Appearing at the Café Carlyle for the first time since her U.S. debut there last year, Friedman demonstrates her unique ability to transform familiar and not-so-familiar show tunes into mini-dramas that make them seem fresh again. She says it's the kind of material she is drawn to.
"I gravitate toward storytelling, snapshots of life," the 40-ish singer who is at the peak of her blonde, pixie beauty and vocal prowess, said in an interview. "In the best songs you can show not only what people want to show but also a subtext, the reasons why they are the way they are. A familiar song is like a warm bath. A lot of what I do is a little edgier, and it requires more work from the audience as well."
Friedman had won two Olivier Awards, the equivalent of Broadway's Tony Awards, before she accepted her first Carlyle engagement, and has won another since. She will star opposite Michael Crawford in Webber's "The Woman in White" in London next September, and it is likely she will come to New York in the show, putting her in eventual contention for a Tony.
Through May 1, Friedman is giving her Carlyle audiences a program of 15 songs, calling it "By Special Arrangement." One of them is from the new Webber show base on a novel by Willkie Collins, a pioneering English mystery writer best known for "The Moonstone." The song is "Ever on My Mind," a catchy romantic ballad in the composer's most agreeable melodic style.
Friedman comes on in a stunning sapphire chiffon gown, full of autobiographical anecdotes that she intersperses with songs sung in a beautifully trained voice used occasionally to hold a penultimate note for an amazingly long time. Her repertory is more varied than most cabaret acts, ranging from English musical hall ditties to Jewish ghetto songs.
Swiss-born to parents who were classical musicians, she brings a European sensibility to her art, one of the reasons she is just as popular in concerts on the Continent as she is in Great Britain. Nothing on her program tops French composer Jacques Brel's "If You Go Away," a heartfelt and enchanting rendition sung in Rod McKuen's English translation, or "Springtime," a sad but lovely song composed by a group of Yiddish entertainers in the Vilna ghetto in World War II.
George Ware's music hall piece, "The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery," is blended with "If Love Were All," a Noel Coward number in a similar light-hearted, hi-ho vein. George Gershwin's "My Ship" from "Lady in the Dark" comes in for haunting treatment, and Randy Newman's novelty song, "Short People," gets a humorously contrasting performance with Friedman's two pianists singing along.
Yes, she has two pianists playing upright pianos on the Café Carlyle's tiny stage, instead of the usual mixed instrumental backup used by American singers. Michael Haslam plays the accordion as well as the piano, and Chris Walker is at the other keyboard.
Friedman says she became hooked on composer Stephen Sondheim when she was taken to hear "A Little Night Music" in London when she was 14. She has sung in three of his musicals in London and includes two songs from one of them, "Sunday in the Park With George," the rarely heard "Finishing the Hat" and "Children and Art," which she dedicates to her mother.
She sings and plays the flute in her rollicking presentation of Sheldon Harnick's "The Merry Minuet," which is more of a blues number than its title suggests, and ends with a triumphant rendition of Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere" from "West Side Story." For an encore she sings her terrific interpretation of "Broadway Baby" from Sondheim's "Follies," peeking perhaps into her own future.
Her London version of this one-woman show, which won her an Olivier Award, and its sequel show, "Maria Friedman: By Extra Special Arrangement," are represented on her debut solo album, "Maria Friedman" on the Carlton label. A live concert recording of her new solo show, "Maria Friedman Live," is about to be released.