Attention Deficit

Amanda Ruzza, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Jeff Fernandes performing Michael Friedman’s “Love’s a Gun” at a benefit for the Michael Friedman Legacy Fund, June 4, 2018. All photos: Marina McClure.

ON A RECENT MONDAY EVENING, a few hundred people who loved the late composer and lyricist Michael Friedman assembled at Joe’s Pub in New York for the Song Makes a Space, a benefit concert of his work organized by the Civilians, the company Friedman cofounded with Steve Cosson. The night’s goal was to raise money for the Michael Friedman Legacy Fund, which will finance the proper archiving of his materials and the recording of his unrecorded music, so they can be housed at the New York Public Library.

“The song makes a space” is a line from the final number of The Fortress of Solitude, a 2014 adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel. The piece is about realizing that the cultural fetishes you’ve surrounded yourself with are no substitute for an actual self. We invest so much in these albums, movies, books, and artworks, but life remains life. So even though “someday all these bullshit songs will be of use” and “the song makes a space”—for what is pointedly never described—at the same time, “whatever song you sing, it doesn’t change a thing / and won’t bring back what’s gone without a trace.”

Friedman is gone, but he has left behind much, thanks to his gifted, prolific songwriting and the profligate way he spent himself making friends. Seemingly everyone who met Michael loved Michael, and he seemingly met everyone.

That everyone includes me. I first met Michael while assisting Cosson on two shows, Attempts on Her Life, at Soho Rep, and Gone Missing (2003), Friedman’s first big hit, which established both his and the Civilians’ reputations in the American Theater. I was recently out of college. Friedman was only a few years older than me, but his age was indeterminable and would remain so until his death. Something about the combination of his illimitable talent and energy paired with the sheer amount of knowledge he held in his brain made him seem younger and older, filled with too much life for one body. It was only reading his obituary after he died, last September, from complications due to AIDS, that I learned his age: forty-one.

Left: The Civilians cofounder Steve Cosson. Right: Table setting at The Song Makes a Space.

Whenever Friedman brought in a song, we’d enjoy a game of “spot that reference.” Normally, telling a composer that his song sounds familiar is an extreme faux pas, but for Friedman, whose gift for sly reference and unexpected pastiche was as bottomless as his knowledge of songcraft, part of the joy was seeing that you get what he was doing. One day he brought in “Etch-a-Sketch.” “Wait, that intro––is it . . .” I began. “Yeah, it’s basically Wilco’s ‘Heavy Metal Drummer,’” he interrupted, his eyes lit up by the moment of recognition.

Recognition and association is, in fact, a through line of “Etch-a-Sketch,” a song of losing one’s memory. Because the rooms of one’s mind were once packed with useless trivia, there is also an acute loss of self. The song is a tiny masterpiece, Friedman’s technique captured in miniature. It’s under two minutes long and begins with cute, unexpected rhymes, only to end in a bleak and desolate place where there is no future, because a future requires a past: “I can’t remember the things that I was thinking / Like when do chickens baste, or how a kiss should taste / Who was the President who came after Lincoln? / My blackboard’s been erased. My blackboard’s been erased.”

Loss was Friedman’s great subject, the cavern he sounded throughout his too-brief career. Gone Missing drew on interviews with people about objects they had lost, using these mundane totems to reckon with the aftermath of 9/11. This Beautiful City (2008) documents the loss of a sense of community in evangelical Colorado Springs, after pastor Ted Haggard was caught using meth and having sex with men. The Fortress of Solitude follows Dylan Ebdus as he gradually sheds all the myths on which his selfhood is based.

Friedman wrote many of these shows for the Civilians, which creates theater based on interviews and other documentary research. In his work with the Civilians, he began setting text from interviews to music, often to startling effect. Friedman, despite his legendary ability to talk over anyone, was an ingenious listener. As songs performed at the benefit, like “Student Debt” (from a series in which Friedman traveled the United States talking to people before the election) or “Consensus Is Hard” (from a Joe’s Pub cabaret about Occupy Wall Street), amply demonstrate, he could beatify you with the sheer power of his attention. When he focused on you, whether you were a subject or a collaborator or a friend, you somehow became a more interesting person, not just to him but to yourself.

Kristolyn Lloyd and Michael Friedman perform Friedman's “Student Debt” in November 2016.

In a way, we gathered at Joe’s Pub in part to witness our own transformation through the alchemy of his songs. One of the questions raised by his passing is what exactly the Civilians will be without him. And one of the answers provided by the Song Makes a Space is that they will house the memory of him and his work, and make sure it is not forgotten.

The evening was largely dedicated to songs he never recorded. Instead of Gone Missing, whose cast recording you can and should buy right now, the Civilians performed less familiar music from his repertoire. There were the verbatim songs—in addition to the above, the evening included a few from In the Footprint, their 2012 show about gentrification in Brooklyn—alongside those with original lyrics, like “Love’s a Gun,” from his musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost (2013), performed at Shakespeare in the Park. “Love’s a Gun” takes a simple metaphor and escalates it, beginning with a game of Russian Roulette and evolving into a scenario in which “it’s hard to figure out if you’re the victim or the perp / Either way you’re doing time / Love’s a crime.” As performed by the electric Rebecca Naomi Jones, it uses a forceful and anthemic rock vocabulary to guide us around the pieces of a broken heart.

Juson Williams, Kevin Mambo, and Britton Smith performing Michael Friedman’s “Middle Spaces.”

Friedman loved the human voice in all its variety, loved vocalists regardless of their formal training. He often wrote with specific performers in mind. Many of the Civilians members aren’t textbook musical-theater singers, yet he’d always find the right setting for their voices, whether their range was two octaves or five notes. But he could also pull off numbers like “I Give Away Children,” one of the evening’s great surprises, performed by Jessica Phillips. The song is demanding both melodically—you have to really sing the damn thing—and emotionally. In it, a middle-aged woman reckons with the hostility toward intimacy that has dominated her life from the get-go, when her mother died giving birth. Friedman drops cleverness and irony and goes for the jugular, and it works.

At the evening’s end, after an appeal raised more than $120,000 in under fifteen minutes, after all the songs and tributes and stories, Kevin Mambo took the stage to sing “Middle Spaces,” the final number from Fortress of Solitude that breaks you apart. It concludes with a repeated sing-songy phrase of eight las, like a half-remembered something from childhood––a taunting schoolyard chant, a wistful recollection from the radio, an incantation suffused with impossible longing. A longing for a past that can make sense of the present, a longing for all these bullshit songs to be of use, a longing for a future with Michael, his work, and his attention in it.

Gone Missing will be performed July 11 and 12 at New York City Center as part of the series “Encores! Off-Center.”