With solo show Rearranged, Maria Friedman is on a mission to make her audiences feel as deeply as she does about the music she sings, finds Caroline Bishop.
During the course of a half hour conversation over coffee in the Embankment branch of a well-known purveyor of quality caffeine, Maria Friedman tells me she never had ambitions to be on the stage, isn’t the right sort of personality for it and is not a natural singer.
It is quite something, in that case, that the woman sitting in front of me sipping a soya cappuccino has a career that encompasses close to three decades in musical theatre and a trio of Laurence Olivier Awards.
But it does explain why 48-year-old Friedman seems – offstage – the least starry of stars. Currently performing her solo show Rearranged in the West End following a sold-out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory earlier this year, Friedman says humbly “I don’t feel like it’s a solo show, I think it’s an evening of amazing music and I’m lucky enough to get to sing them all. I stand on my own and I sing, but I can’t do it without them.”
By “them”, she means the members of her 12-strong band, playing over 40 instruments between them, who accompany Friedman as she sings a programme of her favourite tunes, combining the work of musical theatre legends including Leonard Bernstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber and her long-time collaborator Stephen Sondheim, with that of Randy Newman, Kate Bush and Suzanne Vega. As per the title, the tunes have been arranged for Friedman and her band by a number of orchestrators the singer has worked with over the years, whom she calls the “unsung heroes” of her industry.
Reflecting the personal nature of the show, the format of the evening is designed to be as down-to-earth and unshowy as its star. Friedman says she has worked hard to make the steeply raked space of Trafalgar Studio 1 feel intimate, as though you’ve stepped into her living room for a chat. “Even when I’m playing big halls, even if I’m playing the Albert Hall, I want it to feel relaxed and not formal or starchy,” she says. “I’ve always felt that I’m part of the audience… just one of you that happens to be the one that sings.”
The songs she sings in Rearranged cover a diverse range of styles and were chosen by Friedman “so that an audience can feel all the things we’re able to feel when we hear music: some sorrow, some warmth and some laughter, some joy”. She involves the audience in her show – she recently had an audience member tap dancing on stage – and banters with them between songs. “I think what I like is when I look into the audience and I’ve seen that they’ve been laughing and crying. I see they’ve done that during the evening and feel I’ve done my job,” she says.
“I’ve always felt that I’m part of the audience… just one of you that happens to be the one that sings”
It is this connection with the audience that gives Friedman her raison d’etre; the reaction that certain music provokes in her and the desire to transmit that feeling to others is why Friedman has remained in the business she got into somewhat accidentally.
She is from a musical family – her father was a professional violinist and her mother a concert pianist – but Friedman nevertheless fell into musical theatre, encouraged by her then boyfriend (later husband) Roland Brine, a dancer who got her a job in the chorus of a touring production of Oklahoma! in 1980. “I think my character was actually not right to be on the stage,” she says. “I’m much more of an introverted extrovert. I think my sensibility is much more of a musician than an actor”. Mainly, she adds with characteristic humility, she got into the industry “because I can’t do anything else”.
Two things happened to turn what started out as a job into a passion. First, she saw a production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1980, the start of a love affair with the composer’s music that would prove the lifeblood of her career. “I felt like I’d gone off in a rocket. I really felt pushed back in my seat with excitement,” she says of seeing the show. “And I’m not a groupie type of person…but I went back five times; that’s the only time I’ve ever done that.”
It took another nine years until the second turning point, when she appeared in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto at the National Theatre. In it, Friedman sang the work of amateur Jewish songwriters who had lived in the Vilnius ghetto in 1942, under German occupation. “That was an absolutely defining moment where I thought, bloody hell, music can really move people. It can absolutely get you somewhere that an intellectual argument or a well crafted play can’t, direct to the guts.”
After Ghetto, working in shows that didn’t inspire such strength of feeling was no longer an option. “I just didn’t want to do that anymore. I thought if I want to sing I want to sing those things that matter,” she says frankly.
