between the lines

'The first time I met him, it was like meeting Mozart': the musical actress Maria Friedman on how Stephen Sondheim changed her life
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My childhood was full of classical music. My mother was a concert pianist and I was going to be a cellist. My father, a Russian Jew from the East End of London, was a distinguished musician. He had been a co- leader of the Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham at 23, and later founded the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. But from the day that we saw Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, he would say that only one man was writing important, intelligent stuff.

I was 14 or so at the time. As a family we'd go to the theatre perhaps twice a year, and until that day I had the idea that musicals were fluffy, gingham, happy things, like Oklahoma or The Sound of Music. But here was something different. It got me in the stomach. I could feel myself well up, and I didn't understand why. It was so theatrical. The extraordinary lyrics pushed the plot forward in a way I'd never seen before, and Sondheim's characters were people I could relate to. They were flawed. They tried to say things for which they couldn't find the words. That struggle to express themselves, which is at the centre of A Little Night Music, was both painful and witty. It always is in Sondheim.

Years later I saw Sondheim's Sweeney Todd - in Oklahoma, funnily enough. I felt that I was going off in a rocket. The velocity was pushing me back in my seat. I was 25, and I hadn't really worked out what direction I was going in. But after that I knew I wanted to work with new composers who, like Sondheim, had something to say. He had given me a focus. His critics say his work is cynical, intelligent but cold. I think he's truthful. Sondheim doesn't like lies on stage. He tries to tell it like it is, and what he says is: "I'm like you. We can share these things." He feels that we share the same make-up and make the same mistakes. He's not afraid of emotions, and he leaves escapism to others. The way he'll cross-reference characters just in the music is breathtaking. Every up-beat, every syllable he writes is there for a reason.

I've known and worked closely with Sondheim for six or seven years now. But the first time I met him, it was like meeting Mozart. When he comes into your dressing-room crying after a show, it's like heaven on earth.

n Maria Friedman is appearing in Sondheim's new musical 'Passion' at Manchester Palace Theatre (0161-242 2500) to 2 Mar; Nottingham Theatre Royal (0115-948 2626) 4-9 Mar; Queens Theatre, London WC2 (0171-494 5590) from 13 Mar