As West End divas go, Maria Friedman is up there in the very highest echelons.

Friedman's many West End musical theatre credits to date include Blues in the Night, Ghetto, Chicago, Sunday in the Park with George, Lady in the Dark, The Witches of Eastwick and Passion, for which she won an Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical in 1995.

Amongst Friedman's other stage credits are Oklahoma!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Blondel, The Wizard of Oz, Butterflies Are Free, April in Paris, Merrily We Roll Along, Girlfriends and Small Expectations. She also stars, with Donny Osmond and Richard Attenborough, in the video release of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

In addition, Friedman has developed a highly successful singing career outside of musicals. Her regular concert appearances include billing at the BBC Proms and numerous other galas at the Royal Albert Hall, while her one-woman shows have brought further acclaim. Not least, Maria Friedman - By Special Arrangement, which started life at the Donmar Warehouse (a precursor to the theatre's popular annual season of Divas at the Donmar) before transferring to the West End's Whitehall Theatre and winning Friedman her first Olivier, in 1995, for Best Entertainment.

Friedman returns to musical theatre this month with the West End premiere of the Tony Award-winning Ragtime. Based on E L Doctorow’s epic novel about three families in 20th-century America, the musical finally comes to London following a concert presentation last autumn at the Cardiff International Festival of Musical Theatre. In the newly staged production, Friedman stars with Dave Willetts, Graham Bickley and Broadway's Kevin Morrow as part of a 30-strong cast.

Date & place of birth
Born 19 March 1960 on a mountainside in Switzerland overlooking Lake Thon.

Lives now in
Near London Fields in Hackney, east London.

First big career break
Ghetto, which was directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National (1989). I'd had lots of parts before that, but that was the first time I realised that theatre can be quite a powerful medium. I also had an amazing role that was suited to me - there were lots of resonances with my family history. Most of my parts had been frothy up till then. Ghetto made me feel and think.

Career highlights to date
I really enjoyed the last night of the Proms in the Park. It was just after 911. We thought we might have to cancel because we didn't know if people would actually come. But they did come. There was an 80-piece orchestra and everyone had candles. To make music at that time, in that environment, was very intense. Having my own Prom at the Royal Albert Hall was quite an accolade, too. And I've enjoyed my one-woman shows - it's great doing something I've created myself and I always make sure to work with friends - and all my work with Stephen Sondheim and my concert life with Michael Legrand. But my very greatest achievements, without question, have been my two children, Toby (who's eight) and Alfie (seven months).

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Blues in the Night (1987) was a favourite because I was working with this extraordinarily talented black cast. Here I was, a middle class white girl, and I had to struggle to find my own voice. I learned from that experience that you can only ever be a second-rate somebody else, but you can be a first-rate you. That was a big learning curve. Other favourites? Ghetto, Passion, Sunday in the Park with George and, hopefully, Ragtime. They were all about things that really matter. I like to do thoughtful, provocative work that has an immediate impact. The ones with real heart and soul are the ones that really get me.

Favourite co-stars
I tend to get on with everybody I work with. This lot on Ragtime are wonderful. I think part of what's special about our company has to do with the nature of the piece. It's about tolerance, forgiveness and understanding and about what happens when those things are lacking. So every day together we're exploring our own prejudices and examining ourselves. And the creative team who've come over from the States - Stafford Arima (director), Candace Jennings (choreographer) and Sheilah Walker (musical supervisor) - have filled the rehearsal room with the most extraordinary sweetness.

Favourite directors
Nicholas Hytner, for giving me the job on Ghetto and for changing my life, as well as for his precision and for his vision, which is colossal. And Stafford Arima, for creating such a loving atmosphere. He is the most inclusive director I've ever worked with.

Favourite musical writers
Stephen Sondheim, the Gershwins and these guys on Ragtime (music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally).

What do you think of the current state of musical theatre in this country? And what impact does the Cardiff Festival have?
Anything that's trying to showcase and produce new work is a good thing. One of the problems in this country is that we're not very good at nurturing talent. To succeed, writers need to go to the States, make it big, then come back and get knocked down. We've certainly got the expertise, but that's not enough. At the moment, there are far too many compilation shows. The public don't need so much of this banal, empty stuff. I hope Ragtime will fill a vacuum.

