A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: Producer Sonia Friedman on Her Life and Love of Working Behind the Scenes

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07 Jul 2014

Sonia Friedman
Sonia Friedman
Photo by Jason Alden

Meet Sonia Friedman, who shares her evolution from telling stories with milk bottles to producing award-winning shows.

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"Theatre was in my DNA," producer Sonia Friedman says. "I grew up in a very theatrical-musical household. It wasn't really a choice. It was just inevitable."

Friedman, 49, is among the most successful producers in London and on Broadway. Recent New York hits include Twelfth Night/Richard III, Jerusalem, La Cage aux Folles, Boeing-Boeing and The Book of Mormon. Six shows for which she has served as a producer have won Tony Awards as season's best.

In London this year her productions won 14 Olivier Awards, including best musical, musical revival, play, and play revival. In November, on Broadway at Circle in the Square, she is presenting The River, by Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem) and starring Hugh Jackman.

Friedman was raised in London, daughter of a pianist and a violinist. "From my earliest years, we as a family created stories and music at home. I remember thinking of stories to tell with milk bottles."

She thought she'd be a singer or cellist. "But my older sister [Olivier winner Maria Friedman] became the singer. The cello, I discovered by age 12 or 13, was not something I would excel in."

At 13 she went backstage to see Maria perform. "By the end of the show I'd fallen in love with the mechanics of putting on a show. I realized I wanted to work not onstage, but offstage."

She trained as a stage manager. Her first professional job involved a double bill, one play directed by Joan Plowright and the other by Richard Olivier — Plowright and Laurence Olivier's son. "My first job interview, at age 19, was with Joan Plowright and Lord Olivier. They gave me my Equity card."

She stage managed at London's National Theatre under Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, focusing on new plays by living writers directing their own work — Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett, David Hare and Athol Fugard. "I sat in the room watching this process. By the end, I knew this was going to be my life," as much as possible with living writers and new plays.

It was the late 1980s, and AIDS was "killing many friends and colleagues. I felt I had to do something. I didn't know what I was doing, but what I was doing was producing. I raised lots of money to create fund-raising events." After a while, "Richard Eyre said, 'You are a producer' and offered me a job producing at the National."

She stayed until 1993, producing works for young people and small-scale touring shows. She met Max Stafford-Clark, who was running the Royal Court Theatre. "I loved touring and I loved new work," she says, and they co-founded Out of Joint, which became a flourishing company specializing in both.

Five years later, she became a producer for London's Ambassador Theatre Group. Then, in 2002, she formed Sonia Friedman Productions.

The River, she says, "is a hard play to describe. At the center is a mystery that we can't reveal. But it's lyrical. It's elliptical. It's sexy. It's about a man and his love of a particular woman."

How does she feel about her success? "It certainly doesn't make me feel I understand more than anybody else how it's done. It just makes me have an inner confidence that at this moment my taste seems to click with audiences.

"The most extraordinary thing about working in commercial theatre is that no one will ever really understand why something works or why it doesn't. That's why it's the most exciting place to be, because it's full of surprises, and every day is a challenge."