DIVA TALK: Two-Time Olivier Award Winner Maria Friedman Chats About U.S. Debut, Sondheim & Ragtime

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Two-Time Olivier Award Winner Maria Friedman Chats About U.S. Debut, Sondheim & Ragtime
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Maria Friedman.
Maria Friedman. Photo by Aubrey Reuben


In the past decade or so, Maria Friedman has become one of the most sought-after musical theatre performers in the West End. She delivered an acclaimed performance in the National Theatre's mounting of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and later received her second Olivier Award for her work in another Sondheim-James Lapine musical, Passion. Her first Olivier came for her one-woman show, Maria Friedman—By Special Arrangement, and she has also appeared in the West End productions of Chicago (Olivier nomination), Lady in the Dark (Evening Standard Award), Witches of Eastwick and, most recently, as Mother in Ragtime. Now, Friedman is making her long-awaited U.S. debut in a more intimate setting, the plush Cafe Carlyle. I was able to catch Friedman's dress rehearsal, and the actress-singer is often spellbinding in her 60-minute show. Her warmth just spreads across the audience as she delivers a mix of Sondheim, standards and lesser-known works. Highlights include a thrilling medley of tunes from Follies as well as a belty "I Happen to Like New York" and a wonderful take on "Broadway Baby." I had the pleasure of chatting with Friedman earlier this week, who is enjoying her stay in New York with her partner Oleg and her two young children, Toby, 8, and Alfie, 1 1/2. Excerpts from that interview follow.

Question: How was your opening night?
Maria Friedman: It went much better than my dress rehearsal. [Laughs.] We'd got the sound right by then, and the program was changed about, and it was much, much better.

Q: I really enjoyed the dress rehearsal.
MF: Oh, I'm so pleased. I hope you come again because I promise you it's a different experience because [the dress rehearsal] felt like I was singing through socks and I couldn't get to the people. I couldn't quite get the guns going when they needed to come out, and I suppose jet lag can just totally disorient you.

Q: And playing those small rooms can be odd.
MF:Very, very odd, and I think because it was a dress rehearsal, there wasn't the kind of adrenaline going through my body [where] you kind of pull stuff out. It was, for me, absolutely daunting that Sunday, and then Tuesday was slightly better, Wednesday was much better and Thursday — I breathed into it during the week. Q: Had you done much cabaret work in London?
MF: No, I've done big concert halls, but I have done my one-woman show in a place called the Donmar Warehouse, which is little.

Q: How did this engagement about?
MF: It came about because — I suppose the long answer is that Jerry Kravat, who manages Barbara Cook, saw me when I first worked with Barbara in London and said one day that he'd like to work with me. This is seven years ago! [Laughs.] And, then, I was having children, and I was sort of in show after show after show. And, one day he just picked up the phone — I was running home doing a school run and in between having to do that and then run off to do a show at night, Ragtime in the West End — when I got a phone call from Jerry saying, "Time's up, I'm going to manage you." [Laughs.] And I said, "OK." He said, "I've got a party for you in America, and it's a Fourth of July party, and I'd love you to come and do it." And I had a week holiday booked out of the show that week. And I thought, "Well this is fantastic, what a coincidence!" And I spoke to the family and everyone said to go and do it, it'll be fine. . . And off I went to the party. And when I was there, Stephen Sondheim and Barbara Cook were there, and they both said that I should be seen in New York, and then Jerry just set about making it happen. . . . And, then, Jerry said [the Carlyle] would be a really good room to play because Barbara had done it, and I love everything she's done. . . So I said yes, and that's why we're here!

Q: What have you noticed so far about the differences between performing in a small club versus a large theatre?
MF: Well, I think in the end, it's exactly the same. You have to get used to the fact that there are, literally, people sitting an inch away from you. I think as long as you keep the emotional truth of what you're doing, then you're safe wherever you are. What I've discovered over the week is that it's not so very different. I think what's more enjoyable about it is you can be more spontaneous because you're actually getting feedback from people. People suddenly will talk to you, so there isn't that fourth wall. Somebody will suddenly say, "Oh, I love that song," and you can say, "Thank you very much," and have a little chat. [Laughs.] I walked in the other day and somebody said, "My name's Friedman," so we chatted about whether we were cousins or not! I love that — it makes you feel like you've invited people to your home, which is lovely. Which actually is what I try to do in a very big concert hall. I want that intimacy. And seeing the eyes of people going on that journey is very moving. I've been very moved by a lot of people weeping or roaring with laughter, and [on] a particular romantic song, you see them just holding their husband's hand, just little touches like that that I'm sure are going on in the big halls, you just don't see them.

