It’s an understatement to say that Olivier Award-winning actress and director MARIA FRIEDMAN is busy. Along with performing her acclaimed cabaret shows and making plans to stage the Cole Porter musical High Society at the Old Vic next year, she is regularly filming BBC1’s EastEnders (playing the character of Elaine Peacock).
So one would imagine that a rest on 31 December 2014 might be called for? Not so for Friedman, she will be joining the Manchester Camerata for a New Year’s Eve Musicals Gala at the city’s Bridgewater Hall.
Friedman made her directorial debut with Merrily We Roll Along in November 2012 at the Menier Chocolate Factory which then transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre. The show won two Olivier Awards including Best Musical Revival, Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard Awards for Best Musical, as well as being nominated for a further five Olivier Awards including Best Director. Merrily We Roll Along received more five-star reviews than any West End show in history.
The actress’ extensive performing credits include: Maria Friedman: Re-arranged; Fosca in Sondheim’s Passion (Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical); Mother in Ragtime (Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical); Maria Friedman, By Special Arrangement (Olivier Award for Best Entertainment); Chicago at the Adelphi Theatre; Sunday in the Park with George and Lady in the Dark both at the National Theatre; and West End and Broadway productions of The Woman in White.
Lisa Martland caught up with Friedman for a quick chat minutes after she had finished filming on the EastEnders set.
You are starting the year off by performing with the Manchester Camerata, is that a perfect beginning to 2015 for you?
New Year is a fantastic time to make music and share it with people. It’s a celebration when you create music and what a great way to do so, with such an incredible orchestra.
Can you drop a few hints about the material being played at the concert?
There won’t necessarily be Christmas songs as such in the programme, more popular numbers – some musical theatre of course, plus a bit of Burt Bacharach, pop tracks, Disney, and the kind of anthemic songs which produce goosebumps in those listening. I’ve worked with the conductor Robert Ziegler before and it’s great to be involved in putting the whole thing together.
I don’t want the atmosphere to be too formal, the audience needs to be relaxed and feel transported. It’s all about communicating and telling stories, making them recall joyous memories. Most of the material will be pretty upbeat, although there may just be a couple of heartbreakers as well.
And actor/singer Damian Humbley (who starred in your production of Merrily We Roll Along) will be joining you as the other soloist?
I hadn’t worked with Damian before Merrily, but I soon saw what a wonderful performer he is. I wanted to invite him to take part in the show, and I’m really looking forward to the beautiful solos he will sing and our duets together as well.
You seem at home in a venue as large as the Royal Albert Hall and one as intimate as The Pheasantry in London’s King’s Road. Do you have a preference?
I like them both for different reasons. Ultimately the enjoyment of a space very much depends on the quality of sound at the venue. If there is great sound in a large space, it can feel like being in someone’s living room; if not, the audience can seem a real distance away. It’s all about making sure the team working with you has an understanding of the place you are in.
When our critic Jeremy Chapman reviewed your cabaret Lenny & Steve, he wrote: “Part of Friedman’s greatness lies in the way she owns every song she sings, making each and every one special. Then sharing that ‘special-ness’ with you.” Does the talent to interpret a song come naturally to you?
I think it’s always been a part of me from the word go, even when growing up I just loved telling stories, I loved reading, anything from jokes to short stories.
In a way I see my own life as a whole series of sketches, with a wish to edit out the boring bits! In the end that’s what it all is, every episode has just happened. I see life down the lens of a story, as I graduate from one story towards another. I suppose that is what has attracted me to writers who get underneath your skin.
Stephen Sondheim is, of course, one of those writers. Had you already been planning to direct one of his shows when the Merrily project came about?
Not really, I don’t plan anything, I’m too chaotic for that. I was asked to stage something at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and I didn’t know what on earth I would do. We staged Merrily in private with two different casts, one for each act. However, some important people happened to sneak in uninvited and the very next day I was asked if I would to do it in the West End.
Had you any inkling how successful it was going to be?
I’ve spent time in the past trying to guess whether something is going to be successful, but I soon realised you can’t expect to know what the answer is. It’s just vital to give your heart and soul to what you are doing; a great deal of time and love. You need to take care of it and all the people involved with it. With Merrily, it wasn’t hard to put it on simply and honestly.
I also had an amazing team around me, I was never alone for a moment, a phenomenal musical director [Catherine Jayes], iconic lighting director [David Hersey] and a talented new choreographer [Tim Jackson].
A bigger audience also got to see the production through Digital Theatre and international screenings…
My favourite thing was when I was told that out in the middle of absolutely nowhere in a tiny American cinema, people who live miles from one another and normally listen to the CDs of musicals like Merrily at home, suddenly had an opportunity to meet each other.
I also had a great time editing this wonderful piece for Digital Theatre, while being beautifully guided by Rob Delamere and the team there. It was the most delicious treat.
Your next venture as a director is High Society at the Old Vic in May 2015. What is your approach to that classic book and score? We hear that you are staging the musical in-the-round…
I am coming completely fresh to High Society, I’ve not been involved in a show like it before as a performer or director. It’s going to be such a wonderful challenge; again it’s about treating a great score and story simply and honestly in bringing it to the stage.
If I haven’t got enough to deal with, I’ve managed to add a final hurdle by directing the show in-the-round, but I am hoping that will add to the huge celebratory party I want to create. I have the amazing designer Tom Pye onboard too.
Alongside the directing, you have still found time to perform a number of shows in cabaret, and I believe you have been invited to take them across the pond?
I have been asked to go to New York, but I haven’t made my mind up about whether to perform some Adam Guettel stuff, my Lenny & Steve show (Bernstein/Sondheim), or my recent Back to Before set. The jury’s out, maybe I’ll do all of them! It’s more about fitting them into my schedule at the moment.
Television has beckoned in the past, not least the role of Trish Baynes in Casualty, and then you returned to musicals. How are you enjoying your role in EastEnders?
I know it’s a cliché, but it really is a big family at EastEnders, they are the loveliest people ever, ever, ever. I’ve never had so much respect for a bunch of people I’ve worked with; they get down to the work but find plenty of time for lots of laughter and kindness too. I really adore them.
Sometimes it has meant 17-hour days, when I was recently performing at the Pheasantry every night, I was also filming EastEnders all day. But I was getting to sing glorious songs and act some with incredible people.
Up and coming performers and directors find inspiration in your career, could you offer them any advice?
That’s difficult as everyone is different so each person, would need a different piece of advice, but here’ some of the things I have learnt along the way.
* On my first day at EastEnders I was out-of-control-frightened – everything was really fast – but actress June Brown told me not to waste my time worrying, that if I could bring some joy to what I was doing, people would love it.
* A lot of wonderful people get frightened, but it’s all about preparation, preparation, preparation. You can never be over prepared. Work on getting yourself match fit, keep practising, especially when you are unemployed.
* Everyone has their time. A friend’s career may be taking off, and you are left still waitressing. Just remember that years of not working can suddenly turn around and then you might never stop. There is no rhyme or reason to our industry. Have the courage to say you are an actress even when you are a waitress. Believe in yourself when no one else does. That was me for many years.
Your husband, the actor Adrian der Gregorian, is currently starring in Made in Dagenham, what do you think of this new musical?
Oh, I think it’s an absolutely brilliant piece, I’m really proud of Adrian. Do please give the show a plug!
Readers may also be interested in:
Maria Friedman will direct High Society at the Old Vic – News
Maria Friedman – Back to Before – The Pheasantry – Review