With three Tony Awards on the trot, Friedman is the UK’s most dynamic theatre producer. What’s the secret of her success?
There is no secret of success: any fool knows that. As the screenwriter, William Goldman, said of Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” Even so, you have to wonder how the producer, Sonia Friedman, manages to be behind quite so many of theatre’s biggest, most interesting hits.
This year alone she’s had a West End sellout with The Children’s Hour starring Keira Knightley and with the unstarry Clybourne Park. She’s just been nominated for a Best Play Tony Award in New York for Jez Butterworth’s very English Jerusalem (it has six Tony nominations in total). Soon Samuel L. Jackson will be in the city playing Martin Luther King in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, which Friedman seized after first seeing it at the tiny Theatre 503 in South London.
Back in London, she’s got Kristin Scott Thomas in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and David Tennant and Catherine Tate in a Much Ado About Nothing that sold out its four-month run before the first preview. She’s also got the London rights to The Book of Mormon, the wildly successful new Broadway musical from the team behind South Park. I mean, she’s got to know something, hasn’t she?
Talking to Friedman, 45, in her office on St Martin’s Lane, Central London, it’s clear that she knows plenty. She’s a fluent talker who both expounds at length yet cuts to the chase. Her mind, she says, is always buzzing. On the walls are big colour prints from the nine years of Sonia Friedman Productions (though she’s been producing plays since she started at the National Theatre in the late 1980s). A Little Night Music, Boeing Boeing, The Norman Conquests, Michael Gambon and Lee Evans in Endgame ... “What I enjoy,” she says, “is doing work that makes you go: ‘That’s really good! And it’s commercial.’ ”
You don’t have a career like hers by accident. But a secret? That, she sighs, she does not have. Well, how about things she knows not to do? “The one thing that I would avoid right now,” she says, “is a new play, opening directly commercially, by a new writer with an ensemble cast and no names in that cast. That would be commercial suicide. Because there is nothing to peg it on. That sort of theatre, however good the play is, needs to start in the subsidised sector. Because in the West End you do not have the luxury of being discovered. You can’t be a surprise. The right to fail does not exist.”
Friedman does workshops for young theatre producers. The question she always asks them is: Why do you think your idea is better than anybody else’s? “I guess that’s my only law, actually. What is going to make your idea stand out when you’ve got fifty, sixty theatres in London? Why your show?”
The Tate-Tennant Much Ado, surely the easiest sell of the year, was brought to Friedman by Tate’s agent. That’s unusual. The only other times she has produced shows at their stars’ request were Clive Owen in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in 2001 and Sean Bean in Macbeth in 2002. It’s more usual for her to commission a play, to decide to do it after reading it or to transfer it — as she did with Clybourne Park or Jerusalem.
And Jerusalem, she says, is why there are no rules. “Because, on paper, it doesn’t tick any of the right boxes. It’s about a drug-dealing gypsy, it’s long, it’s impossible to explain it in a sentence, its lead actor, Mark Rylance, is not a Hollywood star. There is no reason why that should be a commercial success apart from one thing: it’s extraordinary. But you only knew that once you saw it at the Royal Court. And that is your argument for subsidised theatre, why it has to exist. If Jez Butterworth had sent me that play I think, being very honest, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it.”
In fact, even after seeing it she wasn’t sure what to do with it. Then, the next day, Tom Stoppard went to see it and texted her saying: “You cannot call yourself a producer if you do not transfer this.” She took the bait and, after doing incredibly well in the West End last year, it is currently the talk of Broadway: “Mark Rylance is astonishing,” declared the all-important New York Times review. It’s due to return to London in the autumn.
But it’s hard work, she says, dividing her time between London and New York . They call for different approaches, too. One advert for Jerusalem in The New York Times might cost $200,000. That’s her whole marketing budget for Betrayal. She does not relish the David Frost lifestyle: “Hate the travel. Though thank heavens for the iPad.” She prefers to stay at home, in her converted pub in the East End, often filled to the gills with friends and family. So why leave London? Her eyes widen. “Because it’s amazing to be a producer in New York. I love my work here, but New York is a theatre town in a way that this isn’t. Most producers wait years and years to win a Tony: I’ve done it three years in a row. It’s pretty intoxicating.”
