Home > Interviews > The Daily Telegraph July 2000

Wicked Witch of the West End

The Daily Telegraph, 15 July 2000

"Feel the weight of this," says Maria Friedman, picking up from the floor of her dressing-room something that resembles the remains of an unfortunate incident involving a parachute drop and a small sheep. The harness, which allows her to soar above the audience at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane during The Witches of Eastwick, is, indeed, astoundingly heavy.

Seventeen members of the backstage crew are needed to effect the lightning change that equips her, Lucie Arnaz and Joanna Riding for their broomstick-free acrobatics - something that Friedman, despite the variety of her 22-year career, has never done before.

The maiden flight held its terrors for all three of 'the coven', so she hid an umbrella about her person and, as they were hoisted aloft, "I went up like Mary Poppins." Collapse of all parties. "I love to work," she says. "But I make it a rule that, if I can laugh while I'm at it, I will."

At Drury Lane, they have transformed John Updike's pitch-black novel into a musical comedy; what Friedman calls "sheer, raw entertainment" - unlike the 1987 film starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, which suffered from an identity crisis. In the third week of previews, the chippies are still busy with the sets and significant cuts and rewrites confront the cast every time they go through the stage door. But even those most affected seem happily reconciled to the greater good of the show.

We cross in front of the lingerie-festooned bedroom occupied each night by Ian McShane's diabolical 'Darryl van Home'. Rosemary Ashe, who plays the butt of the witches' initial experiments in magic, confides to Friedman in a stage whisper: "It's now a 45-minute operetta!" There is a lot of laughter about, even though 4.5 million and not a few reputations are at stake, not least that of the producer Cameron Mackintosh after his travails with his last musical Martin Guerre in 1996.

Friedman gives much of the credit for the good vibes to the young American composers, John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe. In contrast to most writers, they are "happy to bat their own stuff into touch" when it is not working and, with their director, Eric Schaeffer, they have established a regime where, unusually, no one feels like a commodity.

Friedman has neither seen the film nor read the original book, in which Updike memorably describes her character, 'Sukie Rougemont', a 32-year-old divorcee who writes for the local paper, as "an oscillating essence". What caught her imagination when Mackintosh sent her the script was Sukie's remark, "I have an inner-ear condition, and too much breathing into it aggravates it." "I thought: strange girl." And although hers is "the reactive part - she doesn't have the punchlines or the jokes", Friedman seized it. "It's acting in the gaps, which I thought would be a challenge. Lots of comic potential."

There are also some terrific songs, including in the first act a 'patter' number, 'Words, Words, Words', which she has to deliver at a speed so ferocious that "I can't breathe and I can't swallow." It stops the show. It is also a far cry from the role that brought her to the notice of a mass audience nine years ago when she played a social worker in the BBC's Casualty. But it will come as no surprise to those who have followed her career - less still to those of her workshop students. For this is an actress and singer with two Olivier awards to her credit, whose concert performances and solo album are themselves masterclasses in show-stopping. In 1974, as a 14-year-old aspiring cellist she was taken by her parents to see Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Leonard Friedman, who had been co-leader of the Royal Philharmonic under Beecham, and had founded both the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Scottish Baroque Ensemble, told his daughter: "Now this is proper stuff. It will last for ever and ever."

All the teenager knew for sure was that "it spoke to me really loud and clear. I was swept away by the music. I laughed and I cried and thought I'd really like to do something like that." It took a little while, but her wish was fulfilled - in spades.

Maria Friedman "sort of fell into the profession" via half a dozen schools, 14 jobs and a stint with a vocal group called Close Harmony, which come to an abrupt end the moment she qualified for her Equity card - shortly after they had shared a bill in Brussels with an unconventional act involving a donkey.

Her then boyfriend won a leading role in the national tour of Oklahoma!, and refused to go unless she was cast as well. The career had lift-off; full thrust would be provided by Sondheim, whose Sweeney Todd she saw five nights running at Drury Lane in 1980 and who, she says, is "the reason why I do what I do."

She has appeared in three of his shows: as Seurat's mistress, 'Dot', in Sunday in the Park with George; as 'Mary' in Merrily We Roll Along, and, most startlingly, as the obsessive 'Fosca' in Passion, the role for which she won the 1997 Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. His work is also on her album and featured prominently in a one-woman show she staged at the Donmar Warehouse - "the best thing I've ever done" - which brought her her first Olivier award, for Best Entertainment, in 1995.

Sondheim and Leonard Friedman met once, before the latter's death in 1994. "My father was immensely proud of the work I was doing for Stephen," she says. There had been further cause for paternal pride. In 1989, Friedman - by then busy, but hardly prominent - was cast as the singer, 'Hayyah', in the National Theatre production on Ghetto, Joshua Sobol's play about the creative spirit in wartime Vilnius. On the first night, her father, who had been born in the East End to Russian-Jewish parents, sent her a telegram, thanking her on their behalf "for keeping their spirit alive".

Until that moment she had had no idea that her grandmother had come from Vilnius. However - "and I don't care if this sounds like claptrap" - she did know, deep down, that she had some connection to the songs which had been written in the ghetto. "That music was something that went straight into my guts. I had no trouble learning it, no trouble understanding it, no trouble singing it, never had any nerves, never lost my voice. I was a vessel, to sing those songs as simply and clearly as I could, without any of me in them."

The songs were translated and arranged by Jeremy Sams, with whom she would work on Passion and with whom she would have a son, Toby, born three months after Leonard Friedman died.

The Friedmans are, unquestionably, a family of high achievers. One of Maria's sisters, Sonia, runs the on-a-roll New Ambassadors and 10 other West End theatres. Sarah is a university scientist. Their violinist brother, Richard, has this very week established his own international orchestra. And then there is their mother, Clair: concert pianist, teacher of Egyptology, lecturer at the National Gallery, opera coach - she has done it all. No wonder her second daughter calls her "a scary, magnificent woman". Any one coming to tea with the "Friedman mafia" is in for a rigorously testing time.

Its next outing is, of course, to Drury Lane on Tuesday, and a first night which, for all its importance and complexity, is unlikely to achieve the heights of scariness experienced by Friedman two years ago when she performed her first Prom at the Albert Hall, singing Hanns Eisler with the Matrix Ensemble, "and all those people sitting there with their scores, tutting away". Nor those a few weeks later when she took over from Ruthie Henshall as Roxie Hart in Chicago: "I thought they'd gone insane when they asked me.

"It's a show full of sexy, slinky, gorgeous, leggy people. Which is not the way I, or anybody else, has ever perceived me."

She narrated the video of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which has sold millions and won a further heap of awards for Tim Rice and for Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the composers to be celebrated in Friedman's second album this autumn.

In Witches she sings: "The things we didn't do/ Have this way of haunting you." But the ghosts of regret are not too plentiful around Maria Friedman.

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