Maria Friedman Is Finally Bringing Her Olivier-Winning Performances to Broadway | Playbill

Special Features Maria Friedman Is Finally Bringing Her Olivier-Winning Performances to Broadway

The three-time Olivier winner and director of Broadway's Merrily We Roll Along is starring in a one-night-only benefit concert for Broadway Cares March 4.

Maria Friedman Michaelah Reynolds

Maria Friedman is a beloved fixture of the West End stage, with three Olivier Awards (London's version of the Tony Awards) and a host of world class performances to her name. Over a career spanning more than three decades, she's played such iconic roles as Dot in Sunday in the Park With George, Mary in Merrily We Roll Along, Fosca in Passion, Sukie in The Witches of Eastwick, Mother in Ragtime, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, among many others.

Broadway has been a little late to the party, but we're getting there too. She made her Main Stem debut in the 2005 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical The Woman in White, bringing the role to New York after creating it across the pond. But that musical failed to make much of an impact this side of the Atlantic, running just a few months. Nearly 20 years later, Friedman is back on the boards as a director. She helmed the current Broadway megahit Merrily We Roll Along, the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical's first truly successful production, now regularly one of Broadway's top grossers.

And with that show happily running and patiently waiting for Tony nominations, Friedman is having another go at performing over here, too, in a one-night-only benefit concert for Broadway Cares March 4 at the Hudson Theatre (home to her Merrily). Titled Maria Friedman & Friends, the evening will see the star joined by some fancy friends (namely Tony winner Santino Fontana and Savy Jackson) to sing a song list focused on the work of Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Hamlisch, and Michel Legrand, three late artists with whom Friedman shared deep personal and professional relationships. You can get tickets to the concert here.

We had the pleasure of sitting in for a bit of Friedman's first orchestra rehearsal February 27, and can tell you that the concert will also see Friedman revisiting some of her Olivier-winning performances for Broadway audiences, including an epically long and comprehensive medley of songs from Sunday in the Park With George. Friedman was London's first Dot in the Sondheim-James Lapine musical, and now Broadway will get to see why it nabbed her a trophy.

But she won't only be joined by fancy friends. As has become a regular Maria Friedman concert practice, the stage star will be backed by a choir comprising early career musical theatre performers, most recently graduated from training programs. The scheme is a passion project for Friedman, a way to pay it forward to the next generation of theatre artists.

After the orchestra rehearsal, we caught up with Friedman over the phone to talk about the concert, her smash hit revival of Merrily We Roll Along, her commitment to nurturing young performers, and more. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez in Merrily We Roll Along Matthew Murphy

The last time we talked, Merrily hadn't even started Off-Broadway yet. Now it's officially a big hit, with a lot of the theatre world saying you've finally cracked this cult favorite after its disastrous original production. How does it feel to see it flourishing?
Maria Friedman: You know, it’s funny. I live in Hackney in East London, so I did the show and went home. There’s a lot of hoo-ha going on over here, but I was still going shopping, walking the dog. Life didn’t change massively. Except I have this duality, a great sense of sadness and thrill because Steve, all those years ago when I worked with him [on one of the first U.K. productions of the musical, in which Friedman starred as Mary], and George [Furth], first in Leicester Haymarket Theatre, in a tiny little town in the Midlands—they’d written a new version, and they used a bunch of English actors to work their script away from the press. But they knew they’d written something beautiful. And then of course decades later, I got to direct my production in London, which is still the most five-star-reviewed musical in history. Steve saw that one and wanted it here, in his home town. It took a while to get it here for all sorts of reasons. But then he died. He was part of the process. We were working together, and then he died. For him to have seen that it’s a commercial hit was something I wanted for him so badly. That I can’t share it with him is a huge pain. I mean, can you imagine, after all that vitriol. Suddenly it’s people coming from all generations and loving it. It’s heartwarming and sad at the same time.

I’m deeply grateful for my beautiful cast and the wonderful support I got from producers. You don’t do it on your own, and it was a very happy time. It wasn’t pressured or tense. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more relaxed on opening night, because onstage was something that I, whatever the critics said, I was proud of it. I was proud of my cast. I don’t think the story could have seemed clearer. I got to watch it like an audience member, just proud and a bit like a mother. My little group, they were sailing—and they still are every night!

