Relative Values: Sonia and Maria Friedman
Saturday, 24 August 2019
Maria and I have spent many hours trying to figure out how we survived our childhood. Our mum’s recent death has thrown up all sorts of questions about how we got through it. We both agree that if we were in the same situation now, we’d probably have ended up in foster care.
I don’t want to use the word neglect. Mum was a woman of enormous intelligence and pride, bringing up four children under the age of 10 with no emotional or financial support. Our dad [the violinist Leonard Friedman] left when I was born. She was trying to provide for us [she worked as a concert pianist], but it meant she was constantly absent.
There was no parental guidance, no boundaries and no support. A gypsy called Wally, who mum brought into the home, was the only older person in our life. He at least ensured we were all in at night. We fed ourselves. We got ourselves up and we put ourselves to bed. I have no memory of ever having a family meal together.
From birth to the age of 10, my three siblings provided constant love, music, energy and laughs. It was mad, wild and bohemian. Then, within the space of a few months, my brother Richard left home and so did Sarah, who was two years older. Maria, who was 15, went to live in a bedsit with her boyfriend — young, yes, but that’s just how we were. I’ve always rebelled against structure and authority and routine. After that, I truanted from school. I had no confidence or ambition, no idea what I wanted to do.
Maria, who is five years older than me, pulled me along with her. She took me to her school with her, and when she started acting she took me to the theatre and sat me in the prompt corner to watch the performance. When I was about 13, she was in a production of Oklahoma! at the Palace Theatre and I vividly remember swivelling round to watch the crew and the dressers instead of the stage. I felt I was sharing a magical secret. I knew in that moment I wanted to be a producer, like watching all my childhood dreams spring to life.
Maria was my safe place and she still is. Her voice makes me feel protected and warm. I cry just thinking about it. She has no idea how much I listen to her. All the things she’s been through — her struggles, her suffering, her highs and lows, and everything our family has dealt with — come over in everything she sings. As soon as I hear her, I am her baby sister, she’s looking after me again and I feel so lucky she’s there.
She’s had primary breast cancer twice. The second time, five years after the first, it was very aggressive. She had a double mastectomy and was seriously ill. I went to New York with her when she had surgery. Her two beautiful boys needed her support, so she had to make the decision to put her musical theatre career on hold. [Toby has a form of cerebral palsy and Alfie has Asperger’s]. But out of that difficult time she’s also created an extraordinary career as a theatre director. She’s just a brilliant communicator.
We’ve both felt lost since Mum died. She’d always be in the audience when Maria was performing. Within weeks of her dying we did the only thing we knew — the four of us put on a show, just as we did as children. But this time we drew on the top talent in the world: we had the best orchestras and choirs; Andrew Scott performed a soliloquy from Hamlet. It was something only our family could have pulled off. It was our mad, mad childhood made real. I’m now producing the most wonderful piece of magic [Harry Potter and the Cursed Child] at the Palace Theatre; whenever I go, I stand on the spot where Maria sat me down to watch Oklahoma! I touch the walls, the years slip away and I feel extraordinarily blessed.
Sonia was born with incredible energy and focus and clarity: she can hold 10 worlds in her head, yet there’s still something childlike about her. She could have stylists and houses all over the world, but she likes to keep things simple. She just loves the work, and that’s kept us both safe.
We had a mum who had a lot of ill health — she did what she could, but it was never going to be enough. You don’t feel the chaos and lack of structure as a child, it’s only later in life, when you see how other people live, that you realise what you didn’t have. It’s driven us to make our world secure. You learnt to put an arm around yourself to make sure you’re OK because you never knew what was going to happen next.
I held on tight to Sonia, particularly. I was five when she was born and she saved me. Our brother and sister had been sent to boarding school and Mum was largely absent, but I had this beautiful little thing who I loved to the point of distraction. Sonia was everything to me and I wanted everything for her. It made me feel great that I had someone tremendous to look after. We gave each other an enormous amount of love. I don’t mean in the flabby sense — I think love is doing, love is being there, and she and I will always be there for each other.
I was diagnosed with primary breast cancer for the second time five years ago. It was a deeply distressing time and it’s had a massive impact. Sonia was tremendous: she went into full-on organisational mode; she made sure I was financially OK. She paid the school fees for my son when I couldn’t, and came with us to New York for treatment. Then my family moved into her house. She gave us her heart and her home.
The whole family has ended up with much younger partners: our mother was with someone 17 years younger than herself. There’s a 20-year gap between my brother and his partner. My husband [the actor Adrian Der Gregorian] is 20 years younger than me. Sonia’s partner [the writer Joe Murphy] is 25 years younger than her. There’s something about successful women that men our age find very difficult; younger men love our success and celebrate it — I’ve spent the past 14 years with someone who only wishes me well.
We both hate the fact it’s constantly brought up. I find it revolting when people call them toy boys. I’ve often been called my husband’s mother, I’ve been called his grandmother. And to begin with it made me want to leave him. Then I thought: “Why let other people define my joy?”
I have two children with special needs. Toby is profoundly affected; Alfie has Asperger’s. Both were badly bullied at school, and when I was having radiotherapy I realised I had to spend more time with them. I stopped work and designed bespoke educations for them. I’ve spent every penny I’ve earned doing things that were never done with us.
Sonia is a wonderful parent to a thousand people. Everyone wants to be in a Sonia Friedman production because you’re thought about, you’re listened to. She parents all of us.
Neither of us takes holidays. What’s the point? We feel we’re on holiday if we find a little cafe and have a gorgeous coffee — that’ll do for us. We’ve learnt to live in the cracks of our busy lives as women always have. And you know what? We’re really, really good at finding joy.