West End Girls

Last Update: 07 July 2002

Source: The Guardian

West End girls
Move over Lloyd-Webber. Two women are taking over theatreland. Simon Fanshawe meets the muscle behind Mamma Mia and Madonna

Simon Fanshawe
Wednesday May 29, 2002

For some years now the biggest draws in the West End have been women. British actresses such as Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave are box-office certs; so are the host of Hollywood stars - Gwyneth Paltrow, Daryl Hannah, Kathleen Turner, to name a few - who have been flocking to London's stages recently. But women can be just as powerful behind the stage, too. And lately the select group of female producers has expanded to include two increasingly influential figures.

Both have big hits here and on Broadway (on Sunday they will be in New York, waiting to see how many gongs their productions have won at the Tony awards). As a result, one has more money in the bank than she ever expected. The other can't claim the same: "I'm going to the Tony's but I'm still turning right on aeroplanes," she says. "I'm still in economy." Instead, she has to satisfy herself with influence. And producing Madonna.

Judy Craymer is the woman behind Mamma Mia. The production was a personal dream; it almost cost her her house and her job, but since it opened in 1999, it has been seen by over 5.5m people - that's 10,000 people each day - in Britain, the US and Australia. It takes $1m a week on Broadway; in London it once sold half a million pounds' worth of tickets in just one day. And it is not about to stop. Soon it will open in Germany, in German. When I ask her just how rich she is, Craymer laughs, blushes, then says simply: "I am doing OK."

Sonia Friedman, meanwhile, is the woman who seduced Madonna to work for an ensemble wage in a play called Up For Grabs, which opened last week at London's Wyndhams Theatre. There will be 57 performances (no matinees) in an 800-seat theatre, and the show costs £70,000 a week to run. "It's a back-of-the-envelope calculation," says Friedman. "This is a break-even show. None of us will make any money. Although everybody thinks that because I am producing Madonna I am incredibly rich." It may not make her money, but it might open a couple of doors for her in the future.

Madge-mania aside, Friedman is far more important for having been the producer of her generation who, starting with the notorious Shopping and Fucking, spotted that new plays could make money in the commercial West End. It was a key factor in revitalising theatre in London in the past decade.

Craymer and Friedman both started as stage managers in the subsidised sector. But Craymer quickly moved into the West End and was the first ASM on the recently put-down Cats. Through that she met Tim Rice, eventually becoming a director of his Three Knights company. And then through his musical Chess, she became friends with Benny and Björn from Abba and her obsession with producing a show from their songs began. "Mamma Mia came from a huge passion. I know lots of people think it was a carefully choreographed commercial exercise. But it wasn't. For years I used to sit on the floor of my flat at night listening to Abba songs thinking that would work in this kind of way - and then ringing up anybody I knew to tell them."

She is still slightly shocked by the scale of its success. "I knew it would happen. Because it just had to. Eventually when I gave up my job, I had worked out that I could survive for nine months without a salary. I never asked Benny and Björn for money because you can't really say, 'Will you give me your songs and by the way can you lend me a tenner as well?'" The success of Mamma Mia has transformed her into an elegant businesswoman, still with a faintly fragile air, but who describes herself as "tough, instinctive and ambitious, but not in the sense of running a corporation". Which is ironic, as that is pretty much what Mamma Mia has become, with over 500 employees in five separate casts worldwide.

Friedman, by comparison, cannot imagine continuing to develop just one show. "I am bursting with projects. Far too many, without question, and I am very overloaded." Last November she negotiated a unique vehicle in the West End to cope with this unbounded enthusiasm. Having worked for Ambassadors Theatre Group for a number of years as a producer, she was headhunted by Andrew Lloyd-Webber's company, the Really Useful Group. ATG fought back hard and her prize was Sonia Friedman Productions. "It is like a film deal. I'm kind of Buena Vista to their Disney. ATG are still my main backers and have first look at everything, but the psychology of it has completely shifted the way I work. Previously I was a cog, now I feel I can take real credit for my work."

She has since produced Eddie Izzard in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which will transfer to Broadway very shortly, and has a raft of projects for the future. Michael Frayn's Benefactors is currently touring and will come to the West End in June. She is planning a production of Macbeth with Sean Bean in the West End while continuing to programme the New Ambassadors theatre ("my present from ATG, my own theatre", she calls it). She has been planning a production of Funny Girl, but that has been postponed until next year because its star, Friedman's sister Maria, is having a baby this autumn. In the meantime she has negotiated with The X-Files's Gillian Anderson to open in a new American play called What the Night Is For, and is talking to another Hollywood type about a show in July. "I think we have got ourselves into a bit of a problem with this celebrity casting," she admits, "because audiences are down and of course the celebs soak up the available crowds."

Friedman and Craymer are friends, and "sunk a huge amount of vodka together till 3am on the opening night of Mamma Mia in New York". They are both single. "There," says Friedman, "Judy and I have a lot in common. I don't know about her, but I can't manage a relationship. Or they can't manage me, I don't know." And they both display their passion for their work with an openness you rarely find in their male producing colleagues in the West End. But they have very different styles. Craymer is quiet and poised, clearly organised, while Friedman is a messy, Silk Cut-smoking, rather neurotic presence.

Both are in theatre because they want to "put together something from a seedling", to use Craymer's expression. "I am not interested in just being a money producer," she continues. "I want to do it from the start. Even every new production of Mamma Mia is like having a baby." What pitched Friedman into producing was a very similar feeling. "I was working at the National Theatre on a season of new plays directed by the writer. There was Alan Bennett, Athol Fugard and Harold Pinter. After that I knew I couldn't just be a stage manager. I completely fell in love with new work being created."

They also share a view that as women they perhaps produce in a different way than men. "At the risk of being beaten over the head by male colleagues," says Craymer, "I think women are more likely to roll up their sleeves and get on with it. And I think women are more detailed, which is not to knock men, it's just an observation about women." Both feel they have created families in their productions. Friedman is very definite. "I can't comment on men, but I have often been told by companies I have worked with that they feel like a family and they don't feel like there's a hierarchical structure. I suppose that's a female thing."

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