Home > Interviews > The Times Magazine May 1994

Back to her Roots

The Times, Saturday Magazine 21 May 1994

Maria Friedman has been likened to Minnelli and Midler, but the chanteuse is a truly British, and classical, cabaret star, Alan Pranks writes

British cabaret singers are like British heavyweight boxers. We keep convincing ourselves that we've got a world-class one on our hands, and then there is a hitch. They turn out to he something else: they lose their nerve, or balance, or fights, or voice. They go to America or get sidetracked by more lucrative acting work. Very occasionally, like now, something goes right, and along come Lennox Lewis and Maria Friedman, the real articles both of them.

If she were a mainland European, she would be big and mainstream. Since she is not, she is for the time being modest and minority. This status, or lack of it, is frequently a godsent cue for such artistes to bawl out their native culture as being undeserving. Friedman is proving to be refreshingly radical by creating her own audience and then knocking it flat.

The sober Spectator called the 34-year-old's recent Sunday concerts at Covent Garden's Donmar Warehouse "quite simply the most dazzling debut in solo cabaret I have ever seen", equalling the fizzier Variety's view that it was "quite simply the most buoyant musical experience seen in London since Carousel". Quite simply, they are both quite right. When the need arises, the woman can belt it out like most of the giantesses you care to mention, from Minnelli to Midler, but can also enact a number with the delicacy of a Dietrich.

All very unEnglish. French, in fact, just like the word cabaret. Have you noticed how, when the French talk of singers, they do not use the word chanter so much as interpreter? As in "Quelles chansons elle interprete?" Assez dit; it is Friedman's aim to import that tradition and with it, in due course, some of the woefully undersung material of the genre. Next week she starts her own three-week run at the Donmar, with a show still largely centred on the classic end of the spectrum. This means Sondheim. Bernstein, Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart and so on. But there is Jacques Brel, too, and Elton John and Kate Bush, and even the great internationalist, Anon.

"I see the cabaret singer as someone who finds their way right to the emotional root of the character in a given song," she explains. "I would love to combine the simplicity and musical intelligence of the French chanteuse and add to that what I have learnt in the way of theatricality." Of this, there is enough to be going on with; until Friedman started rehearsing for these shows she was starring in the new John Godber comedy April in Paris at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End. Apart from her musical theatre credits, she has had roles in a variety of stage plays, including Tony Harrison's Square Rounds at the National.

It is hard to think of a modern English reference point. Perhaps the nearest is Millicent Martin, whose first exposure was as a revue performer in the Frost/Sherrin satire shows of 30 years ago. Yet the essence of Martin's singing is more jazz-and-pizzazz than cabaret. Then there are Victoria Wood and Dillie Keane, but they are Noel Coward's descendants, not Brel's. No, the truth is that Maria Friedman is something of a throwback, and while the search for a newcomer's resemblers is mandatory, it soon turns into a waste of energy. Mabel Mercer (born 1900) is probably as near as we will come, while of the great American cabaret singers of the century, Elizabeth Welch and Barbara Cook are the two most frequently mentioned. So much for similarities.

Yet influences are influential things, particularly when they come in the form of a whole family. Friedman's mother was a concert pianist and remains a music teacher; her father, a Russian Jew, is a former leader of the Bremen Philharmonic Orchestra and founder of the Scottish Baroque Ensemble. Her older brother, Richard, is a violinist, not to mention a member of her band. Both her sisters are intensely musical, and one of them, Sonia, is Friedman's producer.

The format of these shows and the nature of her 12-strong band come not from the popular but the classical world. The father, Leonand, is also the begetter of an annual musical festival in the Hebrides called Mendelssohn on Mull. Started six years ago, this features concerts all over the island in castles, halls and the abbey on Iona. It is, by all accounts, an occasion touched with magic, with professional musicians and students blowing through to rehearse and perform.

"In the evenings during last year's festival," she explains, "we would perform songs with whoever was available on the day. It depended on which musicians were playing in a concerto, or quartet, or whatever. In the mornings we would find out who was going to be around and then do the arrangements accordingly. There was a good deal of busking, and a lot of scribbling the arrangements on paper right up until the last moment, but the results were invariably very exciting and gloriously unpredictable."

In the past she has taken part in concerts at the Festival Hall and the Barbican. These were big, under-advertised, virtually unreviewed but very well attended affairs, often subjecting the Gershwin and Sondheim songbooks to vast orchestral arrangements. Although an 80-piece orchestra may, in some respects, be the ultimate backing group, it can also have the effect of dressing a naturally demotic line of music in ludicrously formal garb. Arrangement being the upholstery of melody, it should, like good families, know the difference between support and smothering. The devil may have the best tunes, but he also finds work for idle hands, and hates to see orchestral players mute when they could he weighing in with further tiers of sound.

Friedman is passionate on this subject. "It didn't seem to be OK for someone to stand up and sing a piece intelligently scored for a smaller number of musicians. You had to give it the milk-chocolate approach. I'm not denigrating that, I'm just saying that it's not my cup of tea, and that I consider it a way of losing some beautifully crafted tunes."

Not surprisingly, then, the arranger has been made something of a co-star. The significance of the title, By Special Arrangement, is that the songs come with a particular setting, provided by a contemporary musician. It is a criterion for inclusion and it means, to take a few examples, that we have Bernstein ('Tonight') arranged by the young composer Jason Carr, or Michel Legrand ('You Still Belong to Me') arranged by Jeremy Sams, or Sondheim ('Marry Me a Little') arranged by the Broadway orchestrator Jonathan Tunick.

The effect of this is to make you hear a given tune afresh, in some instances startlingly so, by realigning it with a new set of notes which are not the tune. Making the arranger's contribution special is rather like a theatrical director deciding to up, say, the function of the set design to the point of making it a character in the play.

"It is the difference between these arrangements and whatever was there before which make them mine," she says. "I would love to broaden the repertoire, and in time have maybe three or four shows. For example, I would love to do some Brecht/Weill and some folk songs and some Britten. Now I couldn't include him in this programme because the Britten songs are just for piano and voice. That is their arrangement and I didn't want to tamper with it.

"There are some songs that I wouldn't do because they require a particular kind of voice. I have a variety of colours and it [her voice] is a good instrument, and a big one. It doesn't have a break, and so I don't have the need to switch gears. But beyond a certain point, I am not interested in talking in technicalities. My great aim is to make that deep, emotional connection with a song, and then share that with the audience. Not in a formal or pre-scripted way, but with passion and conviction. I am an actress/musician, or a musician/actress. I don't know quite which way round it goes. I do not see these as being two strings to my bow, but two pars of the same one. When people ask me whether there is a space for someone like me, I answer that if there isn't, then I'm going to make one."

Until you hear her talk with this resolution, you might happily stick with some decorative French epithets to describe her: petite, gamine, retroussee. They do not quite do the business, and we need to rifle the Anglo-Saxon repertoire: brassy, ballsy, raunchy, that sort of thing. Being enlightened Europeans, of course, we will see that there are no contradictions here, and that true style is an eclectic creature.

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