DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Maria Friedman Plus Kuhn, Carroll and Akers Delight and Casting Les Miz

News   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Maria Friedman Plus Kuhn, Carroll and Akers Delight and Casting Les Miz
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Olivier Award winner Maria Friedman.
Olivier Award winner Maria Friedman. Photo by Andrew Southam


It may not have been the greatest musical, but The Woman in White thankfully gave American audiences the chance to enjoy a bit of the magic that Maria Friedman has been providing London theatergoers with for more than a decade. A three-time Olivier Award winner for her work in Maria Friedman-By Special Arrangement, Passion and Ragtime, Friedman played Marian Halcombe in the aforementioned Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, a role she created on the London stage and later preserved on EMI's original cast recording. During previews of Woman in White, Friedman was diagnosed with breast cancer, but save for a few performances here and there, the acclaimed actress continued in the role, winning strong reviews for her work and a legion of new American fans. If Lloyd Webber got to her Broadway, however, it seems to be Sondheim who has won her heart, as Friedman will be returning to the intimate confines of the Café Carlyle with an all-Sondheim program beginning May 2. And, in August the charming chanteuse will perform a two-act program of Sondheim tunes at London's Haymarket Theatre. Earlier this week I had the chance to chat with the good-humored and refreshingly candid Friedman, during a quick break from learning lyrics at her London home. That interview follows.

Question: Tell me about the show you're going to be performing at the Carlyle.
Maria Friedman: It's a month of Stephen Sondheim's work. I've got a couple of songs that have never been heard before that he's given to me out of his top and bottom drawer. Some pretty exciting stuff, stuff that he wrote when he was 19, stuff that he's just written. And, [songs from] three of the shows that I was in - I did Sunday [in the Park with George], Merrily [We Roll Along] and Passion here, and I'm doing great chunks from them and also [from] Into the Woods.

Q: What are some of the song titles?
Friedman: We've got "I Remember Sky," "Stay With Me," "Girls of Summer," "Isn't He Something?" and then I have whole chunks from Merrily - like "Not a Day Goes By," "Now You Know," "Our Time" - and then I've got "Sunday" and "We Do Not Belong Together."

Q: What about Sondheim's work is so appealing to you?
Friedman: He's simply the best, isn't he? He deals with every part of your ability. You're taxed at every point, and he's a brilliant communicator. He talks about ordinary people and ordinary life, and I love that. People struggling with things we all struggle with—regardless of whether they're a witch in a musical—whatever it is, the actual subject matter is always something about the human condition and its frailty and its courage. It's fantastically emotional, and he's very witty. For me, he's the very, very best there is. I'm doing a two-hour [Sondheim] show in London at the Haymarket in August, so this will be a little section of that show. Q: Can I ask how you're doing health wise?
Friedman: Health wise, who knows? I'm just carrying on as if I'm completely well. The only thing I'm finding a bit difficult is sometimes I find it a bit difficult to breathe because I think the radiotherapy probably got to a bit of my lungs, but it's not affecting my singing. All I do is take an extra breath here or there. But, apart from that my scars have completely healed. I had a genius surgeon, so you literally can't tell I've had anything done, which is amazing. In fact, my left breast is better than my right now. [Laughs.] Not that I'm saying I want it again. Yes, I'm really fine.

I had a fantastic holiday just recently with my family, just three weeks of nothing but eating and swimming and then we went skiing. It was completely indulgent. I only did that I know because I got ill. You literally, suddenly realize you do only live once, so we stopped and all went away. And now I'm back in the fray of things. I've got 31 boxes that I haven't unpacked from New York. It's deeply depressing! [Laughs.]

Q: I know you'll be in New York for the Carlyle run, but are you back in London permanently?
Friedman: I'll be back and forth. I think that's the way it will be from now on, hopefully, if everything works out well.

Q: Are you completely finished with your treatments?
Friedman: No, it's ongoing now. I have an injection every month, and I'm on medication every day of the week . . . and that will continue for five years.

Q: You were very open with your illness. Was it a difficult decision whether to talk about it at the time?
Friedman: Funny enough, I'm not ashamed of it, and I had to be open with it because too many people's lives were affected by it. It's not a situation of just a family at home, which is just as dramatic—I'm not saying [mine was] any worse. But, suddenly, you're in the middle of somebody else's country—I'm not even in my own country—and I pull out of something, people would have wanted to know why, if suddenly on the third preview, I disappeared for a week. People love to gossip, and the show couldn't take it anyway, as we discovered, the show closed. But I didn't want to be responsible for that. [Laughs.] The show closed. It had to close because it closed, not because people thought I was off or ill. I think I've learnt a lot from being straight [with people]—I used to be very ashamed of illness of any sort. I was very, very stoical. I've learnt there's little point in that because there was so much support for me out there I couldn't believe it. And, I didn't reckon on that, but it came in abundance.

