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Interview: Maria Friedman of MARIA FRIEDMAN IN CONCERT at The Palace Theater For Orchestra Lumos, Stamford CT.

Maria Friedman joins the newly-named Orchestra Lumos for her only 2022 USA performance.

Interview: Maria Friedman of MARIA FRIEDMAN IN CONCERT at The Palace Theater For Orchestra Lumos, Stamford CT.

Stephen Sondheim left this plane last year and the lovers of musical theater and storytelling felt the pang, especially his close, personal friends, many of whom have been sharing their memories of the man that they called Steve while sharing the words and music that they, his chosen family, have come to understand so well. In the United Kingdom, many actors from the West End have been Sondheim storytellers over the years, but Maria Friedman has had a particularly special association with Mr. Sondheim, having acted in his plays, directed some, and having hosted him in her home, where games were played and her son was mentored by the great artist.

Shortly after Stephen Sondheim's death, Maria Friedman presented a show in the UK that shone a light on the works of her dear friend, but not exclusively. The award-winning actress had had similarly close relationships with two other great composers from the history of show business, two men who had also left the plane - Marvin Hamlisch and Michel Legrand. To Ms. Friedman, it seemed a natural fit to focus her musical program on all three of her departed geniuses, and LEGACY was born.

Legacy played the Menier Chocolate Factory for several weeks, and Maria Friedman gathered around her a cast of artists, particularly young artists, people finishing their education years who had, thanks to a global pandemic, no place to perform, nowhere to do their graduating showcases, no chance to exhibit their gifts before agents and industry professionals with the power to offer them opportunities. A dedicated mentor to young talents, Ms. Friedman joined the energies of her Three Maestros, her budding artists, her own theatrical experience, and Legacy left behind a stamp of which people still speak.

This month, on September 24th, the Orchestra Lumos will present its annual gala. The Orchestra Lumos was previously the highly-regarded Stamford Symphony, and, for this gala, The Orchestra Lumos will present Maria Friedman IN CONCERT, which is (essentially) the North American premiere of Legacy, and which will focus, as it did in the United Kingdom, on the works of Misters Hamlisch, Legrand, and Sondheim. For the cabaret concert, Ms. Friedman will be joined by famed pianist and Broadway veteran Todd Ellison and vocalists Ross Lekites (Tina - The Tina Turner Musical) and Lewis Cleale (The Book of Mormon), Camille Foisie, Nick Rossi, as well as young artists from The Westport High School Staples Players, Darien High School Theater 308, King School in Stamford, and New Canaan High School Theatre students. After this one-and-only performing appearance on American soil, Maria Friedman's next project in the States will be the much-anticipated New York City revival of the iconic Stephen Sondheim musical MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, which will play New York Theater Workshop, starring Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez, and Daniel Radcliffe.

Before all the excitement of both projects was upon the iconic artist and Sondheim expert, Broadway World was fortunate enough to get a chance to talk to Maria Friedman, and this Friedmanphile had one of his most important (and fulfilling) interviews to date.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Maria Friedman, welcome to Broadway World!

Thank you.

You are making one stop in the States this year, to do your show Legacy with the Lumos Symphony. What aligned to make this show and this symphony and this place the perfect stop for you this year?

Well, I've actually only got back off New York yesterday.

No way.

Yeah. And I've been there three times already, 'cause I'm casting Merrily We Roll Along, which we are doing at New York Theater Workshop with Daniel Radcliffe and some very exciting cast, which is what I've been doing over there - casting. So the symphony orchestra thing happened because when Steve died, I was doing a show at a similar place that we have over in London called Zedel/Crazy Coqs, and I put together a one week (just one week, that's all we were gonna do) of some great friends, and I wanted to bring in some new talent from some students who, during the pandemic, had graduated and had nowhere to go. So I wanted to do a kind of a legacy thing where I was gonna showcase some people who had had absolutely no way of performing during this time.

