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Sonia Friedman, the formidable producer, says that despite the recession, business in Theatreland is booming

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

It is a struggle to see the similarities between the ditzy, Chihuahua-carrying, all-things-pink loving shopaholic heroine of Legally Blonde, and Sonia Friedman, the powerhouse producer who is bringing the musical adaptation of the 2001 Hollywood film starring Reese Witherspoon to the West End.

But Friedman, one of the world's most successful theatre producers, admits with mild embarrassment that the story of Elle Woods, a homecoming queen dumped by her boyfriend for someone more "serious", who cures her heartbreak by hitting the books at Harvard Law School, struck a deep chord with her when she first saw the show on Broadway.

"I was feeling particularly gloomy and depressed that day, and at the interval I just felt like someone had given me an injection of adrenaline," she says.

"As a woman, I just fell for it and I loved its message. On a more profound level, though it's difficult to talk about this without sounding pretentious, I sort of identified with Elle. It's embarrassing, but I did. Because Elle is a great role model for women. She shows that there's nothing wrong with wearing pretty clothes and lipstick, while still being a strong woman.

"This story about a girl who is assumed can't have a career because she likes wearing a pink tracksuit appealed to me."

Britain's theatre-goers seem to agree. During its preview run, Legally Blonde, The Musical attracted a "Beatlemania-like atmosphere" among its predominantly female audiences. It has since been hailed as a recession-bucking success, taking a reported £2million in advance ticket sales.

The frothy, feel-good show is a major departure from the critically-acclaimed but less obviously commercial productions that Friedman usually takes on. Her recent productions include Shakespeare's Othello, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, Harold Pinter's No-Man's Land, and The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn. Legally Blonde, The Musical seems to jar with such a heavyweight back catalogue.

Sitting at a desk in the offices of Sonia Friedman Productions above the reknowned Duke of York's in the heart of Theatreland, Friedman explains her unusual choice. "As a woman working in a man's world - and it is a man's world, without question, whatever man tells you it's not - I wanted to do it. For years, women have had to mould themselves into the style of what a man imagines a tough woman to be, and I started my career thinking I should wear a suit and carry a briefcase." Today, Friedman's uniform is jeans and knee-high leather boots.

From 1989 to 1993, Friedman was a producer at the National Theatre, where she says sexism was rife. "People said I only got the job because I was pretty, I only got the job because I wore a mini skirt - all this s***."

She rolls her eyes recalling an incident when her outfit for a meeting at the Arts Council raised eyebrows among her colleagues. "I was wearing a pair of PVC trousers - I was very young and they were very trendy at the time, honestly," she laughs.

"But a man came up to me and said: 'You can't wear that, they won't take you seriously.'

"So I went along with the PVC trousers on anyway. The meeting went fine, and I got exactly what I wanted from it. Nobody mentioned my trousers."

She concedes that little has changed. "I still get it now. I am accused all the time of having affairs with men who are very powerful and successful in this business. If I am working with them, it is apparently not because I'm good at my job, but because I'm having an affair with them.

"Only last week someone took me to one side and said: 'I think you should know there's a rumour about you and so-and-so.' Sadly, I'm as single as you can be. I don't even know whether it's men or women who start these rumours - it almost doesn't matter - but being one of the few women in this industry, it comes at me a lot."

Friedman manages to keep remarkably cool on such a sensitive subject. "I hate it," she says shrugging resignedly. "Thankfully, I'm talking to another woman, because if I was talking to a man I could not have this conversation. If a woman talks about working in a man's world, we come across as feminists, and I'm most definitely not a feminist. I'm just a woman doing a job.

"I actually get annoyed when I'm described as 'one of the top female producers'. I don't want to be one of the top female producers, I want to be one of the top producers."

Friedman is without doubt exactly that, and despite the recession, business in theatreland is booming. She is encouraged by the recent success of "big-issue plays" like the sell-out run of Enron at the Royal Court, and David Hare's The Power of Yes at the National, which have stood shoulder to shoulder in sales with the safe-bet, feelgood musicals.

Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth's comic take on Britain's broken society was another hit at the Royal Court earlier this year, which Friedman will take to the West End in January. "I think people are very interested in the state of the nation, and where we are at the moment," she says.

"Jerusalem is an example of an epic piece about who we are, the break down of society, the rural world we live in and all those big ideas.

"We are all trying to search for answers as to the mess we're in. The confusion of the wars, why we're doing it, what's going on. I think we're looking to our art to give us some answers. We [theatre] can do that very well, without being didactic or lecturing. It can really make us think about why we are where we are, and we don't have our politicians doing that for us.

"In times of certainty - call them the 'Thatcher years' - where it was very definite what was going on, whether you agreed with it or not, there was less powerful theatre around. But it's in times of uncertainty that artists rise up and emerge and start to ask the questions. Right now, people haven't got a clue what is going on, I know I don't, and I am certainly looking to writers to try and help me."

Performance was always in Friedman's blood. Her father, Leonard Friedman, a Jewish violinist born to Russian immigrant parents, was one of the most eminent musicians of his day, and her mother Clair an equally talented concert pianist. Her sister Maria is an award-winning stage singer, her brother Richard is a violinist, and her younger half-brother Ben is a playwright. Only one sister, Sarah, a scientist, has not followed in the Friedmans performing footsteps.

"I grew up in north London in a very bohemian household. We woke up to lots of music and chaos," she recalls, adding that she was even the star of her very own show at just six years old. "I would come into the living room and say in a squeaky voice, 'Welcome to the Sonia Friedman show', and my family would come on and sing and do readings."

Home now for Friedman, 44, is a converted pub in Stepney Green, east London which she has spent six years lovingly renovating. "I'm the happiest I've ever been, because my pub is full of my family," she says. "My brother, sister, brother-in-law and nephew are all living there at the moment. We're on the piano the whole time, and it's like being back in my childhood. I can get home from work after a very tense day of being an adult, and pretend to be a little girl again."

After cutting her teeth at the National Theatre, where much to her delight, Harold Pinter once asked her to write a "pause" into a prop script, Friedman set up Out of Joint theatre company with the Royal Court's former artistic director, Max Stafford-Clark. In 2002, she founded Sonia Friedman Productions, a subsidiary of the Ambassadors Theatre Group, the largest theatre owner in the world.

Like an ever-increasing number of West End shows, Legally Blonde, The Musical will be led by a cast of television and pop stars including Sheridan Smith and Jill Halfpenny, actresses best known for their roles in Gavin and Stacey and EastEnders. Duncan James, a former member of the boy band Blue, will play the male lead.

Has the West End, perhaps, become too obsessed with the film and television "star" draws at the expense of lesser-known but more capable actors? "What you have to think about is does it compromise the work?" says Friedman. "Has it raised the bar so high that audiences are expecting a 'star' to be in everything? Does that star have the experience? And very often they do but sometimes they don't," she says. "Film stars who can who can act really well and who have stage craft are few and far between.

"I read today that Abi Titmuss is playing Lady Macbeth," she continues, raising a sceptical eyebrow. "I wouldn't do that. The fact is Abi Titmuss has been cast because they know that's a sensational idea."

Despite having just opened two shows on Broadway - A Little Night Music starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, and A View from the Bridge with Scarlett Johansson - Friedman has no fewer than 56 projects on her "to-do list", including developing a musical adaptation of the film Shakespeare in Love.

Gathering up her Bichon Frise, Teddy, who has been snoozing on the sofa beside me, Friedman laughs when I point out that with her penchant for pocket-size show dogs, she does indeed share a passion with Legally Blonde's heroine, Elle.

For such a tough and outspoken businesswoman, I tell her Teddy seems a rather fluffy accessory. In response, she picks up a piece of paper from her desk on which she has scribbled a recent quote from the American senator, Diane Feinstein. It reads: "Toughness doesn't have to come in a pinstripe suit."

Source: Daily Telegraph, 24th December 2009 - full article here.

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