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Maria Friedman Gets Re-Arranged at WOS Q&A

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Theatregoers at our sell-out Whatsonstage.com Outing to Maria Friedman: Re-arranged at the Menier Chocolate Factory last night (10 April 2008) were treated to an exclusive post-show discussion.

At the Q&A, which was held in the theatre following last night’s performance, Maria Friedman was joined by musical director (and accordionist) Michael Haslam and the Menier’s artistic director David Babani to answer questions and discuss the show. Though many in the audience were saddened to hear Friedman say she has given up doing musicals (at least for the time being), her undiminished enthusiasm for making music and engaging with an intimate audience was clear and infectious.

Maria Friedman: Re-arranged premiered on 27 March 2008 (previews from 19 March) at the Menier Chocolate Factory, where its season continues until 4 May 2008. Accompanied by an 11-piece band, Friedman performs specially arranged versions of some of her favourite show tunes and contemporary songs, from the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Jacques Brel, Burt Bacharach, Jason Robert Brown, Andrew Lippa, George Gershwin, Leslie Bricusse, Kander and Ebb, Randy Newman and Michel Legrand.

Last night’s discussion was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …

On life as a musical theatre actress

Maria Friedman: I love it, I think that’s the key to it. I’ve found it a huge privilege. I think making music for a living is one of the most extraordinarily wonderful things to be allowed to do. I do surround myself with people that I know and care about and love so there’s no sense of competition between any of us. It’s all about making each one of us as good as we can be and that’s a rare experience in this world where everybody is fighting hard just to make a living. I’ve kind of given up on trying to make a living! Why not just have a good time? Well, we work in an industry that’s pretty tough but everything is tough, isn’t it? When I first started out I was like “oh my god, what a precarious industry”, but it seems the whole world is precarious now and you can’t really take anything for granted so I think you just have to take every opportunity that comes.

On working with the band

Friedman: We have a couple of rules in our group. The first one is, nobody does anything they don’t want to do and that is a luxury as we spend so much of our lives doing what we don’t want to do. If the clarinettist says, “I don’t like that A flat I’d prefer to play a C”, if it fits then it’s a C. There really isn’t a boss amongst us. We genuinely appreciate each other’s contribution and I think that’s rare.

Michael Haslam: Also there’s a feeling with us that we’re allowed to fail. I did a recording session for a film a couple of weeks ago. I don’t do that sort of stuff that often, it’s very scary, like you’re under a microscope. Someone is listening to every single note and seeing if it’s before the beat or on the beat or just after and the more you’re in that situation, the more tense you get, whereas you come here and you relax so when I play the note, that’s the right time to play the note. I first saw Maria perform in a show called Canary Blunt, and I fell in love with what I saw because she was this sort of tiny girl with punk hair. I played a very tiny bit of Sondheim Gala when Maria sang “Broadway Baby” and amazed Stephen Sondheim. The next year we both happened to be in something at the National Theatre and that is where it all began.

Friedman: We’re both very calm to work with. We don’t like rowing, we don’t like shouting, we don’t like confrontation. We just can’t bear it, but he once shouted at me 15 years ago and I never forgot. I literally just took a chip off his plate, that’s all I did, and he went ballistic! I always ate half his food and he had put up with it for so long and then I just took one chip and it all came out. Apart from that we have never, ever, ever rowed. As long as we don’t take any food, we just adore each other.

On how the show came about

Friedman: I pretty much stopped doing musicals about two-and-a-half years ago when I came back from the States. I had a rethink about my life as I wanted more time with my family and I need to make a living and I love to sing. Everyone kept telling me they remembered the concerts that I used to do before I did musicals. It was quite odd - so many people started asking me if I’d like to do concerts and I hadn’t even said to anybody that I wasn’t doing musicals any more. I think probably it would have always been there if I wasn’t in a contract so the moment I wasn’t in one all these concerts came flooding in. Singing is a huge part of who I am and I need that expression.