People were still in masks and we were still officially in lockdown when I put this on... and then Steve died and I got a phone call from Zedel, saying would I change my program and just do a Stephen Sondheim show, which I did, and it was massively successful. I was then asked whether we would transfer into a theater very like New York Theater Workshop, or The Donmar (Warehouse), those kind of cool, brilliant spaces, and we were offered a six-week run. I didn't want to be somebody who sort of wanted to own Steve - I just didn't want to do that.

I got to thinking about legacy and what he'd left me and how bereft I was, seriously bereft - 40 years of my life, you know, and making Merrily with him. We were working and collaborating together. One of the things Steve really hated is people owning him. He wanted his work to do the talking. And I'd lost Marvin. And I was feeling very similar to that feeling of, "Oh god, I'm never gonna stand around a piano and make music with these people again, I can't bear it." So we got to thinking that it would be great just to do the three major composers that I had spent 30 years singing with on a one-to-one basis. It meant that the show itself was gonna have some great diversity. It was going to be able to encompass lots of different talents, as opposed to a very niche group of people. So the young people (did) "I hope I get it." We did a whole version of that with a choir. Every week I got a new group of students in, or people who'd graduated who had nowhere to go; we did six weeks of six different groups. They would work with me, they would work with the musical director, they would work with my great friends who were also in it. They'd learn harmonies with us, they'd learn staging with us. And then that week was their week: they could bring agents in, if they hadn't been able to get them, and showcase their talent.

So that was the idea: sharing people I love with people I love - my best friends, people of my age, and the younger generation who'd had this terrible two years of nothingness. I think because it had such heart and honesty, it was very special, probably one of the most moving things I've ever done in my life, without any question, a great celebration of the privilege of singing, the joy of collaboration, and the need to remind this younger generation that, without people like you, and without the entire team, hundreds of people from the day that they wrote that little first line, if not thousands of people, go to put you on a stage to allow you to sing. That was my Legacy - that we all worked together. We all shared dressing rooms, we swapped programs every couple of days, we would add a new song. We always had a special guest, so we had one person who got one night only, but the rest got to work with us on an ongoing thing, 'cause it is about the run, if you're doing six weeks run, that's where you learn your craft - when you're singing every night. So a group of young people got to do the full six weeks, a group of young people got to do a week, and another group of people got just to do one night. It was real juggling about. So you came back and back and back and back and back, cause you never knew what you were gonna get

The mentorship of the young people - you light up when discussing it.

I love them!

It's very important to you. Where does that impulse come from?

I never had it. I needed it. And I know how important it is to be believed in, to have somebody have your back. I just never had it and I'm now in a position where I can offer that to people

And you're doing it here in Connecticut as well. You've got young people joining you on the stage here.

Absolutely.

How long will you get to work with those young people in Connecticut before the performance?

Some of them for five days and a few of them for two days. It's not enough, but we'll do it. They will all get their tapes and everything before that, so hopefully they'll come ready to go. And I haven't quite chosen the program yet because I don't wanna impose stuff - I wanna see who they're casting, and then I'll find the perfect thing, together with them. We will find the perfect program, using these amazing composers

Because you're a director as well... so you have to approach this from the mindset of the director, as well as the actor that will be on the stage with them.

That's right.

At what point in your trajectory did you say, "I don't wanna stay in this lane, I want to do two lanes at one time." How did you branch out as an actor, into being a director?

Circumstance really. I had two very young children. I really didn't want them brought up by nannies and other people, and eight shows a week meant that I was away from them, not putting them to bed, not there to hear what happened after school or nursery, and not there to do the reason I had them. So I thought, with directing, I can do all the prep - it takes at least a year of prep to do a show - I can do all that from home, have all the meetings at home. And then there is a period of time where I get some help in, when I'm putting it on, and the tech, and all that sort of stuff. It's so short. I literally did it because I wanted to be a parent... AND I found that it was something that is entirely different. It's absolutely different. There's no similarity between directing and performing at all. None. You are so free, as a performer, to explore and to lock into the material, just you and it and the people around you. The director is much more a side of me that loves games. I love games and puzzles and detail. Obviously, I love people and I love performers, but it hooks into an entirely different place for me, the psychological aspect of an entire company, as opposed to just myself,

You love games.

Love games.

