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Sonia Friedman on taking Mean Girls to the stage: ‘It’s women who do things’

Wednesday, 26 June 2024

Interview with The Times. 

Article by Dominic Maxwell.

Original article here. 

Her latest West End show hasn’t even opened yet but Sonia Friedman is already back in the rehearsal room for the one that comes next. Mind you, this is par for the course for this wildly successful British producer with homes in east London and Manhattan. As her eldest sister, Maria, once said of her: “She can hold ten worlds in her head.”

We meet at a theatre in west London, where that day’s world has been Fangirls, a smash-hit musical in its native Australia. She is not long back from Stratford-upon-Avon, where her playwright boyfriend, Joe Murphy, 25 years her junior, has just opened a show for the RSC, Kyoto.

Just before that she was in New York, picking up nine Tony awards. Four were for her sister’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll A long, including one for its star Daniel Radcliffe. Five were for Stereophonic, an unstarry but talk-of-the-town three-hour play about a Fleetwood Mac-like band recording their new album. She reveals that there are plans for it to come to London.

She’s thrilled, but then she has been here before. Her shows have won 48 Tonys and 63 Oliviers. Here in London, where she started out working for the National Theatre in the late 1980s, she has Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Stranger Things: The First Shadow, The Book of Mormon and, opening this week, Tina Fey’s musical version of her 2004 film Mean Girls.

Jez Butterworth’s The Hills of California will head to Broadway in September. At the same time Friedman has Lesley Manville and Mark Strong coming to the West End in Oedipus, and Mark Rylance and Succession’s J Smith-Cameron in Juno and the Paycock.

Mean Girls, which opened on Broadway in 2018, would have opened in London in 2021 had the pandemic not intervened. The break has improved the show, Friedman, 59, says. “They’ve done quite a lot of work to it, it’s almost half an hour shorter, and audiences are really connecting with it.”

Fangirls is also heavily revised from the Australian version: new set, some new songs. Both that show and Mean Girls will have a largely female appeal but then ticket-buying is led by women anyway — even, she says, for her more “male” shows such as The Book of Mormon or Stereophonic. She chuckles. “I think it’s women who get on and do things.”

She should know. She never takes holidays, has never had a nap. She won’t go to bed until she at least knows that the curtains have gone up safely on her New York shows. I can’t speak for what she is like thrashing out a deal with a theatre owner or handling her staff of 39, but in interview Friedman always manages to be loquaciously straight-talking.

Mean Girls and Fangirls tap into young women’s need to find themselves. She knows the feeling. She grew up the youngest of four, who more or less fended for themselves after their violinist father left the family. The siblings were forever making up stories, singing and dancing and playing music. Then, after her siblings left home when she was ten, she had problems at school before a local authority grant sent her to a liberal boarding school.

“I had that need to escape, to feel part of a tribe. You’re at an age where you’ve got your own fantasies, you want to grow up, you want to feel valid, and Yve Blake, who wrote Fangirls, is very clear that we should not laugh at girls who have these teenage crushes. We don’t laugh at the boys who have to go to Arsenal every week come what may. It’s the same thing.”

Friedman only produces work that she wants to see herself. “But as I get older, it gets harder. I’m trying to stay young and fearless in the decisions I make, because some of the stories I’m interested in aren’t necessarily going to be mainstream. And that’s about my taste and my age.” So she was delighted that Stereophonic took off so stratospherically. “I took a big punt on it, so it’s reassuring when the gut instinct is still there.

“If I overthink things, it makes me go, ‘I don’t know how to produce any more.’ There are so many minefields producing now, so many areas that are complicated culturally, I don’t want to go into details, but how do I stay true to who I am as the world changes around me?”

She had been due to produce the Father Ted musical until its co-writer, Graham Linehan, became a divisive figure over his abrasive campaigning for women’s rights. She says she won’t stand in the way of it being produced elsewhere.

She sees Merrily We Roll Along as another punt. Nonetheless, while its debut in 1981 was a flop, Maria’s revival (first seen in London in 2012) has picked up Harry Potter on its way back to Broadway. How significant was Radcliffe to its success? “Very significant, but he had to be really good for it to be as special as it is. But also … it’s beyond theatre. Every now and then I produce something like that. Jerusalem was beyond theatre.”

Butterworth’s play, starring Rylance as a former motorcycle daredevil living in the woods, was “beyond theatre” simply because it was so great. “Seeing it was like a religious experience.” Merrily is more tangled: a show that travels backwards through its characters’ lives, it has made her and Maria look back at their lives; how Maria helped Sonia in their difficult childhoods; how Sonia helped Maria when she got breast cancer. “So as we stand at the back of the theatre now, holding hands … You look at a show like that and you can’t not track your own life through it.”

