Down the Zoom call from the converted East End pub that is her home, Sonia Friedman’s voice starts to falter, then choke, then stop altogether. “I haven’t coped well,” she says. “I’m not ashamed to say it. We should own up to our mental health challenges.”
To be honest, I’m shocked. I always think of Friedman, 55, as the toughest theater producer in the West End, if not the world. After all, she’s the woman whose drive, vision and determination turned Harry Potter into six hours of breathtaking stage spectacle; whose 160 shows have harvested 58 Olivier awards and 30 Tonys; and who has nurtured everything from searing new drama to Shakespeare (Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet was hers), brilliant comedies and joyous musicals.
Yet a year ago theaterland’s most potent life force was forced to turn destroyer. “I had 19 shows running around the world,” she says. “Within days they all had to be closed — boom, boom, boom. Ten more were in development. They had to be shelved too. I thought: ‘What the f*** do I do?’ There was no precedent, no advice to follow. For 30 years my entire life had been about making shows happen. Now I suddenly had to start tearing them apart, making hundreds of people redundant, throwing into dumps the sets of productions yet to happen.”
The first to go was a show in San Francisco. “We were told it was a two-week shutdown, so at first we kept the cast on. After all, the longest that Broadway has ever shut down — not counting strikes — was for two nights after 9/11.”
However, as a two-week shutdown turned into two months and then dragged on into the summer, Friedman’s mental state deteriorated. “I’ve never known anything else except theater,” she says. “I left home at 13, became a backstage dresser at 14, then a follow-spot operator. For 40 years I’ve lived on the adrenaline of live shows. It’s why I’ve not moved into TV or films, I suppose.
“Then came this silence, this isolation. I struggled with an enormous hole in my life. I started going into theaters where my shows had been running, staring at the empty sets, and hearing the performances in my head. Living off my memories.”
Worse followed. Late last year the government allowed theaters to reopen, only to order them shut again a week later. West End producers whose shows had lost tens of millions during lockdown lost millions more opening then closing them. Friedman — whose new show, a delightful comedy called The Comeback, was cut short in previews — went incandescent with rage, in full public view. “This feels like the final straw: proof that this government does not understand theater and the existential crisis it is facing,” she told The Daily Telegraph.
Has she calmed down a bit since then? “Yes, partly because we now know the government had information we didn’t have at the time, about the new variant of the virus,” she says. And the experience of getting Covid, immediately after her rant, must have had an impact as well. “My partner also had it,” she says. “We were a pretty grim household over Christmas.”
“I had 19 shows running around the world,” she says. “Within days they all had to be closed — boom, boom, boom.”
All that has shaped her thinking about the “roadmap to recovery” presented by the government. In particular, she is much more pessimistic, or realistic, than many in the arts about the prospect of theaterland opening to socially distanced audiences after May 17, and then without restrictions after June 21.
“Both those dates come with giant sets of caveats and conditions,” she says. “Basically we as an industry are fairly confident about opening smaller shows on May 17, with all the social distancing and other protocols we worked out last year.” Indeed in late spring she will launch something she calls the Re:Emerge Season — a series of “new plays for a new world”, running at the Harold Pinter theater and backed by Arts Council England, with Ian Rickson as the artistic director and casts including Gemma Arterton.
“The much more complicated matter is what happens after June 21,” she says. In short, we shouldn’t expect the immediate return of massive shows such as Hamilton, or her production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. “Don’t forget the government will give us only a week’s warning of whether June 21 will be the day when restrictions are lifted,” she says. “I think that date is very optimistic. There are too many known unknowns. And a big West End show is not like a tap you can turn on and off. It takes me between 12 and 16 weeks to rebuild a production.
“What would be fantastic is if, in mid-June, the government instead gave us a realistic, guaranteed date in September or October when we can fully reopen — because we can only do that once without going bankrupt. My West End shows alone will cost you £6 million to reopen and that’s without subsequent running costs. I have to reassure my investors that the conditions will not change again and they can recoup those costs.”
As a two-week shutdown turned into two months and then dragged on into the summer, Friedman’s mental state deteriorated.
What also irked Friedman in December, and still does, is the unfair distribution (as she sees it) of the government’s Culture Recovery Fund. “I still think it’s outrageous,” she says. “Productions generated by the West End, whether in London or touring, employ the vast majority of theater freelancers and generate 80 percent of all the revenue from theaters throughout the UK. Yet we have received less than 1 percent of the £1.5 billion recovery fund. I’m shocked that a Conservative government, supposedly committed to supporting entrepreneurs, should be punishing those people who have been making a proper living out of theater without asking for government support, and who will be largely responsible for reopening the theater economy and bringing city centers back to life again.”
Isn’t part of the problem, though, the perception that West End theater owners and producers are fat cats who don’t need government handouts? “Oh I understand the optics,” Friedman says. “From the outside it might seem as though producers have millions stashed in their back pockets, but that’s not how the industry works. We have investors to whom you continually pay back your profits. You only retain a reserve that could be as little as four weeks’ running costs. Not nearly enough to see you through a pandemic.”
What she would still like to see (despite all the signs that the Treasury won’t sanction it) is government-backed insurance for live events. “Eventually the insurance companies will have to come up with cover for Covid, because it’s not going to go away, but in the interim we need the government to back a scheme. Lack of insurance is the number one barrier to getting live events on again. If ministers can offer insurance for film and TV, they can do it for theater.”
It’s not by chance, Friedman points out, that the first place where she was able to reopen a big show was Melbourne. Because the Victoria state government offered insurance, Australian audiences were able to cheer the return of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in February. “There was a temporary lockdown just before we reopened,” she says, “so for safety we did two performances with 50 percent capacity, and the insurance covered our losses. Then the government gave us permission to increase to 85 percent, which is the level that makes the show work financially. They understood the importance of having theaters reopened, not just for Melbourne’s economy, but also for the mental health of their citizens.”
How did Friedman feel about seeing Harry Potter staged again, albeit on Zoom because she couldn’t travel to Australia? “At the curtain call, and I’m sorry if this sounds very theatrical, I was a heap of tears. I think it was the first big UK show to reopen anywhere in the world, and that achievement made me very proud. More than that, though, it was the shot in the arm I needed — my Pfizer jab if you like — to reinject my positivity after this awful year.”
How does she think theater will respond to the pandemic? Will the interval become a thing of the past and shows become much shorter, as some predict? “Quite possibly,” she says. “Or maybe intervals will become twice as long, because of the protocols involved in queuing for loos and the bar. I think every show will come up with a different answer, depending on the core demographic it is targeting.
And what about vaccination certificates? Could they help to get theaters open? “This is a complex ethical and privacy issue,” Friedman says. “To enable most sectors to open fully there will likely need to be a series of protocols introduced, and I anticipate vaccine cards or passports, along with rapid flow testing and other measures, may well be part of this. But we will need comprehensive advice from the government and cross-industry support.
“What’s occupying a lot of my mind, however, is working out what sort of new work audiences will want to see, and how writers and directors respond to this extraordinary historic period. I’m sure there will be a lot of anger in work exploring, for instance, the inequalities that the pandemic has highlighted. At the same time, however, I think there will be a huge amount of celebration. And to hear a full theater of people cheering, laughing, crying, whatever — God, how I’ve missed that.”
Richard Morrison is a music critic for The Times of London