So did Stephen Sondheim.

Yeah.

Notoriously, famously so.

Yeah.

What was your favorite game to play together?

Word games really. He particularly loved crosswords and treasure hunts. Treasure hunts, that's my favorite.

The Last of Sheila is one of my favorite movies.

Really!

Yeah. And I've read about how his obsession with games led to the creation of that film, so hearing that the two of you got to play these games together makes my heart happy.

(Maria laughs uproariously.)

Going back to the juxtaposition of acting and directing and how different it is - are there ways in which the directing work and the acting work taught you lessons that could inform one another on the other sides of the hallway?

Well, certainly in terms of acting. When I'm performing now, I look at actors in an entirely different way. I had a great ambivalence to our profession. I always thought, because we have to be so self-centered, and it's so much ups and downs... The courage of performance, when they come into a room and they give me their trust, my heart breaks, I can't believe them. They'll come in from some terrible day and suddenly make this magic that they're gonna offer people. And I suddenly thought, "Hang on there - you do that brilliant! I can like myself a bit more! I can actually appreciate myself a bit more!" They have given me courage. So I'm freer than I ever was as a performer because the actors I love the most are the ones who offer the most and risk the most. So I've allowed myself that challenge.

I've also understood that it's suitability and not ability. The puzzle, that you can have the best person in the world... I'm thinking about four people now that I couldn't cast, not necessarily in this but in my lifetime, but were the best things I've ever seen. They just didn't fit the puzzle. And you can't tell them they were favorite. You can't tell them because it means the person you've cast will somehow get to hear that they weren't favorite. It isn't the case with this show that I've just done in America, by the way; I've got my first choice on everything, which I can't actually believe. But when I don't get something that I really, really want, I understand that I don't have to beat myself up too much - maybe a bit, but not too much. It's not necessarily that actors aren't good, it's just that they're not, for whatever reason, right.

I spent a good deal of my time as a photographer telling young actors, "It's not that you weren't good enough, it's that you weren't right enough."

Suitability, not ability.

You talked earlier about the experience of the young people finally getting to perform after the lockdown and everything. And I'm sure that we all felt this, but what are your thoughts and feelings about the vital need for accessibility to culture and what we suffered during the pandemic?

I mean, I come from a country where we were told to retrain, as actors, that we were not necessary. We were told by the government to find an alternate lifestyle, all the arts basically. They don't give a damn about us in this country. You know, we've left the European Union. They've forgotten that that means that most of us can't travel and do our European work, our worldwide work, without visas. We used to be able to go anywhere in Europe and I could do concerts all over Europe and make a living and share my, you know, whatever it was. We can't do that anymore. It's just shut down. I think without culture, without arts, the lack of humanity, the lack of practicing empathy, all those things you get to do around the arts, the expression of humanity, leaves a very terrifying space. I cannot be passionate enough about that. Stories have gone on FOR EVER... whether it was the stories of music, the drum beating, the calling out to people, the superstitions, the whole thing starts from storytelling. That's where it starts from. Yeah, we can all follow the money if you want, but I'm not quite sure where that leads us.

The money's nice, but it's not as fulfilling as the art.

It's essential. You gotta eat but that's it.

Girl's gotta eat. Now, Legacy... here's one for you.

Okay.

To the naked eye, Legacy might come across as random because Sondheim, Hamlisch, Legrand... they're very different. They couldn't be more different. But I'd love to know what you, as somebody who knew them and who knows their canon... in what ways are the three similar?

That music was life and death to them. They were saved, as human beings, by the making of music.

You're making me cry.

They were saved. Michel Legrand, alone in his little French flat, single parent, left eons of time on his own - when he could first stand, found the piano, it gave him a world. And he took little keyboards with him all over the place, even if he flew in his plane, he had a little keyboard, it kept him, it made him, it gave him a purpose in life. The same with Marvin Hamlisch. Up until I think a year ago, he was the youngest scholarship person from Juilliard - six and a half. I think there's a girl who's six and a half, but one-month younger, at the moment, but from six and a half, that was what he lived for. It gave him his purpose. And Stephen Sondheim - the same thing: difficult home, off he goes, finds Hammerstein, finds a way, finds storytelling, that's it. Yeah. Beginning, middle, and end. That's their commonality, that music literally saved them.