Q: Were you able to enjoy the Broadway run at all?
Friedman: Yes, because of the people, because of the cast that were involved. I enjoyed them hugely. You can't stay in one state all the time. You can't just be unhappy. I have to say I had the most amazing time in New York, and it sounds ridiculous to people considering I got cancer. But I did. [Laughs.]

Q: Even though the show didn't have the longest run, audiences and critics certainly embraced you and your performance.
Friedman: I felt very welcome. It was terribly hard to leave New York because I had gone through probably the most dramatic time of my life, but it was nice knowing I'd be coming back.

Q: This is your third engagement at the Carlyle. Tell me about playing that room—what you do or don't enjoy about working in such an intimate environment.
Friedman: It's interesting actually. The first time I didn't know the room at all, so I just got songs I liked. I think they worked okay. The second time, I think, was a slightly more gentle approach to the room. This time, and I have no idea whether it will work or not, because it's a very theatrical program, and it's a tiny room. But I think in some ways, particularly because I had that time in New York which was a bit difficult, I wanted to do a program of stuff that I belong to. Not just a generic bunch of songs that might please somebody. Every song I sing in this program I connect with and I like. But a good half of them are quite theatrical, and it will be interesting to see how it plays in that room, but I think it will be quite exciting, and I think it will be very emotional.

The reason I love that room is you get people's eyes. When you're playing in a theatre, you project and you have to be absolutely in the moment. You feel the audience, but you can't really tell. Whereas, my God, you can tell if they don't like it at the Carlyle—they're eating their crème brulee or talking out loud. [Laughs.] It's very, very cut and dry. It's either working or it's not. If the room is quiet, it's working. If the room is not quiet, it's not working. And it's a huge art that I really embraced when I was there, because I think it takes an enormous amount of concentration and quiet focus. . . This time I'm having a cello and a piano, and I haven't worked with either of them before. I'm daring not to bring my English boys, so it's a complete new relationship. I worked with one of them during the [recording] sessions at Sony. I don't know if you knew I recorded some tracks for my CD, which comes out on May 2. And Steve Sondheim played for me on that CD [on] "Children and Art." So I met the cellist during those sessions. I met [Mairi Dorman] once, but I loved her playing. The pianist comes highly recommended. Steve actually found [Nicholas Archer] for me, so he's gotta be good! [Laughs.]

Q: Is the Sony Classical CD all new tracks?
Friedman: No, it's a [reissue of an] older CD with two new bonus tracks, "Smile" and "Children and Art." It's now called "Now and Then." [The complete track list includes "I Happen to Like New York," "The Man with the Child in His Eyes," "If You Go Away," "My Romance," "In the Sky," "Paris in the Rain," "Smile," "Guess Who I Saw Today?," "Finishing the Hat," "A Nursery Rhyme (Toby's Song)," "Now and Then," "Broadway Baby," "The Man That Got Away" and "Children and Art."]

Q: While you were in New York, did you get the chance to see other people perform in cabaret?
Friedman: I saw Elaine Stritch and I saw Barbara Cook in that room this time around. They're superb, aren't they? Just extraordinary.

Q: Does seeing someone else give you . . .
Friedman: I'll tell you what it tells you is that you have to be yourself. That's it really because they are so completely themselves, and that's what one's comfortable with. No one's trying to be a bit like anybody else. In a way that gave me courage to do my Sondheim stuff, which I love so much because that's me.

Q: One final question. Would you like to play Broadway again?
Friedman: Of course I would. I really loved it. I loved the audiences. They're much more vociferous and lively. The whole of New York, the energy and your enthusiasm as a people is very enviable. Because you're looking for experiences, you're looking for the positive. If there's anything good to be had, you're gonna get it. New Yorkers come out and search for things - they're at the museums, they're at the theatres, they're out there living in their city. And I felt totally privileged to be part of that for awhile.

[Maria Friedman will play the Café Carlyle May 2- June 3. The Carlyle is located within the Carlyle Hotel at Madison Avenue and 76th Street; for reservations call (212) 744-1600 or visit www.thecarlyle.com.]

