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I Had A Ball (and a Friedman)

The Woman in White stars Maria Friedman and Michael Ball chat with Filichia at a Drama League event. logo
Maria Friedman and Michael Ball in The Woman in White
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Two years ago, the Drama League asked me to moderate the panel they have each year following their Christmas luncheon. Donna Murphy and Gregg Edelman of Wonderful Town were to be the guests, but on the day I got to the Players Club for the event, a stone-faced Derek Travis Collard told me that Murphy was ill and wouldn't be attending.

This year, I assumed that history would repeat itself when Derek told me the guests were to be The Woman in White's Michael Ball and Maria Friedman. As even those who don't closely follow Broadway probably know, Friedman found a lump in her breast the day after the show's first preview. Most people in her position would have left the show, but she was back performing a week after surgery. Still, seven weeks of radiation were to follow, so I could envision that she'd have had a recent treatment and wouldn't be up to sitting on a dais and chatting about the show. I gave Derek my home number so that he could tell me in advance who her replacement would be and I could formulate some new questions.

The morning of the event, I waited for Derek's call. It never came. When I got to the Players Club, neither Friedman nor Ball was there, and I expected the worst. "No, they're on their way," assured Derek. Soon after, a smiling Ball arrived (what dimples!) and fought off the attentions of many late middle-aged women. But no Friedman. "She'll be here," assured Derek. Within 15 minutes, lo and behold, she was -- smiling, affable, and raring to go.

First, we did some biography. Ball recalled that, when he was 18 and driving in a car with his father, they happened to pass a sign that advertised a real estate agency. When dad asked Ball what he planned to do for a living, Ball blurted out, "Real estate!" -- and to his horror, a week later, his father had made arrangements for him to take a course. Ball quickly 'fessed up that the stage was what he really wanted. The world lost a real estate agent, but no musical theater fan is complaining.

Friedman said she was equally clueless when growing up. She told about being a receptionist for a music company and about auditioning for a job as a singing waitress. Those who expected either or both stories to lead to a big break for her were surprised to hear that they didn't. Friedman did no better when her boyfriend decided to audition for the Cameron Mackintosh production of Oklahoma! and encouraged her to do so as well. "I was told that, when a director asked what you could do, you should just say 'Everything,'" she recalled. "I did -- but when Gemze deLappe asked for arabesques and jetés, I didn't know what she was talking about. Years later, after I'd established a musical theater career, I was with some people, including Gemze, and audition horror stories came up. Gemze told about the worst one she'd ever seen, and I had to tell her the person she was speaking about was I."

That conversation happened long after her London triumphs in Chicago, Sunday in the Park With George, Ragtime, and Merrily We Roll Along. In regard to the last-named show, I brought up that authors Stephen Sondheim and George Furth wrote Friedman a note that said she was the best one in the cast. Friedman smiled and said "Thanks for the feed," for she knew that I knew the whole story and was priming her to tell the rest. After she'd decided not to paste that note onto her dressing room mirror, lest her castmates be jealous, she couldn't help notice that everyone else in the company who'd received a note was also treating it surreptitiously -- except for one chorus girl who'd proudly placed on her mirror the note that said she was the best in the cast! All then learned that each had received the same exact compliment from the writers.

Then we turned to The Woman in White. The first order of business was a discussion of the show's now-famous virtual sets, consisting mainly of movie projections which, I said, "just might be the first to win a Tony for Best Sets in the Best Lighting category." As I assumed, both Friedman and Ball moaned that this was a tough show to tech. Friedman said the projections demand you to be in precisely the right place at the precisely right time, not a quarter-inch or split second off. To underline her point, Ball reminded her of the time when she erred and seemed to be coming out of a horse's rear end.

I asked about Ball's heavy double-chin make-up, which makes him absolutely unrecognizable. He said his inspiration was Ron Jeremy, which prompted guffaws from half the audience and puzzled looks from the others. (I'll admit that I know who Jeremy is; when I first got cable in 1983, I spent the first month mesmerized by him and other porno stars on late-night public access.) Then we discussed his co-star -- not Friedman, but Beatrice, the white rat who runs across his outstretched arms during his big second-act aria. I asked if this were the same rat that was used in London and was told it wasn't. (My, those Equity laws are stringent about foreign performers coming here!) Ball made it clear that there are creatures in the show of whom he is less enamored than Beatrice. "The mice are incontinent," he said, which made me chide, "Michael, we've just eaten!"

Finally, the time came to deal with the toughest issue of all. "Don't tell us anything you don't want to, and a perfectly good answer to any of my questions is 'None of your business,' " I said to Friedman. But she gave a dismissive wave and talked about the entire experience of her cancer from diagnosis to post-operative treatment. She also casually mentioned, before moving blithely on, that more cancer has been found and she'll soon have that removed as well. We all should have gasped at the information, but she made us feel so at ease with it that we all somehow believed she's going to beat it hands down. Please, God, that she does.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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