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The Russell Davies Programme

BBC Radio 2 The Russell Davies Programme 30 March 2003

Russell Davies interviewed Maria for his BBC Radio 2 programme broadcast on Sunday 30 March 2003.

Extract of interview from programme:

RUSSELL: Maria Friedman is a marvellous singer, daughter of the late violinist Leonard Friedman - an artist of international stature in his own field. I had the great pleasure of working with Maria last year on Radio 2's big Richard Rodger's Centenary Concert which she performed heavily pregnant and with a broken foot - that happened just days before the performance. Happily she turned up at our studio the other day with the result of the prenancy, her second son, Alfie. For the Rodger's programme she sung a lovely version of Rodgers and Hart's 'My Romance' with just guitar for accompliment - which was her idea - and I wondered where it came from.

MARIA: A very good friend of mine called, Bill [William] Loveday who is a sensational guitarist and composer, he's been writing chorus stuff for Westminster Choir - he's a really consummate composer. We are friends and we go down to a friend of mine Marita's down in the Cotswolds - one of my best friends - and we just sit. It is the only time I make music outside of my profession. He gets his guitar out and we sit around a table and we just sing and we did this one night and he said "Do you know that song My Romance?", and I said, "Yeah, I know that," and he just made this delicious arrangement up and I said if ever I did a show, I want that in it.

SONG: My Romance

RUSSELL: The lovely version of 'My Romance', preserved on her solo CD which is called - as it should be - 'Maria Friedman'. Now she is to be seen in Ragtime, the American musical based on E L Doctorow's novel. Now this run for two years on Broadway, but some time ago, and inspite of that run, the show got the reputation of being unproducable. Now that sounded an odd sort of story, and so it turned out to be.

MARIA: Well, I think it was unproducable because it was - sighs - I won't be diplomatic. It was over-produced, fantastically over-produced. There where 53 in the cast, 40 in the band, it was this producer's dream to produce the best musical ever and he just, you know - if there was a car, there was a real car, if their was a plantation, he shipped in fields and he was just ridicously over-the-top. Every single scene is epic and had an entire set to itself, so this stuff trundled on and trundled off. I think my character had something like 30 costumes, it was just absolutely beyond most people's imagining. It was more operatic in its scale but even more than that and it resulted actually in the producer being found out that he, he was sort of in the middle of a huge company embezzlement. He is now serving quite a large prison sentence in America, I think the figure is, I'll probably get this wrong, but it is something like 500million or something (see note) - the real producers story, you know, he was funding one thing, but there was in the middle of all this his grand passion that was Ragtime running, and no-one could see how it could possibly be making any money - houses full, 14 Tony nominations, it won four of them - everybody absolutely unanimously was in agreement that this was a great musical, however there where too many people in it to possibly make the books balance. So in a way it was his downfall because they started to investigate that and from there the tentacles spread wide, so it was, it did have this herendous feeling attached to it that it was unproducable.

SONG: Ragtime

RUSSELL: But you had the great advantage of coming to it from a concert performance, so you knew how 'barely' is could actually be done.

MARIA: Well, that was exactly the point. That's why it is being produced, is that it was like a full-stop. I was offered to do it in England just before Garth Drabinsky was arrested I had my little bag packed to go to New York. I was very excited to work with the people who have now become friends but then where the creative team, the people who had actually written the piece, and I just got a phone call - normally you're told the funding's off or something like that - but I was told it was off, to unpack my bags because the producer had been arrested! So that was I think six years ago and then while I was pregnant with, I now have my son Alfie, I was asked to do this concert and I thought it would be a very good full-stop to this 'unfinished' business. It was going to be a very loyal reproduction of the score with a big orchestra, a huge cast becuase it was 'one-off' - there was 50 of us - but no sets, no costumes and I just thought I'd really like to just do this and finish it and about Day Two of the rehearsals I sat in this room and was completely blown away by the score and the intensity and the kind of clarity of this story telling and, I'm fortunate enough to have a sister who is a producer, but she normally does plays, but I felt this was very much like a good play with some wonderful music and I said to her "I'd really like you to come and have a look at this because" - regardless of whether I did it or not, because at the time my child was six weeks old, and I wasn't really intending to go back to work, I said "I think you should pick this up because it is very do-able."

SONG: Journey On.

RUSSELL: That was one of 'Mother's' songs from the show recorded for the Broadway cast version by Marin Mazzie - who we saw in London not long ago in Kiss Me Kate. The songs by the way are written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and the story of an educated black pianist who reacts to a racist attack by becoming a violent outlaw is actually taken from an early 19th century German story by a writer called [Heinrich von] Kleist. It was called 'Michael Kohlhaas', which is why the central figure of the Ragtime story gets the name of 'Coalhouse Walker'. The theatre programme doesn't mention any of that which I think it should. Maria's fans will wish there was more of her singing in it, and just to show you how she can go over in live performance here is a number from the huge gala performance Sondheim Tonight held at the Barbican Hall in 1999 to celebrate Stephen Sondheim's 70th birthday. This is a song from Dick Tracy called 'More'.

SONG: More

RUSSELL: Maria Friedman and the Soloists and, unseen by us, the dancers in Sondheim's 'More' including at the start a very full tribute to George Gershwin. Maria started out in musicals a while back as a member of the chorus of Oklahoma!, but she was soon spotted and brought downstage.

