Home > Interviews > The Daily Telegraph Magazine April 1990

A Girl Named Maria

The Daily Telegraph, Magazine 14 April 1990

Every year it seems a new star is born, only to fade into obscurity with the last curtain call. But Maria Friedman is the genuine article, an actress of rare candour, whose role in Stephen Sondheim's new musical has won her both critical praise and popular applause. By Andrew Duncan.

Authentic star - what a perilous, ephemeral and frequently cursed accolade. Maria Friedman has been showered with such plaudits in the last year - first for her haunting performance in Joshua Sobol's award winning play Ghetto, set in a Lithuanian Jewish enclave in 1942, and now for Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim's Pulitzer prize winning musical. In this she plays 'Dot', the fictitious mistress of pointillist painter Georges Seurat, as well as his illegitimate daughter, 'Marie' at the age of 98.

"Meaty parts," she says. "I get to scream and shout, instead of playing dolly birds. Most musicals have become absolute nonsense, but I'd better not mention which ones or I'll never work again."

Time will tell if she remains a star - after all, the stage is strewn with disembowelled aspirations - but she is certainly that even rarer theatrical occurence, an actress of much humour and few pretensions, even if she was, at that moment, wearing a maroon designer jacket and blouse that cost 690. Half price. "I'm still paying for them. I was lent them for some pictures and the designer said, "Darling, you look wonderful. You must wear my clothes." He offered them for half price, which I assumed would be affordable. It was too late when I got the bill. Vain, I am not. I'd like to be, but I can't be bothered."

She has the appropriate psychological traumas that inspire creativity - high-achieving family, broken home - yet for many years she remained resolutely unmotivated, fearful that ambition and success had too high a price. Now 30, she has paid her dues, done the "experience", and would quit tomorrow rather than compromise the standards she has set for herself. "I'm a bit like my mother - strong-spirited and not easily squashed. But it wasn't until recently that I realised there are better things to do with a wild spirit than burn out."

It is only recently, too, that she has understood how much of her own attitude derives from the volatile relationship of her parents. They were drawn together by music - he is a brilliant solo violinist, she was a concert pianist - but in a scenario that was to have an ironic parallel in Maria's own unusual life, their love for each other was damned by one family. Her mother's upper-middle class parents were appalled that she should fall for a Jewish East-Ender whose family sold stockings in a market, so they disowned her.

Maria, the second of four children, was born in Switzerland, where her father was working. When she was three, he became leader of the Berlin Philharmonic and the family moved to Germany. Two years later her parents separated under such emotionally painful circumstances that it was not until many years later that her mother could bear to play classical music again.

"My mother is an incredible woman," says Maria. "She knew she had to make a living somehow - three of us slept in the same bed when we first returned to England - so she studied everything and became over-qualified. She speaks five languages, has all sorts of degrees, lectures on art at the National Gallery and the Tate, on Egyptology at the British Museum, coaches opera, teaches music to socially deprived children.

"I get on well with my father now, but I didn't know him for a huge part of my life. He was mixing in very different circles and I couldn't deal with it. His ambition had taken him so far - like Seurat, or any artist who has commitment - at great cost to himself and everyone else around him. That's why I was such a late starter. I have enormous drive, but I fought it because I know how hard it is to balance ambition with real life. My older brother, Ricky [also a leading violinist) can do it."

At the various schools she attended - at least seven - she did very little work and walked out at 16 with one O-level in English to live in a bedsitter in Muswell Hill with her boyfriend, Roland Brine, who was studying to become a dancer at the time.

"We sat next to each other at the Arts Educational school when we were 14 and I knew he would be the first and last, a soulmate for life. It was like Romeo and Juliet. We ran away from home because we actually couldn't live without each other. It's unusual, I know, and something I can't really explain."