DIVA TIDBITS There are very few singers who possess a voice I enjoy more than Judy Kuhn, the three-time Tony-nominated star of Les Misérables, Chess and She Loves Me who also starred as Fosca in the Kennedy Center mounting of Stephen Sondheim's Passion. Though she is a trained soprano with an impressive upper register, it is Kuhn's chest voice (belt) that is the most exciting, one that pours out of her in quick, vibrato-filled, silvery tones. Kuhn was a quarter of the ensemble that took part in the wonderful Lyrics & Lyricists concerts April 8-10 at the 92nd Street Y. Those concerts, titled Harnick: Collector's Items (Other People's Lyrics), were hosted by the gracious, charming and witty Sheldon Harnick, the award-winning 82-year-old lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello and She Loves Me, and featured Harnick's favorite lyrics by his fellow wordsmiths as interpreted by Kuhn, Emily Skinner, Lewis Cleale and John Ellison Conlee. All four performers offered wonderful work, but it was Kuhn who drew the lengthiest applause for her gorgeous rendition of Stephen Schwartz's "Meadowlark," the Baker's Wife anthem that she built to a stunning, full-voiced climax. Kuhn also scored with the Avenue Q first-act finale "There's a Fine, Fine Line" as well as in duets of "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" (with Cleale), "The Rose" (with Skinner) and "Wheels of a Dream" (with Cleale).

"I won't be singing 'New York, New York' - not even in French," Karen Akers deadpans early in her newest cabaret act, First You Dream, which celebrates the songs of Broadway composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. True to form, the always beguiling Akers avoids the more familiar Kander and Ebb songs, choosing instead to focus on the lesser-known gems in the award-winning team's varied catalogue. When she does offer one of their "hits" - "Maybe This Time" from the film of "Cabaret" - Akers manages to find new depth and meaning to a song you thought Liza Minnelli forever owned. There is more sorrow in Akers' rendition, the feeling that "maybe this time [she'll] be lucky," but more likely than not, maybe this time, she won't. Akers, whose rich, dark chocolate voice remains in fine form, also impresses with the comical "Arthur in the Afternoon," The Act's ode to "City Life," her show's title tune and the powerful closer, "Colored Lights" from The Rink. Yet, the most moving offering of the evening was a snippet of "Walking Among My Yesterdays," the little-heard tune from The Happy Time. As Akers' voice caressed Fred Ebb's bittersweet lyrics - "Light the picture, let me see, souvenirs of the past remain. Bits of pleasure and scraps of pain, love may pass but the perfume stays, walking among my yesterdays" - it was a perfect match of singer and song. [Karen Akers - with musical director Don Rebic on piano and Brian Glassman on bass - will perform First You Dream: The Songs of Kander & Ebb through May 13 at the Algonquin's Oak Room.]

Tony Award winner Diahann Carroll is also offering a wonderful evening of song through April 29 at Feinstein's at the Regency. The Oscar-nominated actress, who revealed she is in her 70th year, is in wonderful voice, her rich, throaty alto still remarkably powerful. And, who knew the barrier-breaking performer had such a great sense of humor? Carroll induced quite a bit of a laughter from the packed room at Feinstein's as she poked fun at her many years in the business, her strict upbringing, eBay and her failed marriages. Beginning with a medley of "A Song for You" and "Come Rain or Come Shine," Carroll belted her way through a mix of pop classics and theatre tunes, including two she performed on Broadway ("A Sleepin' Bee") and ("The Sweetest Sounds") and one she dazzled Canadian audiences with for over a year (Sunset Boulevard's "As If We Never Said Goodbye"). Carroll - backed by an eight-piece band under the direction of Lee Norris - paid tribute to Frank Sinatra with a medley of his hits, including "I Got You Under My Skin," "Come Fly with Me," "Nancy," "I'll Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" and a beautiful "One for My Baby." She let the full force of her voice overtake the room with Shelton Brooks' "Some of These Days," which preceded a tender reading of Marilyn and Alan Bergman's "Where Do You Start?" Carroll concluded her evening with a pairing of "Knowing When to Leave" and Peter Allen's "I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love," but it was her first encore, a slowed-down, touching version of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," that may have revealed the most about this consummate entertainer. And, her second encore, a stentorian version of John Kander and Fred Ebb's "New York, New York," brought the audience to its feet. [Diahann Carroll will be entertaining audiences at Feinstein's at the Regency through April 29.]

How exciting that Norm Lewis, who boasts one of the more beautiful voices in the musical theatre, has been cast as Javert in the upcoming Broadway revival of Les Misérables. Lewis' casting, which the actor recently confirmed to the Orlando Sentinel, led me to think of my ideal Les Miz company. I tried to choose actors who have not previously played the roles on Broadway: Mandy Patinkin as Jean Valjean, Judy Kuhn as Fantine, Laura Benanti as Cosette, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Eponine, Steven Pasquale as Enjolras, Michael Arden as Marius, Chip Zien as Thénardier and Alix Korey as Madame Thénardier. Those are my picks; e-mail me yours!

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Harry Belafonte attended Diahann Carroll's Feinstein's at the Regency debut
Harry Belafonte attended Diahann Carroll's Feinstein's at the Regency debut Photo by StarPix
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