PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Woman in White: The Lord Moves in Mystery Ways

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18 Nov 2005

Andrew Lloyd Webber; Maria Friedman; Judy Kuhn; Barbara Cook; Michael Ball; Trevor Nunn; Tommy Tune; Dr. Ruth Westheimer; Barbara Walters; Kathie Lee Gifford & Kim Cattral; Jerry Mitchell; Des McAnuff.
Andrew Lloyd Webber; Maria Friedman; Judy Kuhn; Barbara Cook; Michael Ball; Trevor Nunn; Tommy Tune; Dr. Ruth Westheimer; Barbara Walters; Kathie Lee Gifford & Kim Cattral; Jerry Mitchell; Des McAnuff.
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

On Nov. 17—the day she made her Broadway debut in Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber's Gothic mystery musical, The Woman in White, at the Marriott Marquis—Maria Friedman rose at 5 AM to do an all-stops-out, sinus-clearing rendition of Cole Porter's dramatically declarative anthem to urban life, "I Happen to Like New York," on ABC's "Good Morning America" show. "I do, too," she post-scripted just before station break.

If the song had extra edge and urgency than it did in her Cafe Carlyle club act last year—well, therein hangs a tale most of showbiz knows now: how she was diagnosed in previews with stage one cancer, took five days off for surgery and recovery, then resumed the chaotic work-in-progress, making sure that the show goes on as originally planned.

Spunk and spine seem second nature to Friedman, who happily happens to be playing that in Marian Halcombe, a snoopy spinster weeding her way through a highly haunted English manse full of family skeletons. So tapping into those inner resources was hardly a reach.

It's tough role in the best of health, but Friedman plowed on with ferocious determination, scurrying about in an assortment of weighty Victorian gowns, pausing occasionally to deliver a full-out ballad to the back row, at one point fending off a near-rape and—did I neglect to say?—acting up a storm that charges the action and keeps the narrative on track.

Then, after making it to the standing ovation, Phase II began—the real performance, making it through the glittering gauntlet of well wishers and glad-handers and tug-of-war press jockeying at Tavern on the Green. At one point, she gamely braved the midnight chill for a suddenly improvised photo op in the Tavern garden and then returned to the press room for additional interrogation. This went on for a good 90 minutes, until her publicist asked if she'd like to sit down for a while. A splendid idea, she thought—and off she was swept to the main dining room where the first night revelers welcomed her with personal, warming applause, and she settled into a covey of ingenues at the front table: Judy Kuhn, Christine Andreas and that earth mother of them all, Barbara Cook.

Through it all, the smile stayed in place. You'd take her for a heroine playing a heroine.

"I'm really not," she pooh-poohed. "The guy at the news vendor is calling me a heroine. He's selling papers. I'm just trying to prove you can get through this. What is around the corner, one doesn't know, but you might as well live life as if you're going to be alive. If I can encourage anybody to do that, great! I'm in the process of learning how to deal with it myself, and I'm being taught how to do it by the experts. I've decided to trust them."

Some of these experts—her surgeon and two other doctors—surprised her at the opening. She broke through the roped-off barricade to get to them and introduced them to the press.

Sonia Friedman, in the strange spot of being her sister as well as one of her major producers, was kvelling to beat the band. "It's the most wonderful, remarkable experience for us both—to be here together, making our Broadway debuts together. One's in awe of what Maria can do, what she is, her character, her strength. This show is the biggest thing I've ever had to undertake. I normally just do plays in London. [She has done 650 productions!] To be asked suddenly to produce a million-pound musical in London—it was just something I had to do. And to have my own sister being the star of it was the icing on a great cake."

All plans are on hold, she says, until a medical verdict is reached. "Maria is going to be told quite soon what her after-care is going to be. We don't really know right now." Chemotherapy? "Not necessarily—but she'll be getting radiation, though not for a while."