It's a testament to the power of star casting, at least when it's done right. The theatre world can get pretty cynical about that, but it's impossible to ignore the audiences it's bringing to Merrily that likely would never have otherwise chosen to see that show.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. When I see the people coming and weeping…I mean, the Daniel Radcliffe effect is quite phenomenal. We can’t underestimate what an amazing gift we had when he wanted to play Charley. He’s a tremendous actor, and I urge everyone to understand what he is doing up there. The detail and the precision and the dedication and the brilliance is phenomenal. I watched him build that performance from the ground up, growing every day more and more. He’s still finding things.

Maria Friedman in London's My Favorite Things: The Rodgers and Hammerstein 80th Anniversary Concert in 2023 Tristram Kenton

The last time we talked, you were getting ready to do another benefit concert in Connecticut, for Orchestra Lumos. That evening was a big night of support for young artists and featured a lot of them performing with you, and of course, you've got young people in on the act this time around also. Why is that such an important mission for you?
I did a series of concerts the second we came out of one of our lockdowns in the pandemic. I got to thinking about what had happened to all those people who had graduated into an industry that completely closed. I mean, not since Shakespeare’s time, the Blitz, have we ever shut our business. I thought, where do they go? We set about asking people for self tapes, and we had some from Indonesia, and some from Ireland, and all over. Eventually we chose our group, and we gave them a paid, professional first-go on the stage. It was a remarkable experience. We made sure we had lots of casting people in the room, and everyone has gone off to do fantastic things. We did a series of seven concerts and we had seven different choirs, and each week would highlight a couple of young soloists among them.

For this Broadway concert, we’ve taken the same premise of getting young people, and they'll all be making their Broadway debuts. They’re working with Christopher Gattelli, they’ve had sessions with [Merrily We Roll Along music director] Joel Fram and [Maria Friedman & Friends music director] Theo Jamieson, and I’ve spent two sessions with them talking about directing. We’re getting them some great experience, and they are fantastic—very moving. We told them yesterday they’d have to go to the stage door for the show, and two of them just burst into tears. So beautiful.

Anyone who’s honest about this industry knows that even if you’re quite successful, it’s really tough. You need people on your side. You need people giving you opportunities. Doors, if you’re not connected, feel shut. And even though now, of course, [Olivier- and Tony-winning producer, Maria's sister] Sonia Friedman and I look like we’ve always had doors flung open, we literally came from nothing. We know how tough it was. I didn’t go to drama school. I didn’t have an agent for years. And as I get older, I’m very moved by the courage of these young people in an entirely different world of social media. And it’s invigorating, to see different styles and different people and voices. Selfishly, I’m very moved by young people. I love them.

It feels like that spirit of giving carries over into your performances as well. Watching you perform, you're very direct in how you connect with an audience. You're not one to just have your experience on stage and let people watch it.
I want to be the connection. I want to be the vessel that connects them to their own lives. That’s my job—it’s about communication. It’s about offering what the writers were intending, and I want to talk directly to your life. Writers write in order to communicate something to the listener, and I am the person that can make that the clearest journey. That’s my hope.

Sonia Friedman and Maria Friedman Michaelah Reynolds

Tell me how this incredible Sunday in the Park With George medley came to be. It has you doing nearly the entire role!
The earliest version, I put it together with [Sondheim archivist] Peter Jones. Originally, we put together a whole section of mini musicals for a concert I did at the Carlyle. I did Potted Merrily, Potted Sunday, Potted Passion, Potted Follies. They were each like seven to 12-minute medleys. But what we’ve done with this one is we’ve expanded it, and Theo Jamieson did all the new arrangements. We work incredibly symbiotically together.

And how does it feel to be bringing these performances that are so known and beloved to West End audiences to Broadway audiences, to many of whom they might be unknown?
I feel very humbled about it, because I know it’s your space. I didn’t want to do it at first, but then I thought about how I’ve spent my entire life singing these things. They belong to us all. I believe Steve writes music to be heard and reinterpreted and reinterpreted and reinterpreted—because he leaves space for whoever is singing it.

The unique thing that Steve has that no other composer I know has is that it doesn’t matter if you’re short, fat, tall, anything. If you have the emotional equipment to sing Mrs. Lovett, you can do it. There is no type. It’s whoever comes into that room that the director has decided as the new vessel to tell the story from. I feel that about Dot, and every character that he writes. There’s room for all of us.

It feels part tragic and part heroic, that I have the audacity at 63 to pretend to be an artist’s muse. But I still, like Merrily, I still feel 20. I have all those feelings that I had when I was 20. Just the body’s gone a bit pear-shaped. I’ve been given a life that I’ve been allowed to sing and tell stories with, and I want to do it until my last breath.

Maria Friedman & Friends is set for March 4 at the Hudson Theatre. Tickets are available at

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