Q: How did you go about choosing the songs for the show? I noticed you didn't do a lot from your theatrical endeavors.
MF: No, I didn't — I think that's a whole other evening when somebody starts doing a retrospective of what they've done. Maybe when I'm 70 I'll do that. [Laughs.] I'm still moving forward rather than looking back. Also, I'm definitely somebody who likes to move on, I really do. If I've done a role for six months, I like to sort of put it to bed — I've done that. Sometimes I revisit songs years later and think, "Oh, my God, they're delicious," and you've got a chance to reinterpret them. Somehow, leaving gaps gives you that space not just to re-create what you've done. And I think out of context these things have a very different resonance anyway.

Q: You also talk a lot about and sing several Sondheim songs in your show. What is it about his work that appeals to you?
MF: I think his subject matter — where he talks about ordinary people, cranky people. There's no king or queen there or mass murderer, just ordinary people finding a voice. I like the dilemmas that these people find themselves in. I can relate to them; I think everybody can relate to them. The ordinariness makes them so extraordinary. I've always found that when people talk about heroes, I just want to talk about everyday people, because I think [that's what] we all are. They're everyday heroes, his characters. And there's always three, four layers going on. Nobody ever just says, "I love you." They'll say, "I don't love you or I wish I loved you or maybe I could love you." And they're saying it all at once. "Maybe I did love you or maybe I still can." The gamut, the emotional range that one is allowed to play — I can sing these songs literally every night, and I find something new. Not only is technical stuff a great challenge, but he also writes in speech patterns, so you have to have the discipline of making it real. You're fantastically supported, but at the same time more exposed. He's marvelous, just marvelous. And can be so funny as well. And full of heart. There is no question in my mind that the man's heart is pumping with compassion and understanding.

Q: You come from a very musical home. Your mom was a pianist and your father was a violinist. Tell me what that atmosphere was like growing up.
MF: Oh, it was wonderful because we all played instruments, the four children. My sister played wind instruments; she played the clarinet and the flute and the cello. And my other sister played the cello and the piano, and I played the cello and the piano. And my brother played the violin and now is an unbelievably successful professional violinist. And we were sort of known as the little conservatory, and you could hear our house from the top of our street. If it was sunny, we'd all play with our windows open — we don't have air conditioning in London [laughs] in our old Victorian homes — the windows would be open, and you'd hear music coming out. Christmas was always wonderful, and any sort of celebration, any holidays were amazing. We'd all get our instruments out and play. The family's friends were also musical, so you'd have little quartets going on. I really, really miss my childhood. I'm not saying it was — I don't believe in that ideal utopia bit — but the companionship of four siblings, all with big personalities, is something that means you're never lonely.

Q: What performers influenced you as a child?
MF: It was a very different world, as I say, it was classical musicians. I remember the very first theatre I ever went to was Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright in Saturday, Sunday, Monday where they were cooking on the stage, and I will never forget that experience. But I really didn't know I was going to be in the theatre until I was in my late teens. It wasn't like I was trained up and sent to various schools. I think over here everyone is very massively trained. I was definitely somebody [who] didn't know what I was doing. I've learned on the move! [Laughs.]

Q: When did the change from playing an instrument to singing and acting happen?
MF: I gave up my string instrument when I was 14, 15. I just absolutely wanted to play out in the sunshine and not practice. Then I didn't know what I was going to do. The next, probably seven, eight years [I spent] doing odd jobs — I worked with children, I was a secretary, I was a receptionist — all the time I didn't even know that I wanted to be a singer, but I used to sing in the reception, and they used to say, "Sing us that song, sing us that song." It was really a boyfriend of mine at the time who said, "For God sakes, just do something with [your] voice." We had a theatrical paper called The Stage, and it had auditions in it. There was an audition for a backing singer for this man who'd had a number one hit in the 1960's, and he was going on a little tour, and he wanted two girls to kind of go "ooooh, oooh," and I went along and got the job. I went around Europe going "oooh, oooh" in blue chiffon and false eyelashes in really strange little clubs. So, I suppose I have done cabaret in a way! [Laughs.] . . . And, then, when I came back to London — we don't have a union where you have to be Equity anymore, but we used to have a union where you had to be Equity. And when I got home, I got a full Equity card through my post. I didn't even know what Equity was! . . . I made a living, I traveled. I thought, "This is a lot better than sitting [and answering phones] for the oil company." Since then, that's what I've done. . . It was completely just a friend saying — he was really upset for me because he said something in my spirit had sort of gone from when I'd been at school to the woman I was. I was still happy and not depressed but, "There's something missing in you, Maria. You're not playing cello, you're not singing, you're not making music, and it's part of who you are." And he couldn't have been more right.