Lest this all make Friedman sound like a full-time dreamer, no, she’s as interested in business as she is in show. “I don’t think you can be a successful producer without understanding the numbers, but the money side of it should never lead the decisions you take.

“I’ve never done it for the money. If I want to do a piece of work, though, I have to understand the basics. What theatre should it be in? If you put it in the wrong space because money is dictating things, it can go wrong. So I find numbers creative. I do find all of that quite exciting.”

Would that explain, then, why the Netflix spin-off sci-fi spectacular Stranger Things: The First Shadow is playing in the relatively small (970-seat) Phoenix Theatre while Harry Potter is in a 1,400-seater? It’s complicated, she says. The Phoenix was free when they needed a theatre, and it’s in a basement: “We sort of didn’t want a shiny theatre for that piece. But I would probably like 200 more seats.”

It’s tight both to make the numbers work; it’s tight even to fit the set in. “So when we go to New York with it [in 2025] we will work on it. It’s definitely the most difficult thing I’ve ever produced, but on Broadway it’s going to be even more complex.”

Stranger Things is not easy money, then, but it’s still a substantial success. (Reports that there are plans for stage sequels are “nonsense”.) How is trade in general, though? If I’d asked her at the start of the year, she’d have been bullish. “But I am a bit concerned. May was really tough, and nobody can quite figure out why.” Her shows bounced back in style straight after theatres reopened in earnest in 2021. “Pretty much everything I did sold out, recouped, couldn’t get seats. It was amazing.”

Now, though, the cost of living crisis and political uncertainties and months of train strikes “are beginning to have their pinch”. Despite some eye-catching top seat prices that can reach above £200, seat prices have fallen in real terms.

Meanwhile, costs have gone up. “More than 20 per cent since the pandemic, which is an alarming number. It can be the difference between a show working and a show not working. So it was great coming back, but we need to play to very high percentages of audiences.”

This year the government agreed to extend theatre tax relief, which makes investing in new shows more attractive. The new government, she insists, will keep that. “I mean, they have to, it’s what is making our industry viable, it’s what is making investment possible, without it the whole infrastructure will crumble.”

What else would she like from the (we’ll assume) Labour government? She has had meetings with Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves. “There is no money, we know that. And so it is very hard for the arts to argue for more money. So I ask them, what can you do for us given that we know there is very little money?

“Now I don’t work in the subsidised sector, so I am not going to talk about the Arts Council and how appalling that whole system is — it’s outrageous the way the Arts Council is telling people to spend their money.

“But the question is, what can make a fundamental change? And for me it’s about schools. It’s about the curriculum, it’s about kids having theatre, music, access to these. Making sure they can see a show a year.” That still costs money. “But I think it’s possible.”

And she argues that what she calls the tourism tax — in 2020 Rishi Sunak abolished the “VAT RES” scheme whereby overseas visitors to London could buy goods duty-free — is having a negative impact. “I think we will see its impact this summer. Because of Brexit and how difficult it is get into Britain from the rest of Europe. When you’ve got this tourism tax on top of it … So I will be lobbying to get rid of it.”

The last time I sat down to interview Friedman was in 2011, when she expressed a concern that, if she had a Mamma Mia!-style megahit, she might lose her edge. Is the Harry Potter show her Mamma Mia! then? Another chuckle. “It’s not actually because it’s really expensive. It was probably the most expensive show ever … before Stranger Things. It wasn’t the easy path: it’s a five and a half hour play. It’s doing fine. I’m doing fine. But it’s expensive to run and maintain and replicate.”

Nonetheless, it’s good for business, for brand Friedman, surely? “Totally. Because people have seen that you can take a piece of work that has a giant mainstream appeal and make a work of art out of it. I think it’s a work of art. And the best thing is we are now doing it in schools.”

If Friedman ever wonders why she is still spending 17 hours a day working, she says, seeing a trial version in Hoboken, New Jersey, of the two-hour school version of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the answer. “It was one of the most magical evenings of my life. I went, ‘OK, that’s why I’m doing this.’

“Theatre,” she says, “allows you to be OK with being different.” Recently a friend of the family, a girl, has been bullied at school. “Girls can be really mean to each other. And she’s been coming to see Mean Girls. And she feels OK, because she goes, ‘Oh, it’s not just me. It happens.’ So if you can put something on stage that helps the people you love, you go, well, maybe I can help other people as well. And nothing can feel better than that.”

The conversations with Labour “have been good so far … Keir Starmer gets it”. What he gets, she thinks, is not just theatre’s financial utility, but its role in a civil society, its ability to foster empathy. “It’s like, ‘Here is this point of view. You don’t have to agree with it but what do you think?’ So I am hoping kids will have access to the arts so they can go, ‘It’s OK if we don’t agree.’” 

Mean Girls is at the Savoy Theatre, London WC2, to February 16, Fangirls is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, July 13 to August 24,

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