Excusing 1997's By Jeeves (which some will do), The Woman in White is the first new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical since Sunset Boulevard docked at Broadway and 45th (at the Minskoff, right across the street from his new place of business) a decade ago.

It hardly seems that long since he has never really been away. On Jan. 9, his The Phantom of the Opera (which will have been residing at the Majestic for 18 years to the day) will scare his Cats out of the top spot as Broadway's longest-running show with its 7,486th performance.

The man with the one-two Broadway punch is a little incredulous at this new turn of events. "You never think of it, do you? I can't really process it. I feel very, very lucky."

He hasn't been idle during this 10-year interim, but Whistle Down the Wind (which he wrote with Jim Steinman in 1997) and The Beautiful Game (which he wrote with Ben Elton in 2000) did not make it from London to New York. "The Beautiful Game is something that I really wish had been brought here," he lamented. "Sadly, people think of me as the Andrew Lloyd Webber of Cats and Phantom, and they forget that I also wrote the musical that anticipated everything to do with terrorism. That was The Beautiful Day."

Being the most successful Broadway composer of all doesn't make Lord Lloyd Webber any less shy, although he has (at least at this opening) lost the deer-in-the-headlights look he usually flashes at premieres. When he entered the Tavern press arena, a sudden hush fell over the room, and one could almost hear him squirming. He dutifully did his paparazzi duty, posing with his principals and mustering a vague smile. He even talked to a video camera, at surprising length, while a shot was being set up, but, when that was over, he bolted for the exit, missing the collective jaw-drop of the press corps behind him.

At his table, his wife and business associate kept most reporters at bay. He politely, if perfunctorily, answered a few questions, but ducked those about The Woman in White. "It's the first night tonight, and I'm quite tired," he said heavily while La Friedman was doing everything but handstands in the next room. "I don't think we should really do an interview right now. If I'm going to do an interview, let's do it another time, shall we?"

The most asked question of the evening, easily, was "How do like working with Maria Friedman?"—to which Michael Ball shot back, "Oh, a nightmare," countering any cloying response with comedy. "Naughty, contrary...," he started itemizing until he got the laugh he wanted. Stage lovers before (in Stephen Sondheim's Passion), they are here cast adversarially, he as the heavy (in all senses of the word) Count Fosco who pumps most of the skullduggery into the show. "We have a kind of short-hand with each other. We just know instinctively, and we change things all the time. She's a joy. Completely simpatico!"

Giving the count's villainy a comic twist is the fat suit that Ball must bear every performance. "It gets considerably heavier as the night goes on, with all the sweat. You have to constantly take fluids, and it does change how you move, but that's a good thing. I want to be light and dainty, but I look kind of absurd trying to be that in this suit."

Not the least of Fosco's eccentricities is his fondness for rodents, and his big second-act number—"You Can Get Away With Anything"—is shared with an arm-crawling white rat (Beatrice, by name: her understudy is Charlotte). "You make up stuff as you go along in that number. The rat makes it up even though it's performing. She did tonight. She was so good. Whatever she does, you have to go along with." In Act I, he pulls a white mouse (Trixie) out of his pocket. "It's not a toy. It is a real, live and, tonight, peeing mouse."

Otherwise, they take direction—if not from Cats director Trevor Nunn, who has been concentrating on making The Woman in White a tighter show than it is in London. "We made some changes," he admitted. "We tried to clarify the narrative. We tried to make to make the show a little bit shorter, particularly in the last act. And we made a few musical changes, but not huge ones. With an interval, I think it runs two and three-quarter hours. It was very difficult to tell tonight because the audience didn't assemble until 20 minutes after the appointed time, and they were determined to have a 35-minute interval."

The director, too, was a thoroughgoing Friedman fan. "Maria is the real thing because she's a wonderful actress. She could easily have a sensational career if she couldn't sing a note. She just happens to be one of the great singers. She's so musical. That sounds almost patronizing, but when I say she's so musical, I mean the instinct to do things with music, to make the music speak, to personalize the music. It's just remarkable."


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