Maria Friedman, 61, is a singer, comedian and director with a natural musicality (her parents were classical musicians) and knows how to get inside a song and make it hers – and ours – with precision emotional. Eight-time Olivier nominee (she has won the prize three times), she is known for her interpretations of Stephen Sondheim’s songbook, and is preparing to celebrate him and composers Marvin Hamlisch and Michel Legrand in Heritage, a show at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Friedman is married to actor Adrian Der Gregorian and has two sons.
Tell me about the first time you met Stephen Sondheim…
I was in my early 20s and attending a gala to fill in for a singer who had the flu. I had two days to learn Broadway Baby [from Sondheim’s Follies]. The lyrics fit me like a glove: it was about a girl with aspirations who wanted to get a great job and not work in cafes or live in a room with no money. Everyone considered the Broadway song Baby Elaine Stritch [she was also on the bill that night]. The music started and a spotlight came on in the middle of the stage. I took a deep breath and was about to start my song when, from the height of the gods, someone shouted, “Come down, we want Elaine!” I had tears in my eyes but I dug very deep into those lyrics. That’s what I’ve done since. Sondheim’s work is extraordinary: when you trust him and live in him, he protects you. The place has gone crazy. Sondheim was in the audience; at the party that followed, he asked, “Who was that girl?”
How was he as a character?
He came to see me later in Ghetto at the National, and that’s after I was cast as Dot in sunday in the park With George. Sondheim was the most curious person I have ever met. His intelligence was dazzling, but what I loved the most was his ability to laugh, to keep busy and to Listen.
So was the nuanced bittersweet quality of his music highlighted in the man himself?
Life is bittersweet and his music reflects that. He wrote about people’s complexities and savored them. There has never been a judgment on fractured people. He was a kind and loyal man, but my God, he could be very…direct.
I take it he was godfather to one of your boys?
He was godfather to my son Toby and mentor to my youngest son, Alfie.
How do you interpret a song –?
It’s progressive. You have a smell, a feeling about your connection. You feel it getting closer and closer until it becomes part of your marrow and suddenly it belongs to you. Sondheim’s genius was that he left room for each actor to stage their own life – he was open to new interpretations and burst out laughing when you came up with something he hadn’t thought of.
Tell me about your show at the Chocolaterie, which will celebrate not only Sondheim but also the American composer Marvin Hamlisch and French composer Michel Legrand …
I worked with both of them and traveled the world with them. I sang at the Marvin Hamlisch memorial with Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli. Michel Legrand came to see me in one of my shows and actually played the piano, which was amazing. I also sang at his memorial.
So it’s in memory of absent friends?
It’s about legacy, about celebrating three people I miss. Sondheim had this idea that everything had to stay fresh. And so during the pandemic, I’ve had a lot of young recent graduates send me tapes and audition them, and they’re participating. It wasn’t out of sympathy but because they are amazing.
Your father, Leonard Friedmanviolinist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, left the family when you were five. How has this influenced your life?
Look at the men I mentioned: three old Jewish men…we don’t need a psychiatrist to tell us about it [laughs]. I realized something about my dad recently. I barely knew him but he took me up to the Isle of Mull for one of his festivals. He promised me the world – cellos and violins and all – but I ended up opening my show with little pipes and a banjo, for f’s sake. He was doing a concert on the road. Then, little by little, all the musicians came in and started making music, and that was the show that ended at the Donmar because Caro Newling, who is Sam Mendes’ producing partner, was in trip on foot with her mother and came to see my little cabaret. I got my first Olivier award for this show. And it was because of my father.
Your sister is the leading West End producer, Sonia Friedman. What are your other siblings doing?
My brother is a solo violinist and was the conductor of the Royal Ballet…he’s amazing. Sarah is a computer scientist and way smarter than all of us. And the wonderful Benjy was the director/producer of Pastry shop and is now a documentary filmmaker.
When you look back on your life, what played the bigger role – luck or hard work?
Not knowing the rules meant we got into situations that someone with more upbringing and a conventional upbringing might not have been able to get into. The lack of formality in our family meant that we would either drown or manage to stay afloat. I have spent months of my life underwater with a small snorkelcorrect manager. But in terms of luck, I feel blessed that music is part of my life. I worked hard on it but I love what I do so it doesn’t feel like work.
catch cancer in 2005 was obviously unlucky. How has this changed your perception of your life?
A lot of people say cancer made them bolder, but that scared me more. I quit the industry – no one believed I would – and did gigs and jobs that weren’t going to stop me from putting my kids to bed. I was 45 years old. There are big consequences if you leave the industry, but I had no choice. It was the right decision, but a part of me got lost. It’s good now because I’m coming back.
How old are your sons, and does being a mother get easier over time?
Toby is 27 years old and graduated in inclusive performance. He works with an autistic child at Chickenshed [theatre company]. My other son, Alfie, is 19 and a brilliant actor. He just got a big role in Peter Kosminsky’s new TV series. The undeclared war with Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg. As for being a mother… it does not gets easier over time!
Which Sondheim song would you choose to get through the toughest times?
Switch from sunday in the park With George – “Stop worrying about where you are going… The choice may have been wrong, the choice was not. You have to move on.” It’s about taking a small step forward. Life changes and things pass. You can’t stand still.
What is the happiest song you sing?
The way you look tonight [by Jerome Kern]. It’s about capturing the moment when you know you’ll love someone forever and grow old with them if you’re lucky. I used to sing this to my little grandma and know she was thrilled when she was young dancing with her handsome husband. She was 96 years old and she was beautiful. I love this song.
This article was last modified on February 13, 2022. Maria Friedman’s image during rehearsals does not include Stephen Sondheim, as an earlier caption noted.
Heritage is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, from March 3 to 20