(December 11, 2005)

Surgery Can’t Stop the Show

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

It wasn't until breast cancer put her debut in jeopardy that British actress Maria Friedman realized how much Broadway meant to her.

"I was devastated," she says. "I thought `You've got to be joking. I've worked 20 years to get here. No. I'm not not doing this.' … It meant an enormous amount to me. I didn't think I'd had a dream to come to Broadway, but I had."

Friedman made headlines and won a place in Broadway history by playing five preview performances, undergoing surgery for a newly diagnosed early-stage breast cancer and returning to open in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Woman in White" as scheduled, on Nov. 17.

The actress then proceeded to lose her cell phone ("genuinely," she says) and take a brief break before returning to performances at the Marquis Theater. Last week, doctors let her know she'll need more surgery, which she faces this week.

Friedman is accustomed to making people feel emotions when they see her onstage. But since her cancer diagnosis, she says, those emotions emerge when she's not.

"You see people looking at you not as Maria anymore," she says. "When I first had children, people looked at me as mother, not as Maria. And now they look at me as cancer, not as Maria.

"They look at me and they wonder whether if I've got cancer. You can see it in their eyes. They wonder if I'm going to die. They wonder if I'm well. You can see it. You see love and fear in equal proportions."

Friedman is a veteran of London's West End, winning three Olivier Awards, the British Tony, for "Maria Friedman: By Special Arrangement at the Donmar," and for playing Fosca in Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" and Mother in "Ragtime." She has a cabaret career of long standing and is considered one of the foremost interpreters of Sondheim, a close friend.

In "The Woman in White," - a rollicking journey of ghostly visions, sisterly love, wedded betrayal and intrigue - Friedman plays Marian Halcombe, a woman who is introspective, curious, courageous and loyal. It's a role Lloyd Webber wrote for her and one that, at first, she was determined not to play.

"I had read (Wilkie Collins') novel and the character is 28. And I'm not, quite clearly (she's 45). I'm interested in acting, not pretending."

She was asked to take part in a workshop - an early staged reading - of "The Woman in White," just to fit a voice into the piece.

"When I did the favor of doing the workshop, they were just using my voice, and I said `I am not playing this part.' And they said, `OK, you're not playing the part, but come in and do the workshop.' And within three days of doing the workshop it was quite clear I'd be playing the part."

But not without some changes.

"They really had to guarantee me to do a lot of rewriting to allow me to be able to play the role, because I was completely not interested in pretending to be a la-la-la girl in her 20s. What can I bring to that except for remembering once upon a time? I'm much more interested in exploring a character."

Her character became a take-charge heroine who will go to great lengths to do the right thing.

"Marian's a very modern woman," Friedman says, "and what I like best about our show is that even though it's a classic piece of musical theater, like all good stories, the issues are contemporary: Who do you trust? Who do you believe? Where do you go when you're lost? Who do you turn to?

The actress uses thoughts of everyday life - her cancer, her kids (sons Toby and Alfie), her sister - as triggers of emotion to make her moments onstage resonate.

"If the thoughts are real, then the audience will be feeling something about their own life," she says.

"When you play a character, you want to make every scene fresh. You mustn't know the result. You mustn't know the end.

"It's a bit like me with cancer. I don't know what the ending is. You just have to do every day with courage and as much integrity as you can muster and you're not always going to manage it. So sometimes your worst self will lead."

The response from her Broadway family has been overwhelming.

"It should have been a really lonely, frightening time, because I'm away from home," she says. "I'm away from my best friends, my family, all the people that you would expect in a crisis that you need around you.

"I think people have taken that very seriously. I feel like I've been cocooned with genuine care. I've gotten letters from every single member of the cast - and they're not just saying it, they mean it - `Can we take your kids to the zoo? Can we cook for you? What can we do?' Just them offering is all I need, so far.

"… I'm completely thrilled to be here, and it's nice to be able to say that because I didn't know that I would be. And my sister has devoted so much more of her time to it than I have."

Her sister, Sonia Friedman, is a "Woman in White" producer and a veteran of dozens of West End shows who brought productions of "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" and "Noises Off" to Broadway in recent years.

"The truth is, my love for her is greater than any musical ever written," the actress says. "And to have not let her down, ultimately, at the last hurdle, was very important."

The last hurdle for "The Woman in White" marked one of the first hurdles in Friedman's battle with cancer. "They tell me I have a very, very, very good prognosis," she says.

" … I will not let myself project forward. … That sometimes happens in my sleep, I'll have a bad dream about it. But in my day-to-day life, I'm sort of lurching from the show back home to pick up my sons from school. And the day is filled with ordinary real things that matter to me. What cancer is is distracting.

"I know (chemotherapy) is going to be horrible, but I'm not going to sit around going, `Oh, it's going to be horrible,' because it just will be. So when it is horrible, then I'll be going through horrible and then I'll come out of horrible and I'll go through `not so bad.'

"So it's not my dream Broadway opening, but it is what it is, isn't it? And I will come through it. I would think I'll come through it. If it's at all possible, I will."