Home > Interviews > The Times May 1995

She's done it her way

The Times, 9 May 1995

Maria Friedman cut no corners in getting her one-woman show to the West End. Matt Wolf reports.

It is a warm day outside, but inside the Islington Arts Factory in North London, Maria Friedman is really sending temperatures soaring. While Jeremy Sams, her director - and father of her five-month-old son Toby - looks on, Friedman soars through an early Stephen Sondheim number, 'What More Do I Need?' A second Sondheim number, 'Another Hundred People', shows off a gutsier, harder-edged Friedman, the song may be familiar from the musical Company, but the take on it is not.

Friedman's versatility has long been a byword in musical theatre as she rose from West End understudy and chorus work in shows such as Oklahoma! and Blondel to National Theatres leads in Ghetto and Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award.

Now her solo talent reaches a broader West End pulic. Fresh from winning an Olivier Award for 'Best Entertainment' for her solo show at the Donmar Warehouse, Friedman begins a revised and expanded six-week version of that show at the Whitehall Theatre on Thursday. It's called Maria Friedman By 'Extra' Special Arrangement.

Her rise through the musical ranks surprises nobody as much as Friedman herself. She has had "no career game plan" ever since she forsook formal education for an existence of "cigarettes and cafes and parks. I didn't really go to school a lot after I was 13 or 14."

Whereas other performers hop from one West End show to another, taking time out for the odd gig at places like Pizza on the Park, Friedman avoided all that. "I don't want to be anywhere where people are eating" she says. In addition, she has deliberately bypassed the British mega-musical, this is one woman we won't be seeing as 'Nancy' in Oliver!, 'Fantine' in Les Miserables, or 'Norma Desmond' in Sunset Boulevard. "You're stuck, if you do that," Friedman says. "I don't know who's in most of those shows at the moment and I don't see that we have a particular caring for artists in those shows. I have more love for what I'm doing than wanting to be gobbled up for the sake of a new bathroom."

Colleagues had been encouraging Friedman "for eight years" to put together a one-woman show, but it took a family invitation to bring the event about. Two summers ago her father, Leonard, a violinist, asked Friedman to provide the late-night entertainment at his annual summer festival on the Hebridean island of Mull.

Arriving with a dozen or so songs and performing in jeans and a jumper, Friedman quickly warmed to the task. "We'd start at about 9pm and still be going as two or three in the morning" she says. The audience was crammed into "a tiny conservatory jutting out into the Atlantic with no heating and everyone wearing coats and anoraks. It was amazing seeing music done like that without the pressure of ticket sales or reviews, literally for its own sake."

Upon her return to London, Friedman began rehearsals for John Godber's West End two-hander April in Paris. While performing in the play during the week, she did her solo show on three successive Sundays at the Donmar Warehouse, ultimately leaving the play two weeks early in order to mount the longer Donmar season last May.

For her current engagement, Friedman plans 26 songs, 17 of which - including 'The Man That Got Away', 'Everybody Says Don't' and a salsa version of 'The Blue Danube' - she has not previously sung. As before the show is intended to display the breadth of contemporary arrangements, not just of Friedman's vocal finesse. Arrangers include Americans Wally Harper and Michael Gibson, known for their work with Barbara Cook and Chita Rivera respectively, as well as newcomer Alexander Levine, a Russian student at the Guildhall School of Music. "We said to Alexander: 'We'll pay you 50 as an experiment, and you get to be with the best arrangers in the world: would you like to have a go?'"

The aim Friedman says, is for audiences "to come and cry and laugh without anyone spending 1million on a set. If people go with the songs, they'll get a proper emotional experience. I think of each song as its own little three-act play from which I move on to a new subject and a new emotional state. It's like a good thriller, or a good crossword - you leave clues, and allow the audience to fill in the missing links."

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