(Kate Kellaway’s article appeared in the Guardian,  2/13;  via Pam Green; Maria Friedman at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer.)

The musical theatre star on her new tribute show to Stephen Sondheim, her unconventional upbringing, and her happiest song…

Maria Friedman, 61, is a singer, actor and director who has a natural musicality (her parents were classical musicians) and knows how to get inside a song and make it her own – and ours – with emotional precision. An eight-time Olivier nominee (she has won the prize three times), she is known for her interpretations of Stephen Sondheim’s songbook, and is about to celebrate him and the composers Marvin Hamlisch and Michel Legrand in Legacy, a show at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Friedman is married to the 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 in a gala as a replacement for a singer who had flu. I had two days to learn Broadway Baby [from Sondheim’s Follies]. The lyrics fitted me like a glove: it was about a girl with aspirations who wanted to land a great job and not work in cafes or live in a bedsit with no money. Everyone considered Broadway Baby Elaine Stritch’s song [she was also on the bill that night]. The music started and a spotlight went on to the middle of the stage. I took a deep breath and was about to start my song when, from the top of the gods, someone shouted: “Get off, we want Elaine!” I had tears in my eyes but dug really deep into those lyrics. It’s what I have done ever since. Sondheim’s work is extraordinary: when you trust it and live in it, it keeps you safe. The place went berserk. Sondheim was in the audience; at the party afterwards he asked: “Who was that girl?”

What was he like as a character?
He came to see me later in Ghetto at the National, and it was after that I got cast as Dot in Sunday in the Park With George. Sondheim was the most curious person I’ve ever met. His intelligence was dazzling, but what I loved most was his capacity to laugh and to care and to listen.

So was the nuanced bittersweet quality of his music in evidence in the man himself?
Life is bittersweet and his music reflects that. He wrote about people’s complexities and relished them. There was never any judgment about people being fractured. He was a kind, loyal man, but God, he could be very … direct.

I gather he was godfather to one of your boys?
He was godfather to my son Toby and mentor to my younger son, Alfie.

How do you interpret a song –?
It’s gradual. You have a smell, a feeling about your connection. You feel it coming closer and closer until it becomes part of your marrow and suddenly it belongs to you. Sondheim’s genius was that he left space for every actor to bring their own life into play – he was open to new interpretations and would roar with laughter when you came up with something he had not thought of.

Tell me about your show at the Chocolate Factory, which will celebrate not only Sondheim but the American composer Marvin Hamlisch and French composer Michel Legrand …
I worked with them both, and travelled the world with them. I sang at Marvin Hamlisch’s memorial along 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 unbelievable. I sang at his memorial too.

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