Roland was expelled from school and his parents did not speak to the couple for two years, assuming Maria would wreck his career. He returned to college and she had 14 jobs - au pair, waitress, guide at the Royal Academy Pompeii exhibition and manageress of the toy department at Harvey Nichols, among others. "I was fairly eloquent so I lied my way in, determined that each job would be 'permanent'. I had a great zest for discovering things, but was never interested in grafting."

For months, their only income was the 21 she earned. Rent was 15.50 a week. "We lived, literally, on baked potatoes and cheese every day of the week, and had to 'jump' fares to get to places. Looking back, it was fantastically romantic, but also desperately stressful for such young people to play grown-up games when they aren't actually equipped for them."

They married five years ago and now live in Stoke Newington, north London, with a dog. "We would both like children, but don't know when. Roland has done all he wanted to do in dancing and gave it up while he was still enjoying it. Now he's at art school."

It was Roland who encouraged her to act and, at 18, after seeing an advertisement in The Stage, she toured Europe for a year with a close harmony singing group in order to get an Equity card.

"We worked in clubs I didn't know existed, pick-up places with prostitutes. The men were dreadful, but I liked the girls. You can't be moral about things when you find out why people do it, but it was all pretty awful. At one club in Brussels we were told we'd follow the donkey act. I said, "Like a circus - does it do tricks?" And they said, "Er, yeeees." Well, we watched the start and then got our stuff and left when we realised it was a sex show, a travesty act."

"Transvestite, you mean?"

"Yes. The women were all blokes. I laugh about it now, but then we were young and ridiculously naive. I may have been rebellious but I wasn't streetwise. I'd led a protected life, and here I was in pink chiffon and false eyelashes following a donkey act. The minute I'd done enough to qualify for Equity - we were in Estoril at the time - I caught the next flight home."

It was there that nepotism took a hand. Roland had a major role in a national tour of Oklahoma! and refused to go unless Maria was given a part too. She was, and they spent 18 months together: "If you've done a lot of dross, you don't half appreciate it when something good comes along." After that, it was back to the familiar theatrical grind of auditions followed by small parts. "I didn't understand how to take control of my life. For a while I regretted not having training, but I don't now because I've learned to use myself and whatever I've got.

"I've been pressured so much to be different, particularly working in the West End - get my hair done, wear better clothes. I'd prefer to have a nice chat with my husband, a cup of coffee and a walk in the park with the dog than have to do my hair. Everyone always says you're not quite right the way you are. A make-up man told me the other day that I should have injections to get rid of the lines on my face. Well, it's my face, I'm afraid."

In Sunday in the Park with George, she brings haunting, lyrical emotion to a musical that divides critics. Some think it is a work of near genius, others see it as a pretentious farrago of unmemorable tunes and trite lyrics redeemed by breathtaking sets and brilliant performances. It is, to the say the least, an unusual subject: an attempt to bring to life the neo-Impressionist painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte.

"The songs make my heart race," says Maria. "Sondheim writes in speech patterns, so you carry on talking while you're singing, and by the end of the song you have gone somewhere. People think a good song is a hummable one. That simply isn't true. When you go to a Mozart opera, you are overawed. You don't just see it once and say, "I don't need to go again." A hundred years ago, opera was the people's musical, with concepts and a worth that has been lost. I think Sondheim is making them that way again."

Her success at the National Theatre does cause her some apprehension. "What do I do next? If you have two successful shows in a row and then a terrible flop, people notice. Things are going well at the moment, although every time I'm on stage I expect someone to stand up and shout, "Found out." I'm reassured that people I admire, like Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave, feel the same. I know this sounds unbelievable but I'm not a bit surprised if someone thinks I'm no good. I'm more surprised when they think I am. I don't pat myself on the back for anything.

"I want to have freedom of choice. About four years ago, I decided I wasn't putting enough into acting so I decided only to do work that stretches me. It's a luxury, but I'm prepared to pay for it by being a waitress again if there's nothing suitable. I love theatre, and there's no point in doing anything that is less than I want. I'm passionate about my work and want to do as many great parts as there are, but if it becomes an obsession, I'd rather stop. After all, it's only a job."

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