Maria Friedman sings Sondheim

Songs from Passion, Company, Evening Primrose, All that glitters, Into the woods, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, A little night music, West Side story, Road Show & Marry me a little

Maria Friedman – Singer

Jason Carr – Piano and Arrangements
James Potter – Cello

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 20 March, 2009
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

If you are compiling an evening of music by Stephen Sondheim, what to include is no problem: the trouble is what you can afford to leave out. There is now such a wealth of material by America’s premier composer-lyricist, as the recent compilation “Stephen Sondheim: the story so far” demonstrated, four CDs packed with songs, but they are but a taster of the Sondheim catalogue. Maria Friedman’s concert of Sondheim was first premiered at the Café Carlyle in New York six years ago, since when it has been seen around the world. It returned to the Carlyle in 2006 but it has never been seen in the UK. After her successful seasons at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, the Trafalgar Studios and more recently at the Shaw Theatre, no doubt we will be hearing more of Maria’s Sondheim interpretations.

Friedman is no stranger to the music of Sondheim, having appeared in productions of “Sunday in the park with George”, “Passion” and “Sweeney Todd”. She has also sung on recordings of “Merrily we roll along”, “Anyone can whistle” and “A little night music”. Being both actress and singer helps with Sondheim as a certain amount of intelligence is required to put across the sentiments he is expressing. Although his most famous song, ‘Send in the clowns’ from “A little night music”, was recorded by the world and his wife, only a few singers have really got to its heart.

Sondheim wrote it in just two days for actress Glynis Johns who created the role of Desirée in “A little night music”. She had a pleasant, delicately husky voice but not one that could sustain long notes, so he wrote it in short phrases rather than as a big, soaring ballad, which was the usual way for the ‘eleven o’clock number’ so beloved of Broadway musicals. It provides a plangent coda at the end of the show as the characters finally realise who they are and is an emotionally moving contrast to the delightful shenanigans that have gone before.

I don’t think any singer has ever equalled the first version by Johns, although there have been fine attempts by Sinatra, Streisand, Bassey and, of course, Judy Collins who put the song on the map for the general public. It then became a chart hit and Collins won a Grammy award for it. In the London productions Jean Simmons, Judi Dench and Hannah Waddingham have all given the song that extra layer of intelligence, while Millicent Martin came close to perfection in the original production of “Side by side by Sondheim”. To this celebrated list we must now add Maria Friedman who performs the song quietly but with subdued passion, sitting on the floor at the side of the stage, reminding one almost irresistibly of Judy Garland. Had she lived, how would Garland have tackled ‘Send in the clowns’? We’ll never know but can only speculate in this, the fortieth year since her death.

‘Send in the clowns’ comes towards the end of Maria Friedman’s concert, which is how it should be. But how do you open a show like this? Oddly, she chooses a medley from “Passion” in which Maria played the starring role of Fosca, an ugly woman who falls for and becomes obsessed by a young soldier in nineteenth-century Italy. She gave an intense, selfless performance in the musical that she replicates here; it is one of Maria’s personal triumphs. As good as they are,, the songs ‘Happiness’, ‘I wish I could forget you’ and ‘Loving you’ together make for a rather downbeat opening to the evening.

Maria reveals that Sondheim always writes his songs from the point of view of love. This is demonstrated in the next item, ‘Marry me a little’, a song cut from “Company”, which was to have come at the end of Act One. Instead the first half closes with ‘Getting married today’. ‘Marry me a little’ has the same air of melancholic reflection as ‘Send in the clowns’, which Maria conveys beautifully. Eventually there is a change of mood in ‘You could drive a person crazy’ in which Bobby, the hero of “Company”, is berated for not committing to one person.

Other Sondheim works represented here are “Follies”, “Into the woods”, “Sunday in the park with George”, “West Side Story”, “Sweeney Todd” and “Road Show”, Sondheim’s latest musical which still awaits a London showing. From “Sweeney Todd” comes Maria’s Mrs Lovett, which she performed hilariously at the Southbank Centre but sadly did not do the film. For ‘The worst pies in London’ she engages the help of an unsuspecting audience member to amusing effect, demonstrating her own gift for comedy as well as drama.

A change of mood for “Follies” and a trio of songs, ‘The road you didn’t take’, ‘In Buddy’s eyes’ and ‘Too many mornings’ that sum up the years of regret experienced by two couples who have perhaps been married for too long without love in their lives. Maria conveys the truth behind the lyrics with great understanding and insight. These are followed by ‘The story of Lucy and Jessie’, a breezy tale of two totally different women who, if only they could change, could be really happy; and ‘Losing my mind’ (the coffee-cup song from “Follies”): “The sun comes up, / I think about you, / The coffee cup, / I think about you” – another study in obsession by a woman who can think of nothing but her lover.

The songs from “Into the woods” – ‘I know things now’ and ‘Stay with me’ – give us a taste of what Maria might be like playing the Witch (it could and should happen one day).“Sunday in the park with George” is another triumph for Maria who created the role of Dot in the first London production at the National Theatre. After a false start with the lighting effects she conveys the boredom evinced by Dot, artist’s model for Georges Seurat as he paints his famous ‘Sunday afternoon’ picture. With an early song from sixty years ago, ‘I must be dreaming’ from “All that glitters”, in which the Sondheim style can already be detected, and ‘I remember sky’ from “Evening primrose”, a musical written for television in 1966, to ‘Isn’t he someone?’, from his latest show “Road Show” (also previously known as “Wise Guys”, “Gold” and “Bounce”), Maria Friedman representatively covers the whole Sondheim territory.

In ‘Broadway baby’ from “Follies” she starts soft and increases in power until the finale when she gives it her all. However, in ‘Somewhere’ from “West side Story” Maria brings on the Streisand effect by turning a modest lyric into a showstopper which it doesn’t really need. After all, the girl in the show is just looking forward to “peace and quiet and open air” and “time together with time to spare” – small sentiments not big deals.

The piano accompaniment and arrangements by Jason Carr are impeccable and the addition of James Potter on cello adds emotional weight giving the music an extra profundity and, being the most plangent-sounding of musical instruments, offers a more rounded depth to the proceedings in some really beautiful and sympathetic music-making.

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