Singer defies cancer so the show can go on

With her doctor watching from the wings, Britain's Maria Friedman makes Broadway debut just 10 days after breast cancer operation. By Rupert Cornwell
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As every performer knows, the show must go on. But few have proved the truth of the adage more heroically than the British actress Maria Friedman.

Just 10 days before her first appearance on Broadway, the three-times Olivier award-winning actress underwent surgery for breast cancer. Last Thursday evening she was trussed up, bruised and in pain from an operation that removed a marble-sized malignant lump from her left breast.

But utterly unbowed, with a doctor anxiously watching from the wings, she insisted on returning to the stage, singing and dancing for almost three hours in final previews of The Woman in White. It was a bravura performance that left her cast close to tears and brought her a standing ovation.

And there on the stage at the Marquis theatre she will be this Thursday, when the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has its formal opening night, under the unforgiving gaze of New York's posse of theatre critics.

After the preview performance, Friedman made it all sound so simple. There was, a listener would have thought, absolutely no choice. "We have a deadline, a committed company, and a lot of people's livelihood riding on the show," she said. "And I felt I dropped the baton at the last hurdle."

In fact, matters were anything but simple. It was on Monday morning on 31 October that the 45-year-old actress discovered the lump in her left breast. Two hours later she had a mammogram and her doctors diagnosed stage-one breast cancer. Three days after that, she was in a very different sort of theatre - an operating theatre - for the removal of the growth.

After such an ordeal, the recommended convalescence would most certainly not consist of strenuous bouts of singing, dancing and even stage fighting, night after night, in a theatrical performance during which the recovering patient is in action almost without interruption.

But when it comes to the stage, normal conventions do not apply. So determined was Friedman to get back on the boards that by last Tuesday she was again taking part in rehearsals, albeit with painful bruises on her chest, and with the mark of the surgeon's knife still visible.

In her come-back performance on Thursday, her chest was wound so tightly with bandages that in the first act she found it difficult to breathe. During the intermission, Abraham Pollack, her doctor, redid the dressing, before returning to the wings to keep a very anxious eye on proceedings. "I'm not an avid attendee of the theatre. I usually fall asleep," Dr Pollack told The New York Times yesterday. "But I didn't fall asleep in this one."

The Woman in White is based on the 1860 gothic novel by Wilkie Collins, often described as the first Victorian thriller. The tale, directed in its musical version by Trevor Nunn, centres on two women, Maria Halcombe, played by Friedman, and her half-sister Laura Fairlie.

By coincidence, the offstage drama of the past fortnight has also featured two sisters: Friedman herself and Sonia Friedman, one of the show's two producers. To Sonia fell the unenviable task of whether to put a sibling's health above the future of the $8.5m (£4.9m) production - which has no insurance cover for cancelled performances.

The actress is a fixture on the British entertainment scene, a veteran of TV, the cinema and above all the West End, where her myriad credits include Lady in the Dark, April in Paris and Chicago. She also won high praise for her role as the narrator in the film version of another Lloyd Webber blockbuster, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. But the New York stage is another matter, and much remains uncertain, not least the medical prognosis of the star. This week she will discover whether she has to face chemotherapy. The good news is that Dr Pollack believes that her type of cancer is not especially aggressive.

Even so, Friedman will undergo a seven-week course of radiation next month that can only sap her energy. But for the moment she is resolute. The show will go on - and with her at the very heart of it.