Q: You were recently in Ragtime. What was that experience like for you?
MF: Oh, it was wonderful. I wish you'd seen our production. All the writers say that was "it" for them. It was very very stripped down, very bare. We had no set — I mean it was one plain wooden thing, which represented various things like the boat. And we did it in one costume, I had two. We told the story very, very simply and very beautifully with the most magnificent actors and singers, a cast of 30, so smaller, everything smaller. There wasn't a single night of the run where we didn't get a full standing ovation, not one, matinees or evenings. And in England we don't stand, so it's the very first production I've ever been in. . . I've had personal standing ovations for things like Passion when I came down, but this was as the very first person in the ensemble walked on the stage, the place were on their feet. It's a wonderful show . . . I've become very close to Terrence [McNally], Lynn [Ahrens] and Stephen [Flaherty] as a consequence of their work. They know how to do it. Boy, they know how to do it! . . . I love Terrence's economy in his book writing. Playing Mother — it was stripped down so that every word had some significance and weight, again, something other than what she was actually saying. The same with Lynn's lyrics — they're subtle, they're full of heart and love. I love their work, and Stephen's music is rhapsodic and delicious and difficult! [Laughs.]

Q: And you had the great song "Back to Before."
MF: Yeah, that just used to bring the house down. Lovely, fantastic for an actor to come on the stage absolutely knowing you're going to kill 'em! [Laughs.]

Q: Do you have any other projects coming up?
MF: I'm doing a tour of my concerts. We just did one in front of 55,000 people in London. We did one in Geneva, and we're doing one in Barcelona three days after I leave here. Then we've got one in Paris. . . This is the full-length concert, and it's much bigger venues, two-to-three thousand seaters. But we do the same sort of songs, program. I'm taking just the two pianos.

Q: I'm always curious to ask people who've done a lot of theatre if they have any stories of mishaps on stage.
MF: I've fallen down a trap in the middle of a show — that was in Sunday in the Park with George. When I was flying in Witches of Eastwick, I got stuck on my little wires 80 feet up over the audience. During the interval, I was being hoisted down while they were eating their ice cream. They could all look up my skirt — it was very embarrassing and very funny. . . Because I'm very fair, they gave me stick-on eyebrows in Passion. They were very, very thick black eyebrows, and I came on one day and the actor couldn't look at me. I'd only got one on! The other one had fallen off, and it was sort of hanging from the collar of my dress. [Laughs.]

Q: Last question. When people hear the name Maria Friedman, what would you like them to think?
MF: I'd like them just to smile. I just hope that if they've heard my work that in some way I've communicated with them and reminded them that it's alright to be human.

Friedman will continue performing "Maria Friedman: From London to New York" at the Cafe Carlyle through Oct. 11. She plays Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:45 PM with late shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 10:45 PM. There is a $50 cover charge but no minimum. Reservations can be made by calling (212) 570-7189. The Carlyle is located in New York City at 35 East 76th Street.

IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Recent Tony Award winner Jane Krakowski has signed a deal with CBS. The television network plans to develop a comedy for the Nine star for fall 2004. The contract also stipulates that the actress may be cast in one of CBS' drama or comedy pilots. Krakowski, who departs the revival of the Maury Yeston musical Oct. 5, will also soon begin filming a remake of the film "Alfie" opposite Indiscretions' Jude Law. . . . Neile Adams, who appeared in the original Broadway production of Kismet, will debut songs from her third CD, "The Child in Me," during her upcoming cabaret engagement. Adams, who also appeared in The Pajama Game, will perform at The Gardenia in Hollywood, CA, on Nov. 3, 10, 17, 24 and Dec. 1 and 8. Show time is 9 PM. Adams' show will include such tunes as "It's Today!," "Time Heals Everything," "Is That All There Is?," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "Till Him," "New Words" and "Child in Me." Ted Sprague directs with musical direction by Andy Howe. Howe will also accompany Adams on piano with Karl Vincent on bass and Dan Savell on drums. The Gardenia is located at 7066 Santa Monica Boulevard. Call (323) 467-7444 for reservations. . . . Liza Minnelli — recently separated from fourth husband David Gest — will make her first screen acting appearance in nearly a decade. Minnelli will play a wealthy widowed socialite in the Fox comedy "Arrested Development." Minnelli will appear on several episodes of the new series, which concerns the eccentric Bluth family. The Bluth clan is forced to come together after the arrest of the family patriarch, portrayed by Jeffrey Tambor. The series also stars Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, Jessica Walter, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, Portia De Rossi, David Cross and Alia Shawkat. . . . The Off-Broadway musical Fame on 42nd Street, which begins previews at the Little Shubert Theatre Oct. 7, will be recorded next month. Cast members will head into the studio Oct. 27 to record the musical's score for Q Records. According to a spokesperson for the production, the cast recording is due in stores Nov. 18. . . . Cric? Crac!, a new musical recording starring Sara Ramirez and recent Big River star Michael McElroy, will be released on CD Oct. 6. Available on the 2die4 Productions, Inc. Label, Cric? Crac! is a "magical musical fable" with a score by David Christian Azarow (music) and Stone Widney (lyrics). The cast of the recording also features Erol Josui, Adam Metzger, Katheryn Feeney, Paul Iacono, Jack Dabdoub, Daniel Neiden, Peter Waldren, Lindsey Sherman and Rachel Nichols with Joy Lynn Matthews, Wanda L. Houston, Carmen Ruby Floyd, John Lucas, Thos Shipley, Kenneth-Michael Glass, Esprit Basner, Johnny Beauchamp, Steven Cantalonio, Danasia Scott and Katie-Leigh Lindenman. According to a release, Cric? Crac! concerns Juan, "an abandoned boy of twelve, growing up on the streets of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic who gets into trouble with the law and runs away to search for his mother in Haiti." For more information visit www.2die4music.com


Betty Buckley in Concert:

Oct. 18 at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts in Atlanta, GA
Oct. 28-Nov. 8 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York, NY
Nov. 22 at the Dominican University in River Forest, IL

Liz Callaway in Concert:

Oct. 4 in Tucson, AZ
Oct. 11 with the Binghamton Philharmonic Pops in Binghamton, NY
Oct. 12 with Jason Graae in Coral Gables, FL
Nov. 8 with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in Hartford, CT
Nov. 10 in The Three Leading Ladies of Broadway in Washington, DC
Dec. 13 in Arlington, VA
Jan. 17, 2004 in Asheville, NC
Jan. 31 in Sibling Revelry in Boston, MA
Feb. 8 in Sibling Revelry in Riverfront, IL
Feb. 14 with Jason Graae in Palm Springs, CA
Feb. 26-28 with Jason Graae in West Palm Beach, FL
April 24-25 with Jason Graae in San Rafael, CA
May 1 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY

Barbara Cook in Concert:

Oct. 3 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA; concert with Marilyn Horne
Nov. 22 at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY

Patti LuPone in Concert:

Oct. 25 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA (“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”)
Nov. 7-9 with the Houston Symphony ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Jan. 23, 2004 at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Jan. 24, 2004 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL
Feb. 27-29, 2004 at the Myerhoff Hall in Baltimore, MD
March 12, 2004 at the New Jersey PAC in Newark, NJ
March 13 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ

Karen Mason in Concert:

Oct. 4 with the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra at the Rosemont Theatre in Rosemont, IL
Oct. 18 at the Emelin Theater in NY
Nov. 15 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ

Christiane Noll in Concert

Oct. 11 Chattanooga, TN with Don Pippin
Dec. 31 Des Moines, IA with Des Moines Symphony & Brad Little

Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!

(l-r) Barbara Cook, Stephen Sondheim, Maria Friedman and Josh Groban at a reception to celebrate Mrs. Friedman's cabaret debut.
(l-r) Barbara Cook, Stephen Sondheim, Maria Friedman and Josh Groban at a reception to celebrate Mrs. Friedman's cabaret debut. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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