Home > Interviews > The Times June 2000

Honing her witch craft

The Times, 20 June 2000

She made a great murderess in Chicago, but in her next musical Maria Friedman flies higher. Sally Baker met her.

Spare a thought for Maria Friedman. Between completing her West End run in February as 'Roxie' in Chicago, doing a concert tour, and starting rehearsals for the new musical The Witches of Eastwick, the actress and singer had to fit in a tough assignment.

She agreed to be the star turn at the gala finale of a small music festival in an obscure place. Why? Possibly because the obscure place was Barbados, which offers certain advantages over a cold, wet British spring.

The Holders Season takes place every March on the island's fashionable west coast at Holders House, the plantation home of John and Wendy Kidd, who must be fairly tired of reading the words "better known as the parents of supermodels Jodie and Gemma", but there you are.

And there is Friedman, rehearsing on a makeshift stage under palm trees in the noonday sun, a slight figure looking more like a truant teenager than the mother of a five-year-old, her short blonde hair hidden under a large sunhat. The hat proving insufficient to the task of preserving her English roses-and-milk complexion, she requests a large umbrella and someone to hold it.

Step forward Johnny Kidd, a man so hands-on when it comes to the festival he and his wife founded eight years ago that later that night he was to be found personally directing cars into the parking area and checking the Portaloos. (He is also so tall that the main festival sponsors, Virgin, had amused themselves by erecting at their marquee a large banner reading "Room in economy even for Johnny Kidd's legs", a claim which the ever-courteous Kidd gently refuted.)

The Holders Season has grown into an eclectic musical mix which this year included a full-scale Magic Flute, a Vivaldi evening, Sheridan Morley's Noel Coward tribute show, the Jacques Loussier Trio and the Maria Friedman gala. The enterprise now further extends to homegrown productions, such as an Afro-Caribbean version of an 18th-century ballad opera, Inkle and Yariko, which toured to Edinburgh and Washington last year, and to a newly completed state-of-the-art DVD recording studio in the grounds of Holders House.

Back at rehearsals, Friedman takes a coffee break and retreats to a chair in the shade to talk about the hell that is Barbados.

"Everyone else has been sunbathing, but I've had a head set on rehearsing. Yesterday I sang completely off tune to see how long it would take to clear the beach. Didn't take long. But I'd find it hellish to move out here and do pubs and clubs and things, because I'd have to sing the Titanic song all the time." (This is an only slightly bitter reference to the fact that while she devised her own show for the Holders Festival, which meant delicious and generous helpings of Bernstein and Gershwin, she had been asked to include the aforementioned hit number for popular appeal.)

So she's just a girl who can't say no, then? "I turn a lot down, but I have to keep working. The thing is, with your voice you've got limited time: there'll be a patch when there are no parts for me apart from Aunt Eller. So while the really good parts are coming my way, I'd be crazy to turn them down. And I like the challenge of something a bit more testing."

Cue The Witches of Eastwick, in which she will be joined next month by Luci Arnaz (daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) and Joanna Riding, all playing opposite the devilishly attractive 'Darryl Van Horne' of Ian McShane. Which witch is she? "I play an intensely shy small-town journalist, scholarly and academic. We're all childless, husbandless, and all having an affair with men in the town. But we're disappointed, so we conjure up this man, invent him for ourselves. Then we realise we don't need a man to be fulfilled; it's quite feminist. The show doesn't follow the film completely but it's got the cherry pips scene, and we do fly.

"It's a classical musical comedy with good, catchy tunes; the Devil's are more rock'n'roll, but I get some soulful, wistful stuff."

She comes from a family of musicians, and her sister Sonia Friedman is a successful West End producer, but Maria never went to stage school* or had any theatrical training - "I'm not particularly proud of that, it's just the truth. But I'm a quick learner, a good observer; throw me in the swimming pool and I'll swim."

At 19 she got her first West End part in the chorus of Oklahoma! "I wasn't a show-off, I'm fantastically shy. Going into rehearsals is absolute agony for me until I start to sing. The worst bit of the job is doing it in public. I'm always completely overwhelmed that I'm going to disappoint, and I think that drives you forward."

But surely her one-woman concerts involve a certain amount of interplay with the audience? "I never script my linking talk, I can't bear lines. I'd rather stutter and stumble, but at least you get the real me on stage. It's my duty to do it properly; people have paid money to come and hear this thing."

At this point we are momentarily distracted by the sound of a Bajan gospel choir on the rehearsal stage behind us, and Friedman's eyes light up - "I love gospel, it gives me goosebumps." Her favourite musical role is 'Fosca' in Sondheim's Passion, but she's done plenty of straight theatre too, notably Sobol's Ghetto at the National. She has also recently finished the film version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and quickly discovered the advantages of the screen: "I do love live audiences, the energy you get from them can't be replaced by a camera. But when I saw myself on screen afterwards, it didn't look like me, it was much better. Two hours of make-up: no bags, no lines, nothing. And they've even got this digital thing to make my teeth whiter." And, sadly, the disadvantages: "I'd love to do more filming, but I put on a stone because all you do is eat. In the theatre you don't get to know people that well, because you're always in the wings in the dark. In a film you're there for months, all day, so we laughed and ate for three months together.

"That was a good job," she says, a shade wistfully. "But then" - we gaze across the luscious, tropical flower-filled gardens to the emerald-green Holders polo ground and the azure Caribbean glittering beyond - "so is this."

* Maria did actually go to 'stage school' - she briefly attended the Arts Education School.

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