

Years later I saw Sondheim's Sweeney Todd - in Oklahoma, funnily enough. I felt that I was going off in a rocket. The velocity was pushing me back in my seat. I was 25, and I hadn't really worked out what direction I was going in. But after that I knew I wanted to work with new composers who, like Sondheim, had something to say. He had given me a focus. His critics say his work is cynical, intelligent but cold. I think he's truthful. Sondheim doesn't like lies on stage. He tries to tell it like it is, and what he says is: 'I'm like you. We can share these things.' He feels that we share the same make-up and make the same mistakes. He's not afraid of emotions, and he leaves escapism to others. The way he'll cross-reference characters just in the music is breathtaking. Every up-beat, every syllable he writes is there for a reason.

I've known and worked closely with Sondheim for six or seven years now. But the first time I met him, it was like meeting Mozart. When he comes into your dressing-room crying after a show, its like heaven on earth.


NOTE: With regard to seeing Sweeney Todd: From other interviews (including ShowMusic Fall 1997 and The Daily Telegraph July 2000) evidently Maria saw Sweeney Todd for five nights running at London's Drury Lane in 1980 when she was 19 and during a touring break of Oklahoma!, in which she was then currently appearing.

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