The press materials for the Lumos Gala use the phrase "premier Sondheim authority"...

AWW!

Isn't that great? When I read that (and it's what I've always felt, too, because of your history doing Sondheim shows) but when I read the phrase, I thought, "How does one become a Sondheim authority?" Did you find that it was because, as an actor, you had an innate understanding of the material, or did it come from your personal relationship and stories that you heard from him that informed the way that you played those parts?

No, it was absolutely about the work and that's why we loved each other. We both loved the work, we live in the work... and then, of course, you find that you've got a sense of humor. He loved to laugh, I have to laugh. We are quite irreverent, he couldn't bear anything too reverential, (he was) inquisitive, curious, (had) huge amounts of energy. And he was a teacher, you know, number ONE he was a teacher. I've always taught, wherever I can. But he wasn't a teacher that imposed ideas; he brought the best of you out. So you grew, you grew every time you had any meeting with him.

Legacy had a nice run in the West End with a very special cast member that has a close association with you, right?

(Laughing hard) Yeah.

What's it like working with your child on something so special?

Can you imagine what it felt like for me, standing, looking at my son singing, bringing the house down? And they didn't know it was my son. After, I would say it, but not before - so that he could earn his own thing. It was truly remarkable and felt like it had nothing to do with me. It was like, "Where the hell did you come from?!" Because he has an entirely... the only thing I think is similar is the detail of his work, he naturally can dive around, it's not sort of a linear thing. He's got that brain that sort of dances. It was remarkable. And Steve, he was very much mentoring Alfie, 'cause he's also a writer, a songwriter, and he would give him all sorts of projects to try and fulfill and I think Alfie had as much right to stand there and sing his songs, as a kind of...

Legacy.

Yeah. Yeah.

So you've got the Merrily show coming up. Do you see your future, as you continue to carry the torch and continue to tell Steve's stories?

To the day I die, I hope. I really hope I'm one of those aged people that just get a round of applause for getting on stage. That's what I'm looking for. (Laughing)

I think I once heard Katharine Hepburn say that if you stay alive long enough, people view you as an Oracle.

Yeah, that'll do! I'll wait! (Laughing) I think I've got a few more years but I definitely want to be performing. I need a purpose, you know, I need to have a purpose and I feel bereft without making something, doing something. I don't feel whole or happy.

So... I have one question left.

Okay. Yeah.

If you were making a teaser video, a trailer for YouTube and the internet of Legacy, what are the three songs that you think best represent what you are showing here?

Very good question. I think it would be The Way We Were for Marvin, it would be Sunday with all the ensemble and it would be The Medley, which is a crazy six-part harmony medley of the Michel Legrand songs, full of songs you will know, but didn't even realize you knew. So those three probably... and maybe A Piece Of Sky.

I love it. I have been graciously extended an invitation to come up to Connecticut and see the show, so I will be there.

Great! Come and say hi, please!

I am so grateful to you for chatting with me today. This has been a highlight in my Broadway World career.

Oh, my darling! Thank you so much!

Can't wait to see you on September 24th.

Can't wait to see you! Lots of love.

An Evening with Maria Friedman
Orchestra Lumos Annual Gala
Saturday, September 24, 2022, at 7:30 pm
The Palace Theatre, Stamford CT
Featuring the music of Marvin Hamlisch, Michel Legrand, and Stephen Sondheim
Todd Ellison, Musical Direction and Piano
Ross Lekites (Tina-The Tina Turner Musical)
Lewis Cleale (The Book of Mormon)
Camille Foisie
Nick Rossi
MaryAnn McSweeney, Bass
Tony Tedesco, Drums
with students from The Westport High School Staples Players, Darien High School Theater 308, King School in Stamford, and New Canaan High School Theatre students

For information and tickets to the September 24th gala and performance of Maria Friedman IN CONCERT with Orchestra Lumos, click HERE.

THIS is the Maria Friedman website.



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