The occupant of the number one spot in the UK Theatre Power List 2017, as chosen by the industry newspaper The Stage, walks into the meeting room of her offices above London’s West End. When Sonia Friedman sits down, there’s a backdrop of 16 framed Olivier Award certificates on the wall behind her, which is fitting, as the occasion of our conversation is the launch of this year’s awards.
At the ceremony in the Royal Albert Hall on 9 April, Friedman is likely to pick up more Oliviers for projects including Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the musicals Funny Girl (starring Sheridan Smith) and Dreamgirls (with Let It Shine judge Amber Riley).
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Every wall of the room is decorated with a strip of lightboxes holding advertising leaflets for her past productions, including Kristin Scott Thomas in Old Times, Hugh Jackman in The River and Mark Rylance in Jerusalem. I count 64, but Friedman stresses that these are only a selection of the 180 or so shows she has done: “If I’m meeting a writer, actor or director in here, I check their show is up there.” It turns out that there’s a surprising name that Friedman would like to see on a future playbill.
“The person I would absolutely cast in a heartbeat is Ed Balls. I was hooked on Strictly. I think he was everything this country needed right now: a bit of levity, not taking yourself too seriously. He put joy back into our culture for a few weeks and he made politicians seem real to me.”
We speculate about the kind of role he might play: perhaps Mr Cellophane in the musical Chicago, a role that demands a single, simple song. Or maybe a new role could be written for him.
“Oh, God,” laughs Friedman. “Ed Balls: The Musical is going to be the headline! Look, I think he should go back into politics because that’s where we need him. But all I’m saying is, if I was doing the sort of show where there was something for Ed Balls to do, I wouldn’t hesitate. Because I adored his spirit. I even voted for him [on Strictly] and I’ve never voted in my life before.”
While we await the possibility of the former chief secretary to the Treasury as a musical star, an existing link between TV talent shows and theatre is BBC1’s Saturday-night audition shows that find new stars for musicals: after several featuring Friedman’s frequent collaborator, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the latest is Let It Shine, which is casting a Gary Barlow musical about a boy band.
When I mention this TV genre, Friedman twists first her nose and then her mouth in an expression of anguish.
“I find it really hard to answer this. I haven’t seen Let It Shine, so I literally have no comment on that. But, er, look – I do have a moral issue. I still find it difficult to understand how a public corporation [the BBC] can be funding a commercial operation. And I have put my money where my mouth is. I have been approached many times to do such things, but I don’t believe it’s how we should be putting our shows on.”
Friedman stresses that, unlike some in the industry, she sees no problem in finding new talent from outside the conventional training and casting routes, and it should be pointed out that the BBC receives no box-office income from the musicals it facilitates.
But, for her, there is a “moral problem” in the BBC giving what is, in effect, massive “free advertising” to particular productions. In the same way that the TV industry obsessively examines overnight ratings, theatre producers nervously scrutinise takings.
Sonia Friedman on the red carpet of Harry Potter & The Cursed Child with Jack Thorne, JK Rowling, John Tiffany and Colin Callender, 2016
Friedman gets what is called the “wrap” for each of her (currently 14) running and soon-to-open shows: the figure combines the sales for the performance on any date with tickets sold that day for future performances.
For example, the wrap for Dreamgirls, a confirmed hit with dates advertised far ahead, was around £90,000 on the day we spoke. Counter-intuitively, though, a wrap of close to £0 can also be good news, as it would mean that the show is already sold out for its whole run.
Such is the case with Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, which opens at the Royal Court Theatre in April.
Although only 51, Friedman has, remarkably, been involved in theatre production for 48 years. At the age of three, she made tape recordings, produced by her brother Richard, of The Sonia Friedman Show, a collection of surrealistic sketches and songs.
Subsequently, Richard became the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, and another brother, Ben, is a producer of The Great British Bake Off. One sister, Maria, a multiple Olivier award-winner in her own right, is a leading singer-actress and more recently director; and the other sister, Sarah, is a professor of medicine.
Sonia Friedman (middle) celebrates the Best New Musical Award for ‘The Book Of Mormon’ with the cast and crew
Their 85-year-old mother, Clair, a concert pianist, is currently recording ten concertos, at Sonia’s request, because her children wanted them for the family archive.
The Friedmans make a remarkable group of high achievers, despite the children’s father, violinist Leonard, having left the family when they were young. So were they driven to do well? “No! We should be studied really because we had no parental guidance. My mother is an extraordinary woman, but she was very absent, away working. And so we were self-made as children. Maria and I never went to school much. I got expelled.
“There was no one around to drive us. We have this big Russian-Jewish gene in us and so I have to assume that is where this sense of endeavour comes from, because really there was no adult influence or guidance. We were running amok in a home full of music and dancing and singing, but no set meal times and no set going-to-bed or waking-up times.”
It sounds like the Von Trapp family crossed with the Bash Street Kids. “Certainly, the Von Trapps. Because we created a lot of entertainment. Bash Street? We weren’t difficult, but we were outsiders, made up our own rules.”
In The Sonia Friedman Show (the tapes remain in the family attic), the title star would generally take the lead singing role, and she admits to remaining “a frustrated performer. Maria says I should have been a singer. I’m a high soprano and one day I’ll put it out there.”
An Evening with Ed Balls and Sonia Friedman, I suggest: him dancing, her singing. “Do you think people would come to see it?” she asks, ever the producer.
The Olivier Awards will be launched on the Magic breakfast show on Monday 30 January