The Woman in White : The Lord Moves in Mystery Ways

- Playbill Opening Night, 18/11/2005 -

On Nov. 17—the day she made her Broadway debut in Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber 's Gothic mystery musical, The Woman in White , at the Marriott Marquis— Maria Friedman rose at 5 AM to do an all-stops out, sinus-clearing rendition of Cole Porter's dramatically declarative anthem to urban life, "I Happen to Like New York," on ABC's "Good Morning America" show. "I do, too," she post-scripted just before station break.

If the song had extra edge and urgency than it did in her Cafe Carlyle club act last year—well, therein hangs a tale most of showbiz knows now: how she was diagnosed in previews with stage one cancer, took five days off for surgery and recovery, then resumed the chaotic work-in-progress, making sure that the show goes on as originally planned.

Spunk and spine seem second nature to Friedman, who happily happens to be playing that in Marian Halcombe, a snoopy spinster weeding her way through a highly haunted English manse full of family skeletons. So tapping into those inner resources was hardly a reach.

It's tough role in the best health, but Friedman plowed on with ferocious determination, scurrying about in an assortment of weighty Victorian gowns, pausing occasionally to deliver a full-out ballad to the back row, at one point fending off a near-rape and—did I neglect to say?—acting up a storm that charges the action and keeps the narrative on track.

Then, after making it to the standing ovation, Phase II began—the real performance, making it through the glittering gauntlet of well wishers and glad-handers and tug-of-war press jockeying at Tavern on the Green. At one point, she gamely braved the midnight chill for a suddenly improvised photo op in the Tavern garden and then returned to the press room for additional interrogation. This went on for a good 90 minutes, until her publicist asked if she'd like to sit down for a while. A splendid idea, she thought—and off she was swept to the main dining room where the first night revelers welcomed her with personal, warming applause, and she settled into a covey of ingenues at the front table: Judy Kuhn, Christine Andreas and that earth mother of them all, Barbara Cook .

Through it all, the smile stayed in place. You'd take her for a heroine playing a heroine.

"I'm really not," she pooh-poohed. "The guy at the news vendor is calling me a heroine. He's selling papers. I'm just trying to prove you can get through this. What is around the corner, one doesn't know, but you might as well live life as if you're going to be alive. If I can encourage anybody to do that, great! I'm in the process of learning how to deal with it myself, and I'm being taught how to do it by the experts. I've decided to trust them."

Some of these experts—her surgeon and two other doctors—surprised her at the opening. She broke through the roped-off barricade to get to them and introduce them to the press.

Sonia Friedman , in the strange spot of being her sister as well as one of her major producers, was kevelling to beat the band. "It's the most wonderful, remarkable experience for us both—to be here together, making our Broadway debuts together. One's in awe of what Maria can do, what she is, her character, her strength. This show is the biggest thing I've ever had to undertake. I normally just do plays in London. To be asked suddenly to produce a million-pound musical in London—it was just something I had to do. And to have my own sister being the star of it was the icing on a great cake."

All plans are on hold, she says, until a medical verdict is reached. "Maria is going to be told quite soon what her after-care is going to be. We don't really know right now." Chemotherapy? "Not necessarily—but she'll be getting radiation, though not for a while."

Excusing 1997's By Jeeves (which some will do), The Woman in White is the first new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical since Sunset Boulevard docked at Broadway and 45th (at the Minskoff, right across the street from his new place of business) A DECADE AGO.

It hardly seems that way since he has never really been away. In Jan. 9, his The Phantom of the Opera (which will have been residing at the Majestic for 18 years) will scare his Cats out of the top spot as Broadway's longest-running show with its 7,486th performance.

The man with the one-two Broadway punch is a little incredulous at this new turn of events. "You never think of it, do you? I can't really process. I feel very, very lucky."

He hasn't been idle during this 10-year interim, but Whistle Down the Wind (which he wrote with Jim Steinman in 1997) and The Beautiful Game (which he wrote with Ben Elton in 2000) did not make it from London to England. " The Beautiful Game is something that I really wish had been brought here," he lamented. "Sadly, people think of me as the Andrew Lloyd Webber of Cats and Phantom , and they forget that I also wrote the musical that anticipated everything to do with terrorism. That was The Beautiful Day ."

Being the most successful Broadway composer of all doesn't make Lord Lloyd Webber any less shy, although he has (at least at this opening) lost the deer-in-the-headlights look he usually flashes at premieres. When he entered the Tavern press arena, a sudden hush fell over the room, and one could almost hear him squirming. He dutifully did his papparazzi duty, posing with his principals and mustering a vague smile. He even talked to a video camera, at surprising length, while a shot was being set up, but, when that was over, he bolted for the exit, missing the collective jaw-drop of the press corps behind him.