MARIA: Sondheim certainly was the reason I wanted to start musicals because my dad took me to see, my mum and day took me to see, A Little Night Music and dad said: "If you like this sort of music, this is real, this is real music. A lot of the other stuff," he said "was not, but this is real music." And then while I was in Oklahoma! I went to see Sweeney Todd at the Drury Lane in one of our breaks on tour, I went every night for five nights, I felt I'd gone off on a rocket, through that beginning bit I felt I'd been pushed back in my seat and thought "Aahh!". There's was not a part I could possibly play in it because I'm not a soprano, but I just thought: "I have to be part of something like this." There was one girl that was singing a top C or even top D in (sings) 'Sweeney Sweeney' - do you remember that bit, right at the begining? I just, my hairs on my head just stood up and I thought I've got, got to be part of this person's music.

SONG: The Ballard of Sweeney Todd

RUSSELL: Len Cariou and the Soloists in the very operatic 'Ballad of Sweeney Todd'.

MARIA: And years later, that's obviously what I've done more of than anything else in my life.

RUSSELL: That is why I want you to help with Sondheim, because I'm one of these people who has a difficulty with him. I don't know why, but I'm not the only one.

MARIA: No, ofcourse you're not, no.

RUSSELL: It view expressed in Mark Steyn in his book 'Broadway Baby' where he says that, thinking of them now as individual songs rather than as whole shows, especially the love songs are sort of intellectually about love, but they are never quite inside it, poetically, or if they are they are always complaining and miserable or something like that! (MARIA: Gosh!) It's that kind of view so you feel sort of cut of from it in a funny way (MARIA: Really?) You obviously don't, and I was just wondering what the differance is.

MARIA: Well - sighs - I can not disagree with you more (RUSSELL: Hmmm) I think sometimes it's the players who perhaps don't have the levels and the depth. It's hard stuff, it's really, really hard stuff to do. The lines, the musical lines are not obvious and you've got to be able to see them and hear them - it sounds like I'm critising every single person who's played Sondheim, but I'm not because, all I can tell you is from my own perspective, why I love him. That it is layer upon layer upon layer and you as the performer have get them all out there.

RUSSELL: Yes. And you're always helped by propulsive rhythm, I mean they're quite 'acty' somgs you know (MARIA: They're certainly acty songs) they go along at your own pace and they're colorative type things aren't they?

MARIA: Sometimes you've got a sort of, well often you've got a lovely rhapsodic swell going on underneath. The tunes aren't - they don't have a beginning, middle and end structure like we're used too, it is completely taken away from that shape that we're used too. It's 'new' listening, really.

SONG: Broadway Baby

RUSSELL: I suppose that is one easier way into Sondheim. This "isn't just a showbusiness song" says Maria on her CD, "it is a song about the real hopes and dreams we all have which are completely possible but always out of reach." My education in Sondheimism continues.

MARIA: Like all the great works, the more you dip into it, the deeper down you go because there are levels, there are layers. The first hearing Sondheim may be a little bit challenging.

RUSSELL: Yes, I think you're right in what you suggest they there are a lot of bad versions about, and if you have to hear that first...

MARIA: If you hear that first, and I think it is a live thing aswell, he's a theatre writer. It's not necessarily a 'listening-too-thing', it is the full experience. He unashamedly loves theatre. He has become somebody who's become incredibly dear to me. He is so determined to comunicate to an audience and when they're baffled it breaks his heart, he is so soft and gentle as a human being and has had such an incredibly difficult life himself (RUSSELL: Yes) relationship-wise and when he writes he writes so generously about those complexities in human relationships. Now, maybe you're one of the few people I've ever meet in my life that finds your relationship very easy and always easy and always happy and always sunny.

RUSSELL: On the contrary, no. No, I don't ask for that.

MARIA: No, no, I know you don't. But you say he is always sad. But what he does, often, is shows the courage of a human being who is saying one thing and actually feeling another (R: Yes) So you have to look at it, not at face value, you have to hear the words and know that the person is not nescessarily - it's like that 10cc song 'I'm Not In Love,' I mean to me that is a very good example - it's not Sondheim (laughs) - it is a very good example of a pop song, a popular song, which says 'Pow!' and underneath all these characters who are having a go at life there is an 'Ooww!' right in the centre of it.

RUSSELL: And there is also an irony which we are always told not to expect from American because they're supposed to be not good at it.

MARIA: He is absolutely packed with irony, and wit, and people who are trying to put on a good face in Sondheim's very very difficult, dark situations. People who have made decisions in their life over and over again, they will make decisions in their life that actually prove to have taken them down a path that's unsatisfactory.

SONG: Finishing the Hat

MARIA: As a performer getting hold of stuff like that I see it in my life and I relate to the characters he writes about and the music he writes for these people feels right it feels like, when I open my mouth to start the song this is how they would speak this is the song they would sing it doesn't feel like a device inorder to get an audience standing up, doesn't feel like any manipulation going on it's stark and honest.

RUSSELL: The song 'Finishing the Hat' is the other Sondheim song on her CD, Maria Friedman. And with that, leaving me to contemplate how much I still don't know about Sondheim, Maria had to go, taking her baby Alfie with her - a que for a song in himself.

MARIA: I love the song 'Alfie' (RUSSELL: You haven't...) I haven't recorded it (RUSSELL: No, I didn't think you had) No I haven't, it's a good song isn't it?

RUSSELL: It is, and quite seldom done now (MARIA: Yeah, yeah!)

SONG: Alfie

NOTE: On 22 October 2002 Playbill.com reported that "Garth Drabinsky, the Canadian theatrical impresario who mounted such lavish Broadway musical productions as Ragtime and Show Boat in the last decade, was one of four former executives of the former Livent producing organization charged October 22 with 'fraud affecting the public market'... Drabinsky's lawyer, Edward Greenspan, said his client will plead not guilty and will 'vigorously defend' himself against the fraud allegations." Read articles from Playbill.com.

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