She was soon to discover that what mattered to her was performing the work of Sondheim. A year later, having seen her in Ghetto, the American composer suggested Friedman for the role of Dot in the UK premiere production of his musical Sunday In The Park With George at the National Theatre. She earned her first of seven Laurence Olivier Award nominations for that role and went on to appear in his musicals Merrily We Roll Along, Passion and, last year, Sweeney Todd at the Royal Festival Hall. The composer has become a personal friend and the extent of his influence on Friedman can be seen in the way his work dominates the repertoire of Rearranged; both Dot and Mrs Lovett make welcome appearances.
"I think my sensibility is much more of a musician than an actor”
“He really has given me a life,” says Friedman simply. “Up until I did his work, I was just making a living singing, sort of dipping and diving into whatever. Then when I discovered his work, something very deep in me felt everything made sense a bit and made me want to do it”.
“He doesn’t pretend that the day you fall in love is going to be the day that the sun shines forever. I’m not really into that as a human being, as a participant in this mad, difficult world,” she explains. “He’s complex enough, witty enough and his music breaks my heart. And everything he writes about is about love – everything.”
Is love a big focus in Friedman’s life? “Completely,” she says without hesitation. “I’m born to live with someone. I don’t like being on my own, I like my house full and my children to be noisy and the dogs to be there. Yes, love is absolutely central… I can’t see there’s anything else really that’s of any importance at all. One can’t always find it and when it goes wrong it’s absolutely devastating, but it seems to me that’s all there is; love of your friends, love of your family.”
Currently seeing actor Adrian Der Gregorian, Friedman was previously married to dancer Brine and had a relationship with musical director and orchestrator Jeremy Sams, father of her eldest son, 14-year-old Toby. She also has a six-year-old, Alfie, who Friedman says has an “extraordinary” singing voice. “I don’t know where the hell it’s come from because he’s got vibrato and everything. Bizarre,” she says, entirely genuinely, adding “I mean, I am a singer now, but my God I’ve had to work at it, it’s not natural for me.”
Her love for her children was one of the reasons she made a decision, three years ago, to stop accepting long contracts in musical theatre. After decades of performing eight shows a week for months at a time, Friedman decided she would rather be able put her kids to bed at night. What’s more, “I had stopped enjoying it. I was doing it because it was what I did.”
The decision was made after starring in The Woman In White on Broadway in 2005. It was an “incredibly odd” time for Friedman, and not because the show was poorly received and lasted just three months. Two weeks before opening night, she found a lump in her breast and was operated on two days later. “It’s so funny, people say oh God it must have been awful for you to go to Broadway and then it not to work. I said no, what was awful was getting cancer! I was grateful to have a job that kept me active and busy, because otherwise you’d be at home going ‘I’m ill’, whereas I didn’t have any time to think about it.”
“He doesn’t pretend that the day you fall in love is going to be the day that the sun shines forever"
Getting cancer compounded her decision, and as soon as the run finished, Friedman rang her agent with the news she was stopping. It was a risk; despite already having something of a concert career in the States, where she had played the prestigious, £300-a-ticket Café Carlyle, she didn’t think she would be able to make a living from concerts alone. But she was quickly surprised to find she was more in demand than she had realised, and was soon invited to sing in venues around the world. “It’s the most extraordinary thing when you actually make that decision, how good the world can be,” she reflects.
Three years later – during which time, following treatment, she has happily remained cancer free – Friedman has carved out a burgeoning international concert career which enables her to continue singing the music she loves and also be there to tuck her kids into bed. If it’s the school holidays, they jet off with her; if it’s not, she does a couple of concerts a month or, like Rearranged, a run of no more than a few weeks, and spends the rest of the time at home. As she rattles off her list of forthcoming engagements – in Belfast, Barcelona, New York, Australia – her eyes sparkle with delight and it is clear that her career is exactly where she wants it right now.
She won’t say no to musical theatre forever; she says she would do a show now if it didn’t mean more than a three-month commitment, but producers, she tells me, generally demand longer contracts of their stars. Even her sister, the West End producer Sonia Friedman, won’t bend the rules for her. “She’s the toughest of all!” she laughs. What is certain is that when she does accept a role in a West End show again, it will be in one that inspires emotion in both herself and those she sings to. Her litmus test remains her audience. “If they are smiling and happy, I feel really, really happy.”