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The Woman in White

This British import brings mystery and romance to Broadway.

Maria Friedman

It takes a Class-A trouper to do what Maria Friedman has done in the past month. A week after undergoing a lumpectomy for stage one breast cancer, the star of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical The Woman in White, was back on the Marquis Theater boards, making her long-awaited Broadway debut in time for the scheduled opening night on November 17. Not to overshadow Friedman's splendid work in the Trevor Nunn-directed production–nor her pristine reputation across the pond as a three-time Olivier Award-winning leading lady of London's musical theater–but her robust determination has been, thus far, without doubt the backstage story the season. Graciously giving a few moments in her dressing room a half hour before "half hour" this week, Friedman chatted about how she navigated the unexpected circumstance of cancer while taking her first step onto the Great White Way, and how the love and support of the theater community, her children and her sister, Sonia Friedman–a lead producer of the show–have pulled her through one of the most difficult journeys of her life.

Okay, so how are you feeling today?
I'm okay, thank you. Yes, I'm good today.

And where are you at with treatment?
I have to go back in again. Unfortunately, we're still not in the clear yet. They found some more horrid cells a couple of days ago that were too close to a marginal or something. You know, I'm a new expert in all this–or a beginner anyway. When they took the lumpectomy out they sent it to some lab in California. They're being very, very, very careful and cautious. And may want to take some more away just to be safe.

You were quick to respond after finding the lump. And rightly so.
Well, there wasn't really a choice. I mean, once you find a lump and you know it's cancerous, you want it out, don't you? You don't want it sitting there. [Laughs.] I also knew that if there was anything to it, that I was in the best city for it. And somebody just held my hand and guided me through. I made the decision to get it out so that I could get back to work as quickly as possible.

Okay, off cancer for a moment...
[Laughs.] Lovely!

You were born in Switzerland, but you're English. What's the story?
Yes, my mother is English. And my father was working for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. So basically we'd went to Switzerland because he was a musician.

So was it through your parents that you went into the theater?
I suppose, in a way. They're classical musicians, so theirs' is a much more serious approach music. But they loved all music–the house was always full of it [growing up]. Though I don't think it was a natural route into musical theater from my background, I honestly don't know how I fell into it. [Laughs.]

Maybe watching that big red curtain reveal your dad onstage in the orchestra at Sir Albert Hall when you were little?
[Laughs.] No, my lot has always been in doing it, rather than being an observer. I grew to love theater by participating in it.

You started The Woman in White in September, 2004, in London, right?
Has it really been that long? [Laughs.] I'm very bad at dates and months. But, since the workshop, I suppose it's been about two and a half years. Obviously I was doing other stuff at the time. But I was fully committed–did a year [performing the show] in London. And now I'm doing nine months here. All in all it will be over two years of my life.

Did you find that your familiarity with the role of Marian was a kind of comfort for you in dealing with the circumstances of the cancer?
Yes, I'm sure that's true. I think it would have been absolutely alarming to be opening on Broadway with something that I didn't know so well. With Marian, since I knew what I was going to be doing, that really did help.

You think that's part of the reason why you went back into the show so quickly after surgery?
Well, I got some very good advice from some people who said, after I had the surgery, ‘you don't have cancer any more. And as long as you're feeling up to it, what's preventing you from having a normal life?' The person who'd said that told me the thing to do was to return to having a normal life. Cause really, what can you do? Sit at home and worry? Why?

Well, you also love your job.
I do. I love my job. And with all people at the theater... we're a team here. And it was like one of the players wasn't playing. And they wanted me back and I wanted to come back. I told myself, if it's too difficult, I'll stop. But it never has been. So it's not like I'm doing something that's costing me, like my health. You know? Because it's basically like I had a bruise – like I'd bumped into a door or something.

The interaction between actors and audiences can be such a strong exchange of energy. Has that been healing for you? Given you a charge?
Yes, it certainly has. I always noticed that two-way thing in theater. But while the audiences have been very warm, the cast and the crew and everybody here has just been incredible. So I felt very supported, if not cushioned from reality a little bit.

Has the situation changed any perspective you have on the character at all? Or on how you're performing her?
No, not really. I suppose when there's a lot of talk about life and living, just as an actor, I'm always building in a bit of my own stuff anyway. So, certainly there's that. But the fact that the story [of The Woman in White] is about sisters, and my sister [Sonia Friedman] is around, has been more emotionally charged.

I cannot help but feel there is some sort of cosmic synergy at work here.
Yes, I think there has been.

That your sister is one of the producers, and has literally been there for you throughout. What sort of impact has it had on your relationship?
Huge. We've always been incredibly close. But I think if we could have got closer this did bring us closer. We're best friends anyway, we really are. As this all happened we both looked at each other with re-found respect. She was, as usual, a powerhouse of pragmaticism and practicality and love. And I think she was amazed by... she didn't realize that I was also somebody who could be quite, I don't know, just so getting on with it–day by day, minute by minute. Plus I've got my boyfriend here, who just made us laugh the whole time, regardless of what was going on. I mean, we were in all these surgeries where everyone obviously had cancer and there was so much tragedy around us, and the three of us were just sort of giggling most of the time. But it gets harder as the weeks go on to keep giggling.

Is your relationship with Sonia similar to the one Marian has with her sister in The Woman in White?
I don't think the play represents our relationship of sisterhood except for the fact that I think we would do almost anything for each other–and have done many, many times.

And how've your two young sons been handling everything?
Well, when I had my operation I just decided that the little one [age 3] doesn't need to know anything about it. I just asked him not to jump on top of me as much as he normally does. [Laughs.] And the older one [age 10], I was just very straight forward with. I said, "Mummy had cancer and they cut it out." I didn't tell him anything about it before. But when I came home from the hospital, suddenly he had to know, cause I was all bandaged up and feeling very weak for a couple of days. But I said, "You mustn't worry about me, I'm absolutely fine. It's gone. Now, just please be careful." [Laughs.] But it's step by step. We're all taking on a lot. The great thing about having a family is that you can help each other through the tough times. They're helping me and I'm helping them. I think we all love being in New York, so we all feel very, very blessed. And against all the odds, we're really having a wonderful time.

Has your famous director and composer been there for you as well?
Emotionally, I'd say, Trevor [Nunn] didn't leave my side. Every time I came off the stage during the interval he would be standing in the corridor waiting for me. And then every night he would sit in my dressing room–him, Sonia, Michael Ball, there would be seven or eight of them sitting there just sharing a glass of wine, giggling, chatting.

How about Mr. Lloyd Webber?
Well, he wasn't here. You know, wasn't in the country. But he wrote me a letter and then came in [for opening night on Broadway] and gave me a hug, and told me I was "courageous" and all that sort of stuff. [Giggles.] But no, he wasn't a part of the day to day drama.

Finally, what do you think has been the most important lesson you've learned from this experience so far?
Well, I have to hold my hands up and say that I have the most amazing friends. And if there was ever, ever a day that I doubted I was loved, then that has to be put to rest. Cause I feel very valued and very cared for.

See Maria Friedman in The Woman in White at the Marquis Theatre, 1545 Broadway. Click for tickets and more information.

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