What roles would you most like to play still?
I'd like to do some more Sondheim - Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music. What excites me most is new work. I hope somebody will write something for me. It needs to be something intelligent about a woman in her mid-life - I'm not the ingénue anymore.

What was the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
A Day in the Life of Joe Egg. I saw it when Eddie Izzard was in it with Victoria Hamilton.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
First, stop the war. Otherwise, I'd say, don't underestimate the impact that culture has on a society. That doesn't mean dishing out ad hoc funding to weird groups who call what they do 'art'. But theatre does need to be taken seriously. This industry generates billions of pounds a year.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Mozart at his most creative, perhaps when he was in full flow writing Requiem.

Favourite books
As a child, my favourite was Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn. I read it when I was eight or nine and it set me off on a lifetime of reading. Other defining books for me have been The Little Prince and Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. My sister Sonia is co-producing Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical based on The Woman in White. There's no part for me in it, but we've talked about it and I think it will make a good show. The story lends itself well to music. Other books? I always enjoy reading a good thriller.

Favourite holiday destinations
I loved my recent safari - it was five weeks of trekking in Kenya. I like the Hebridean Islands too for nature and, for art, Florence. I adore art and, when I go to Florence, I drown in the beauty of it all.

Favourite after-show haunts
I used to always go to the Ivy, but not so much any more with young children.

Favourite websites
I've been logging on to the congestion charging website recently. I hugely approve of the charge. I've been saying for many years that London's transport must be sorted out, and I think Ken Livingstone is fantastically courageous for tackling the traffic problem like this.

How did you become involved in this long-awaited West End premiere for Ragtime?
I was first cast as Mother when Ragtime was originally due to transfer from Broadway back in 1999, but two days before we were going to fly to the States and start rehearsals, the New York producer went bust and the whole thing was put on hold. I think he's still serving a long prison sentence for fraud or embezzlement. After that, Ragtime had a reputation as the unproduceable musical. The truth was it was so overproduced on Broadway that it just couldn't make money.

When they decided to do it last autumn at Cardiff, they hired the same casting director as before, David Grindrod, and he called us all up again. I'd say about 90% of the principals are the same as four years ago. I was pregnant when David phoned and I thought doing the Cardiff concert would be a good way to ease back into performing - it gave me something to look forward to. When we were in rehearsals, we all realised what a wonderful show it was so I nagged Sonia and told her, you need to come and see this. By the interval, she'd decided to bring it into town.

What can you tell us about the character of Mother?
Mother is full of intelligence, humility and courage. She has a gentle movement through the piece, finally managing to find a kind of independence within her marriage. She doesn't lose herself in someone else's life - which still happens in a lot of marriages. She has a real dignity.

What's your favourite number from Ragtime?
I like all of my music. I don't have just one favourite, maybe five. Actually, I like it all. This is such a strong score. I would be lying if I said any song was better than another. Each one comes along and it feels perfect for that moment.

What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that's happened in rehearsals?
Matthew White (who plays Younger Brother) got a bit lost the other day and ended up in a power meeting where everybody was talking budgets and finance. He got flustered, crossed the room heading for the first door he saw and walked straight into a cupboard where all of the shelves collapsed on him. You'd have to know Matthew to know just how funny that was. But overall, my lasting image from our Ragtime rehearsals will be Stafford holding my son Alfie in his arms, with Alfie bouncing and singing along in time with the music.

What are your plans for the future?
I'm considering a couple of other roles, but it's too early to talk about them yet. I'm also really developing my concert life and have concerts planned in Switzerland and New York, then back here. At some point, I would love to set up my own musical theatre space, where smaller scale shows could play in repertory.

Anything else you'd like to add?
With the war coming, I hope people don't forget to keep living. I don't mean that to be an advert for this show. But if you want to come, come. It's just important to keep doing the things you like to do.

Ragtime opens at the West End's Piccadilly Theatre on 19 March 2003, following previews from 8 March.