I did think immediately, ‘I don’t want to do a piece about posh people and frocks’,” says Maria Friedman, recalling her initial reaction to Kevin Spacey’s offer of directing the Cole Porter musical High Society at the Old Vic.
Luckily for the theatre-going public, this three-time Olivier Award-winning musical-theatre actress turned Oliver Award-winning director of musicals swiftly reconsidered.
A comedy about a spoilt heiress experiencing romantic complications on the eve of her remarriage, High Society originated, of course, as a sparkling 1956 film starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra, before being adapted for Broadway in the late Nineties. It was, Friedman says, the book by Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Kopit that won her round.
“It’s a really pithy, funny script that [brought me] up short on my own preconceptions of the characters. Every one of them is hiding something and denying themselves the possibility of having a good life.”
Taking the lead roles are the quietly impressive trio of Kate Fleetwood, Jamie Parker and Rupert Young, actors who are full of talent but mercifully unencumbered by big-name expectations.
Nevertheless, High Society’s classic status means it has hit written over all it, in marked contrast to Friedman’s professional directing debut in 2012. Then, she turned Stephen Sondheim’s so-called Eighties “failure” Merrily We Roll Along into a soaring success with a superb revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory which transferred to the West End.
Sondheim has been a long-time friend and mentor of hers. The night before our interview, Emma Thompson had opened to rapturous acclaim in a new production of Sweeney Todd at ENO and I can’t help but ask: does Friedman, 55, wish that had been her? “Of course I do,” she says, with what I swiftly learn is her trademark honesty. “Why wouldn’t I? But I went with Steve [Sondheim] and I really didn’t sit there dying inside, because Emma brought stuff [to the role of Mrs Lovett] that I’ve never even seen in it.”
After two decades as one of Britain’s most renowned musical performers, Friedman moved into directing them by chance. In 2010, her ongoing work with students found her directing a no-audience workshop production of Merrily at the Central School of Speech and Drama. On a tip-off from the school’s musical director and unbeknown to Friedman herself, the Menier’s artistic director David Babani and Friedman’s high-flying West End producer sister, Sonia, snuck in on a performance. They liked what they saw and plans were hatched.
Friedman says the career transition was one she had been considering for a while, as part of a strategy for dealing with the oft-discussed paucity of parts for older actresses. She doesn’t think that situation is improving. “We can always point to Helen Mirren, Judi Dench. Here we go again. There’s five of them! I’ve seen so many of my friends who were amazing have to stop. They can’t eat.”
Friedman took an impromptu break from acting after she was diagnosed with breast cancer during the 2005 Broadway run of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White; on her return to London she got rid of her agent and “just stopped”, she says. “You can suddenly find that you’ve missed a huge amount of simple things and spent your life in the dark with no windows. You know that feeling?”
Instead of the eight-show-a-week burden of theatre she spent time with her two sons, now aged 12 and 20, and her boyfriend, now husband, actor Adrian Der Gregorian. In fact, she has only recently engaged an agent again, as she combines directing commitments with singing on the international cabaret circuit. “I really love directing, but if somebody told me I could never perform again that would be a real grief”, she says.As a director, she is now determined to champion the musical; she is “saddened” that there aren’t more “home-grown” musicals and worries about the snobbery that the genre faces. “[In Britain] it’s considered the dinosaur of theatre and on Broadway it is not considered that”, she says emphatically. “Musicals are really bloody hard. How many hit musicals are there in the canon? Thirty? How many hit plays? Trillions.” Would Friedman like to extend her directing beyond musicals, perhaps to one of those hit plays? “Of course. My God, can you imagine doing a Mike Bartlett? I’d go to heaven and back.”
Her profile is also set to rocket later this year as she returns to EastEnders as Elaine, the irrepressible mother of Queen Vic landlady Linda. She made her debut last autumn and created such an impression that the producers have now signed her up for a “big, big chunk”. Did she ever envisage winding up as Danny Dyer’s mother-in-law?
“No I did not! He’s the loveliest man and a good actor. The worst thing is [being] a grandma already. I missed the auntie and went straight to grandma. My husband calls me ‘granny’ now!” Having struggled with the media attention during a year on Casualty, she’s steeling herself for the inevitable this time around. “I went to the TV awards [with the EastEnders cast] at the O2 and it was like a Roman arena ... people were screaming down at their favourites, ‘Daaaaannny!’ It was like, wow. You don’t get that at the National.”
Friedman is the daughter of a concert pianist and a violinist: they and her siblings all appear to have been over-achievers. What, I wonder, is the secret of the Friedman family success? “I don’t think we see the barriers that other people see. It was a very bohemian upbringing: no bedtimes, no homework. We were encouraged always to ask questions and explore,” she says. We’re nearing the end of our time together, but Friedman has one more striking thought to offer. “The best thing about theatre is that it’s a beautiful hand-out to remind us of each other’s fallibility and frailty and humanity. It’s a ‘Hallo, you know me and I know you’ and it’s done with words and music.” It looks as if the Old Vic is in for a swell party.
High Society is at the Old Vic, London SE1, until 22 Aug (0844 871 7628, oldvictheatre.com)