At his table, his wife and business associate kept most reporters at bay. He politely, if perfunctorily, answered a few questions, but ducked those about The Woman in White . "It's the first night tonight, and I'm quite tired," he said heavily while La Friedman was doing everything but handstands in the next room. "I don't think we should really do an interview right now. If I'm going to do an interview, let's do it another time, shall we?"

The most asked question of the evening, easily, was "How do like working with Maria Friedman?"—to which Michael Ball shot back, "Oh, a nightmare," countering any cloying response with comedy. "Naughty, contrary...," he itemized off until he got the laugh he wanted. Stage lovers before (in Stephen Sondheim 's Passion ), they are here cast adversarially, he as the heavy (in all sense of the word) Count Fosco who pumps most of the skullduggery into the show. "We have a kind of short-hand with each other. We just know instinctively, and we change things all the time. She's a joy. Completely simpatico!"

Giving the count's villainy a comic twist is the fat suit that Ball must bear every performance. "It gets considerably heavier as the night goes on, with all the sweat. You have to constantly take fluids, and it does change how you move, but that's a good thing. I want to be light and dainty, but I look kind of absurd trying to be that in this suit."

Not the least of Fosco's eccentricities is his fondness for rodents, and his big second-act number—"You Can Get Away With Anything"—is shared with an arm-crawling white rat ( Beatrice , by name: her understudy is Charlotte ). "You make up stuff as you go along in that number. The rat makes it up even though it's performing. She did tonight. She was so good. Whatever she does, you have to go along with." In Act I, he pulls a white mouse ( Trixie ) out of his pocket. "It's not a toy. It is a real, live and, tonight, peeing mouse."

Otherwise, they take direction—if not from Cats director Trevor Nunn , who has been concentrating on making The Woman in White a tighter show than it is in London. "We made some changes," he admitted. "We tried to clarify the narrative. We tried to make to make the show a little bit shorter, particularly in the last act. And we made a few musical changes, but not huge ones. With an interval, I think it runs two and three-quarter hours. It was very difficult to tell tonight because the audience didn't assemble until 20 minutes after the appointed time, and they were determined to have a 35-minute interval."

The director, too, was a thoroughgoing Friedman fan. "Maria is the real thing because she's a wonderful actress. She could easily have a sensational career if she couldn't sing a note. She just happens to be one of the great singers. She's just so musical. That sounds almost patronizing, but when I say she's so musical, I mean the instinct to do things with music, to make the music speak, to personalize the music. It's just remarkable."

Unsurprisingly, Nunn was on the first flight back to London after the opening. "I'm about to do a production of Peter Shaffer 's wonderful play, The Royal Hunt of the Sun , which I once set up at the National Theatre when I was running the National, and there were all sorts of problems that meant we had to not do the production at that time. But Peter signed a document, saying the only theatre that could do The Royal Hunt of the Sun was the National and the only director to do it was me. So it's come around again, and the National said, `Please, will you come back and do it.' So I am. We start rehearsals pretty much immediately into the new year." Which begs the question of cast, but Nunn ducked that one. "I'm going to make a big announcement about that soon, and not to you."

Shaffer, a Tony winner for Equus and Amadeus , was in attendance with his Amadeus producer Liz McCann . A friend at their table mentioned that Shaffer's Five Finger Exercise , which hasn't been seen locally since its original Broadway production of 1960, would be eminently revivable. "I'd love to see that again," Shaffer admitted. "Talk it up."

The first-night guest list ran rangily from six-foot-six Tommy Tune to four-foot-seven Dr. Ruth Westheimer . He: "I just came from a big big production meeting on Doctor Dolittle . I'm getting so excited. We start preproduction Nov. 28, then we start practical rehearsal on Dec. 12, and we open in Houston Jan. 27." She is a self-confused Phantomaniac: "I have seen Phantom of the Opera 24 times. Everytime somebody came to visit, from Israel or Europe, I'll say, `I'll get you tickets to Phantom . I love Phantom , but I'm not going again.' Then, right when I'm making the order, I change my mind and go again. Twenty-four times! I need a new Andrew Lloyd Webber so I hope I've found a new passion."

Others in attendance: Barbara Walters , "Sex and the City's" Kim Cattral , choreographers Rob Ashford and Jerry Mitchell , directors Jerry Zaks and Des McAnuff (the latter, now that Jersey Boys is on Easy Street, is preparing for a full scale production of Lucy Simon 's musical Zhivago at his La Jolla Playhouse in April), Cats ' Liz Callaway , Kathie Lee Gifford (taking her fashion cue for the evening from the title and feeling embarrassed nobody else did), Michael Feinstein with Roslyn Kind, Cilla Black, Harvey Evans , orchestrator Jonathan Tunick , playwright David Ives , and composer Craig Carnelia (who just had a sensational revival of Is There Life After High School at the York Theatre Company).

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