You have to give it to Maria Friedman. A few days earlier, she had been performing Gershwin numbers with the English National Ballet in Strictly Gershwin at the Royal Albert Hall. Now here she is in a little known (to me, anyway), North London church, with friend and collaborator Jason Carr on piano, communicating her choice of songs and music in a less familiar setting. Proms at St Judes – for it was there that I witnessed her remarkable talent once more – is a nine day midsummer music and culture festival (18-26 June) featuring a wide range of music. This year alone saw Dame Felicity Lott strutting her stuff, along with the rising jazz star Stacey Kent. It’s a real fusion of classical and opera with jazz and standards.

As Friedman explained in a stimulating pre-show chat with both Carr and the Sunday Times’ Sue Fox, she took violin lessons as a child but the teacher let her bake cakes when her mother was out of sight! Eventually settling on a stage career that has had the music and work of her friend and mentor Stephen Sondheim at its heart, six years ago Friedman made the decision to stop doing long runs in major musicals (The Witches of Eastwick, The Woman in White and Chicago among them) and to concentrate on shorter runs and her own concerts. Her bank balance plumetted, but her quality of life improved. Since then, she has performed her Maria Friedman Rearranged show for a season at the Menier Chocolate Factory, transferring to Trafalgar Studios, and taken part in numerous concerts in the UK, Europe and the US. When Sondheim celebrated his 80th birthday last year, Friedman took part in his 80th birthday Prom and in US galas celebrating his work.

The first half saw Friedman delve into the oft-neglected ‘Great British Songbook’ (the subject of a CD she released on Sepia Records last year). The English master of song Noel Coward’s Mad about the Boy and the hopeful former music hall number The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery were followed by a hilarious skit entitled Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Sailors (try saying that after a couple of rosés!) in which Friedman persuaded a sometimes tongue-tied audience to join in an ever accelerating chorus. Jason Carr – a composer in his own right as well as ‘Stephen Sondheim’s favourite orchestrator’ according to Friedman, also got a look-in, with the moving song A Garden. It is in safe hands here, as Friedman always displays a rare connection with both the material and her audience.

American composers feature heavily in the second part of her programme, the work of Stephen Sondheim in particular. A local charity worker, fresh from giving an interval chat about the work of his organisation, is dragged down the aisle – literally – and back on stage by an apron-clad Friedman for a hilarious and somewhat impromptu version of The Worst Pies in London. Another Sweeney Todd number – Little Priest – follows, with Carr joining in as Sweeney, Friedman recalling her performance as Mrs Lovett opposite Bryn Terfel at the Royal Festival Hall in 2007 (a reprise please!). With a further reference to her recent stint at the Royal Albert Hall, Friedman also includes two Gershwin numbers in this set, Foggy Day in London Town and The Man I Love.

Earlier in the evening, Friedman had revealed her interest in the many facets of life in the songs she sings, which often feature the universal themes of loss, jealousy, hope and love. No wonder she gets the work of Stephen Sondheim so well. The three-song Sondheim finale, Send in the Clowns (A Little Night Music), Being Alive (Company) and Broadway Baby (Follies), have surely been given no finer treatment elsewhere. As I listened to the lyrics of those numbers as never before, I couldn’t help wondering at Friedman’s artistry as one of our foremost interpretators of song. The evening comes to an end with a heartfelt rendition of We’ll Meet Again – soon I hope.

Maria Friedman in Being Alive at the Proms at St Judes, 24 July 2011

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