What? He wrote that, too?
Such is the reaction to the long trail of theater music left behind by Michael Friedman, the Philadelphia-raised lyricist and songwriter who death in 2017 at age 41 from complications of HIV/AIDS shook the theater world, from New York to Germantown Friends School (where he graduated in 1993) and beyond.
A sweeping retrospective collection of recordings has now set out to reveal the great breadth and variety of Friedman’s songs, each as different as the individuals that they portrayed.
» READ MORE: An appreciation: Composer Michael Friedman
The first three releases of “The Michael Friedman Collection,” on the Ghostlight label, are now available for download, with at least six more volumes to come. This Beautiful City is about the Colorado evangelical community, The Great Immensity about climate change, and The Abominables about Minnesota ice hockey culture. No idea was safe from Friedman and his collaborators.
A Michael Friedman box set is a future possibility. “I’m in this for the long haul,” said Ghostlight founder Kurt Deutsch. “I have a pretty long history with him. His passing shook us pretty hard.”
Between his 1997 graduation from Harvard (where he studied under composer Elizabeth Swados) and his September 2017 death, the New York City-based wunderkind wrote at least 20 shows, including full scores for staged productions (Love’s Labour’s Lost), themed cabaret-ish pieces (Gone Missing, about things New Yorkers lose), and songs for plays (Welcome to Yuba City for Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre).
That doesn’t count incidental music he wrote for plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the New York Shakespeare Festival, and elsewhere. Then there were the songs he wrote for New Yorker Radio based on interviews with ordinary people around the country leading up to the 2016 election.
Numerous pieces were still in development when his AIDS-related infection unexpectedly defied what was a good prognosis for recovery. His musical Unknown Soldier, which had a successful tryout in Williamstown in 2015, comes to New York’s Playwrights Horizons Feb. 14.
Though he never had Disney-on-Broadway success, Friedman had spotlight moments. Before there was Hamilton, there was his Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which drew excellent reviews on Broadway in 2010 but closed after three months.
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, a hard-to-describe show about people discussing the The Simpsons after an apocalypse, didn’t catch on with critics at Playwrights Horizons in 2013, but it became one of the 10 most produced plays across the country the following year. It was a hit for the Wilma Theater in 2018.
Friedman worked hard to get his shows in front of the public but was never one for big-success strategies, says his close collaborator, writer/director Steve Cosson. Big breaks, Friedman once told the New York Times, can be “very destructive things."
“There’s a reason they call it a break,” he said. “I like what I do. Maybe I shouldn’t wish for a bigger break than that.”
‘He just felt everything so much’
“He actively resisted some of the manipulative tools of the musical theater,” said Cosson. Among them: Friedman’s songs don’t conclude but simply end, not giving any of the usual signals for audience applause.
Their real-people content is so palpable they almost seem to have been written by those he portrayed. “He just felt everything so much,” said Deutsch. But Friedman was also a handful. It’s said that in the complex of five theaters that comprise New York’s Public Theater, there wasn’t one that he hadn’t stormed out of.
Ebullient, argumentative, hyper-cerebral, and deeply opinionated, he had majored in history at Harvard and worked in urban planning when music wasn’t making ends meet. With Cosson, he founded the theater group The Civilians that developed “investigative theater” — almost a documentary approach based on research and interviews.
He was remarkably comfortable with complicated, big-picture issues. His global warming show, The Great Immensity, has details of an ecological treaty sung to a bossa nova rhythm. His succinctness could be profound; contemplating the future of the planet in the coming millennia, Friedman refers to “the next forever.”
Another trademark was his refusal to judge. A gay urbanite, Friedman had some fundamental differences with the evangelical culture portrayed in This Beautiful City, but he came back from his research outing in Colorado Springs speaking only of the warmth that greeted him.
Time and again in This Beautiful City, Friedman takes what you think you know and gives it a twist. Says one character, “They say there are no second acts in American lives, just second mortgages and second wives.” Later on, a chorus sings, to a soft-rock rhythm, “God is not interested in your happiness. So you need to learn to find salvation.”
The crowd pleaser of the three releases is The Abominables, which Friedman was revising by phone from the hospital during his final illness.
Written for Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis and premiered days after his death, the score introduces a gallery of fun, everyday characters in the opening song, making a candid beeline to what lies behind the veneer of Midwestern niceness. Uncomfortable long underwear, ruthlessly conditional love, terror of slipping on the ice … it’s all there.
Diabolical competitors from Canada arrive singing a hymn about their mild manners and “pretty good health care,” only to lapse into, “We will kill you. We will crush your bones and beat your head like a drum. The maple leaf is red because it drinks American blood."
Conventional romance — that centerpiece of most show scores — is curiously absent in all three of these.
With so many unusual elements and much that was yet to flower in Friedman’s work, it’s valid to speculate about the staying power of his songs, which are so site-specific.
The recordings are faithful to their original off-Broadway context, often with bare-bones accompaniment. “For the most part we’ve preserved them … with a lot of original cast members, friends of Michael, and people we know from the community,” said Deutsch, “though each album is its own question mark.”