What makes a good producer? Good instinct is one thing. Friedman goes for shows that she wants to see herself. She brought back Noises Off in 2001, despite Michael Frayn’s worries that it was too soon to revive it, because she wanted a laugh. And she helped to bring Legally Blonde to London after the children she took with her to see it on Broadway urged her to. She’s not, she insists, someone who thinks she knows better than the directors, actors and designers she hires: “If I have to interfere in the creative process then I have failed.”
According to Ian Rickson, the director of Jerusalem, The Children’s Hour and Betrayal, Friedman still has the values that she learnt in the subsidised sector. “What you want to feel as a director,” he says, “is that someone is behind you who has the play’s best interests at heart. It’s not about ego or money: it’s a belief that the play must be done now.”
Friedman has transferred five shows from the 180-seat Menier Chocolate Factory in South London. When La Cage aux Folles went to Broadway, Kelsey Grammer was added to the cast. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury joined A Little Night Music. “There are too many producers out there who are glorified accountants,” says David Babani, the Menier’s artistic director. “Sonia knows that different productions need different approaches. Just understanding that is 50 per cent of the job.”
Friedman had an unconventional childhood. Her father, a violinist, left their North London home when she was young. She and her three siblings (including the singer, Maria Friedman) would sing and play games “morning, noon and night. There was very, very little parental control.” She learnt early to create her own fun. She and her siblings would make up plays. Then, after being expelled from school for bunking off too much, she went to a progressive boarding school in Hertfordshire called St Christopher’s. Its lack of rules worked for her.
“I think not having a father meant I’d never responded well to authority,” she says. “So, of course, I’ve now created a world where I have to be my own boss.”
What are her big challenges? High ticket prices. Stars insisting on short runs, which makes it hard to make a profit. Raising money. “The challenge to create great work in the commercial sector is what keeps me going. Because it’s almost impossible.”
Oh, and sorting out that work-life balance. She has a boyfriend and is taking more breaks than she used to: “Family is important right now.”
She’s made money from theatre. But she claims that she’s wary of too much success. “I worry what will happen to me if I get my Wicked or my Mamma Mia!. I don’t want so much financial security that I don’t have the need to keep pushing.” But more than anything she likes the game of it all, doesn’t she? “I do, I do,” she says. “It is a game, it is a puzzle, and it’s something nobody will ever get right all of the time. So it just keeps you going, thinking, ‘Can I get the next one right?’ It’s a fascinating, fascinating way to spend your life, it really is.”
Much Ado About Nothing is at the Wyndhams, WC2 (0844 4825120) until Sept 3 (day seats available). Betrayal is at the Comedy, SW1 (0844 8717627) from Friday to August 20
Accidental Death of An Anarchist (1990) Friedman’s first full show as a producer at the National Theatre toured the country, and played at the Cottesloe. Alan Cumming won an Olivier Award for Best Actor. “I was in my early twenties and it was a success,” recalls Friedman. “I thought: This is easy!”
Noises Off (2000) Michael Frayn resisted her suggested revival of his 1982 farce about farces: “He thought it was too soon after the first production. But thankfully he agreed.” Indeed, Frayn tweaked Act Three, and the play ran at the National Theatre, then in the West End for two years and went to Broadway.
Macbeth (2002) When Sean Bean told Friedman he wanted to play the lead role, she felt that, “It was the right combination. He was at the right point in his career and I don’t think there had been a Macbeth in London for a while. It completely knocked my socks off how successful it was.”
Jerusalem (2009-11) “It got very good reviews when it opened at the Royal Court but it wasn’t seen as commercial. Its success has made me rethink what is possible in the West End. Positioning Jerusalem was harder in New York. It’s an English play about the state of our nation. And, given that a huge proportion of the theatregoing audience is Jewish, you have to make it clear that it’s not about Israel!”
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