Friedman Sings Sondheim and Bernstein

Maria Friedman made not so subtle architectural changes last night to Feinstein’s/54 Below by blowing the roof off the place. An “Executive Summary” of this review would say: “Go see this show!” Anyone who enjoys musical theater will delight in this performance. And it is not so often that Friedman gets here. (Although she did make a strong pitch for all of the audience to get up to Boston where she is directing a production of Merrily We Roll Along, produced by people who make art for the “right” reasons. It might get to Broadway. She claims it is her best directorial work to date. So she may be spending more time in the region.)

Friedman is a multiple winner of the Olivier Award, recognized for her performances in the London productions of Sondheim’s Passion and Ahrens’ and Flaherty’s Ragtime. (The Olivier Awards are the British equivalent of America’s Tonys.)  In addition to her musicals and recording work, Friedman has been active, and recognized for her work, in plays, film, television, radio and concerts. She is perhaps better known on ‘this side of the pond’ for her role as Elaine Peacock in East Enders. She retains, in her (self-proclaimed) middle years, a pixyish face with a distinct sparkle in the eyes. She disclaims any particular musical talent (a position with which I have differed), but excels at interpretation. There is a little more weight to the alto portion of the voice than I recall from recordings, and a tiny bit of gravel where called for.

Friedman Retains the Cherubic Face and Impish Grin

Friedman also exhibits more than a hint of the characteristic English music hall entertainer;  patter is, unless she is settled into a song, constant, full of asides, stories, a wink and a nod, a bit of farce – with a smile and a chuckle. It is self-deprecating, funny, full of good will and does, nicely, segue into each successive musical number. Friedman’s voice is no longer pitch perfect, but that does not detract a whit. The passion and emotional impact of each number IS perfectly pitched – and that is thoroughly engaging. It is passion and emotion that draw us into the theater and, with Bernstein and Sondheim, the music and lyrics bear half the burden. That does not, however, lessen the demands on the performer, since the emotional weight of the work is so much more than for most, particularly contemporary lyricists and composers, and the musical lines are twice as demanding. But, experienced hand that she is, Friedman makes it casual and comfortable and delivers the material with supreme confidence; she did express her sense of honor at appearing in NYC but admonished all not to join in.

This evening was originally supposed to be all Sondheim. However, observing the hyper-stressed state of the world these days, she suggested to her musical director, and very able accompanist (and composer) Jason Carr, that she close the show with Bernstein’s “Somewhere”; it longs for and asserts that there is a place for us – with peace and quiet and open air, where we might find a way of forgiving. She proposed that minor variation to Carr who responded with “Nope!”; not in a Sondheim show. She consequently re-engineered the evening to be a Bernstein/Sondheim show – much to our benefit. The material was tremendously varied, drawn from diverse contexts and ran a gamut from silly to profound, more than once alluding to current crises, without once being pedantic.

An Engaging Storyteller

She opened the evening with a Sondheim New York City medley: “What More do I Need” (from Saturday Night), “New York, New York” (On the Town) and “Me and My Town” (Anyone Can Whistle), then mused about her dream to, someday, dress entirely in black, plant herself at the end of a seedy bar, smoke, drink and cry. That would be the pinnacle of “New York sophistication.” Nonetheless, following performances of “Lonely Town” (from On the Town) and “Another Hundred People” (Company) she pitched the Boston production of her show.

Among the less well known numbers were “100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man” in which Friedman sequentially voiced a feminine paragon, a boastful horn-dog and the male-repellant, all knowing Hildy Esterhazy – who knew how to drive off men, and “A Little Bit of Love” (both Comden & Green, Bernstein, both from On the Town). In “Buddy’s Eyes” (Sondheim) brought out the more dramatic and plaintive actor – and with multiple rising modulations, built an emotional pitch that was both effective and haunting.

Friedman then related how she was cajoled into performing at a 30th anniversary party for Cameron Macintosh at which she was asked to perform, for each of his friend and colleagues, one song relevant to each. It was suggested that she approach the (apparently) seven composers who had submitted failed lyrics for “Memory” to recover those lyrics and sing them for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn, but the composers apparently all chose to write new and filthy lyrics instead. The most frightening performance at this event was a performance of Sondheim’s “I’m Not Getting Married Today,” sung to Stephen Sondheim – which, she says, she butchered. The lyrics are fast and furious, and the melody, in turns, calm and frantic. Claiming it remains a challenge, she promised to lock the door and keep everyone there until she conquered the piece. An ovation, whistles and hoots, followed the performance.

“Not Getting Married”

Another anecdote from her very early career had her singing among a list of “A” stars, out of her element and in wholly inadequate regalia at the dazzling Drury Lane Theater. When she stepped on stage, a voice from the balcony rang out: “Get off; we want Elaine Stritch,” top billed that day.  She persisted, of necessity. And she was rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation “thanks to that little sh*t in the balcony,” and thus began her rise to stardom. (My abbreviated renditions of Friedman’s anecdotes should not detract from their impact in that she is a far more gifted story teller in, as noted, the music hall tradition.)

Then the program became more pointed. Friedman movingly sang Bernstein, Comden and Green’s “So Pretty”, a 1968 anti-war song which I have only heard once before but which she noted was, sadly, still relevant. “Then my teacher said . . . they must die for peace you understand. But they’re so pretty, so pretty. I don’t understand.” This was followed by another Bernstein, Comden and Green piece: “Take Care of This House” (from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), which segued into “Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen,” an always affecting song that brought a tear from Friedman and more than a few in the house. Then, to revive a more festive mood, “I Can Cook Too” (also B, C & G), with a jazzy bit of pianistic play from Jason Carr.

There was more – more stories, more songs; and the evening was rich with material on which Friedman puts a fresh face – not with novelty or strained arrangements but with a depth of understanding and a maturity of thought and feeling. She did indeed end with “Somewhere” which, now, presents some vocal challenges. But we get by nicely and, if noted at all, the vulnerability is still more appealing.

“Officer Krupke”

The obligatory cabaret encore again whipsawed the audience to break the now contemplative mood, a rendition of Bernstein’s “Officer Krupke” with various bits of head gear being manically switched to take on the various characters being mocked, in the number, by the Sharks, again recalling the music hall heritage. Friedman had her audience, and herself, singing along and cracking up. She closed the evening with a short and sweet performance of “Some Other Time,”another Bernstein, Comden and Green piece from On The Town, which left everyone wondering when they might again sit down for another evening with this charming and consummately professional entertainer.

Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim and Bernstein
Feinstein’s/54 Below
Through September 23, 2017

Photos by Fred R. Cohen. See his website for more photos.

About Fred R. Cohen (47 Articles)
Fred Cohen, a NYC-based photographer, has been taking pictures for over four decades. His work has been published by Harry N. Abrams, Time Magazine and The New York Times. He does commissioned work and sells images from his extensive library. You can see his more casual work on face book and are welcome to visit his website at http://fredcohenphotography.weebly.com/.