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Voice of a survivor

Maria Friedman's updated recording now features three Sondheim songs


tephen Sondheim is simply the reason I sing," Maria Friedman writes in the liner notes to the re-release of her 1995 debut album (originally titled Broadway Baby). "When I first heard his music, it was as if I had been lost and somebody had found me." Given the cireumstances under which Friedman recorded two new cuts for the album and the fact that one of these is a Sondheim song, Now and Then (Sony Classical) is an especially welcome recording to Sondheim fans. Born in Switzerland, Friedman first drew transatlantic attention with her interpretation of Mary in the 1992 Leicester Haymarket production of Merrily We Roll Along. The resulting double CD (TER/JAY) captured her poignant version of the rueful "Like It Was." Four years later her portrayal of Fosca in the London premiere of Passion earned an Olivier Award (the London equivalent of the Tony) as well as positive comparisons to Donna Murphy's definitive original performance. And her 1997 portrayal of Liza Elliot in the National Theatre's production of Lady in the Dark led to a definitive recording of an essential score. When Friedman came to the U.S. to perform at the Cafe Carlyle in 2003, she was introduced to the audience by Sondheim and Barbara Cook. Her Broadway debut in the autumn of 2005 in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White ,jvas threatened by her breast cancer diagnosis during previews. She returned to the show just a week after surgery removed a malignancy and continued to perform during the show's threemonth run. "What's got me through?" she writes in the Now and Then liner notes. "My loved ones and singing. It comes from the deepest, most precious part of me, heals me and restores me, it's my way of sharing and communicating." She largely chose effective songs to communicate with on this album; the perpetual catch in Friedman's alto serves her well. The album's new Sondheim recording, with accompaniment from Sondheim on the piano, is "Children and Art" from Sunday in the Park with George. While an interesting choice for a solo selection, given that the cast recordings include dialogue with the latter-day George, Friedman makes it work. She's completely convincing talking to her unseen mother, trying to convey what the art she sees means to her. It's always illuminating to listen to composers perREVIEW BY ANDREW MILNER

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form their own work, and Sondheim's quiet piano playing perfectly shadows Friedman's delivery, never calling attention to itself. Friedman does justice to the other two Sondheim songs on her album. "Finishing the Hat" wisely opens with the verse from that song's variation, "Putting It Together." With Michael Starobin's percussion-heavy arrangement, Friedman conveys the need to balance art and personal relationships. "Broadway Baby" has traditionally been sung by older actresses (Ethel Shutta, Elaine Stritch. Kaye Ballard) and given campy arrangements. John Owen Edwards' arrangement is refreshingly minimal, starting with only a piano accompaniment before satisfyingly rising to a full orchestra in the final chorus. Friedman's winsome delivery lets the lyric's humor speak for itself. Most of the non-Sondheim cuts on the record are equally fulfilling. The album begins with a Cole Porter song, "I Happen to Like New York." Despite Jason Carr's somewhat overwrought arrangement, Friedman uses Porter's insistent melody to drive home her love of the city. This is followed by a strong interpretation of Kate Bush's "The Man with the Child in His Eyes"; it's a shame more Broadway performers don't cover material from pop singer-songwriters. She sweetly coos "Guess Who I Saw Today," an enjoyable song from the revue New Faces of 1952 with a clever (if anticipated) punch line. There's a subtle French flavor to the album with the title track by Michel Legrand, Jacques Brel's "If You Go Away" (with English lyrics by Rod MeKucn) and "Paris in the Rain" by Cora Vaucaire. There's also the truly haunting "In the Sky," written by a Vilna ghetto boy during World War II and originally sung by Friedman in the 1989 National Theatre production of Ghetto. Accompanied only by a male chorus, Friedman plaintively appeals to God ("I am like a broken stream, but still I sing my broken prayer"). The other new cut on the album, "Smile," was composed by Charlie Chaplin for his 1936 film Modern Times. Given the song's pedigree. it would be all too easy to lapse into an excessively saccharine delivery, but Friedman gives a restrained performance, combined with Joseph Thalken's sensitive piano accompaniment. Despite the sentimental nature of most of these songs, Friedman never gets maudlin her voice is that of a survivor. For those unfamiliar with Maria Friedman. Now and Then is an excellent introduction to her work. |TSR|
ANDREW MILNER reviews books and CDs for the Philadelphia City Paper.