Fourteen years ago, when I did a show at the Donmar Warehouse called By Special Arrangement, David Babani, who is the artistic director here at the Menier, came to see it five times. Well, he said five times; someone else told me it was seven, but David said five because he was scared of looking like a geek. And it was David’s idea to do this new season here. I was mainly doing shows in Europe at the time and having a wonderful, unpressured time so I was very scared of doing it back in London. I had done a lot of stuff in New York where everybody just seemed to love what I did and I just felt like I’d got everything sorted in life’s gentle way. I was earning enough money to live and I didn’t have any critics writing about me and I loved it, absolutely loved it and then I stupidly said yes to coming back to London. Well, I thought stupidly but I have had a really wonderful time, I couldn’t have asked for better.

On musical influences

Friedman: I think it’s subliminal. I haven’t really got a particular influence for this show. I think it certainly starts off with classical music. Michael and I don’t even listen to music. We do it, but we don’t listen to it.

Haslam: Maria’s father was a fantastic classical violinist, almost a prodigy, he won the gold medal at the Guildhall aged 15. He went on to lead orchestras all over the world, but he opted out of the mainstream. He first of all went up to Scotland and he founded a Scottish Baroque ensemble which went on to make loads of fantastic recordings and then even that was too mainstream for him so he went to the Isle of Mull and set up a festival there called The Mendelson on Mull festival, which is still going.

Friedman: He had a huge influence on both of us, independently. You talk about inheritance. My father didn’t leave me any money, but he left me an appreciation of the adventure of music and staying true to some sort of inner pulse - he gave me that, which is blinking hard in musical theatre. In rehearsal, we were all of us just talking, and someone was a bit frightened to do something I had asked. I said, please don’t be afraid of making a mistake, it doesn’t matter! What’s going to happen? Somebody in the audience might go “err…” but what does it matter? You still go home at night, it doesn’t matter. Making music should be fresh and raw and full of heart, a full beating heart not full of air.

On working in the US

Friedman: I was working for ten years in this incredible place called the Carlyle Hotel in New York where I had the most wonderful time. The thing about New Yorkers, they want to go out and they want to have a good time and you get appreciated in such a major way. In London, there is absolutely nowhere apart from here (the Chocolate Factory) that I could be doing what I’m doing.

The thing about cabaret and this country is, it seems like a rather Northern thing for a gin-soaked woman to be doing - standing there saying “this is my tribute to Gershwin” and so on. I really don’t think we’ve done ourselves any favours. And the other thing is we don’t have that tradition of people standing up very honestly, very warily, no sets, no costumes and just talking from the heart without caring about fallibility, without caring about whether they’re prettier or thinner or cleverer or richer than the people in the audience, you know. I loathe all that when a performer goes on stage and says, “I am better than you”. I say: “I am you”. I believe we are one and the same. Humanity is what turns me on, it’s humanity every time that I’m interested in and I don’t give a flying ‘f’ about anything else.

On acting through music

Friedman: I think singing is exactly the same as acting, it’s all about telling the truth, getting closer to yourself and not further away. Someone said to me, “how do you play Fosca?” (from Sondheim’s Passion) and I just said it was a question beyond belief. The whole point about Fosca is that first of all, she was lonely, you tell me one person in this room that’s never been lonely. She felt pain, tell me one person in this room who has never felt pain. She had a zest for life, I’ve got a zest for life. She felt huge loss, she felt rejection … that’s where you go to find a character. We’re wonderful living people with extraordinary lives. Contradiction is the beauty of being alive and therefore that’s the job, to get nearer to yourself and the truth about yourself.

On keeping the show fresh

Haslam: I couldn’t do this show if it was the same every night, the reason I’m not interested in musical directing long-running shows is that they have to be, for good reasons, virtually the same every night, and I’m more interested in being part of something organic. When we set out doing this show here, we never set out to do the same show everyday, there are different things that come in and out of the order. Hopefully, it means you can come back and have a different experience. That’s quite magical because it doesn’t happen anywhere else.

On the future

Friedman: Well, when it comes to musicals, I won’t say never. I’m sure there will be a time, but I have got two fantastic children and a wonderful partner and it’s the most impossible industry to make that work. It’s all babysitters, no bath times ever for my kids apart from Sunday when I was tired anyway. I’m not going to miss it. Musicals will still be around when my kids are older.

- by Kate Jackson & Theo Bosanquet


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