PRINT April 2020



Michael Friedman, Lincoln Center, New York, January 30, 2010. Photo: Richard Termine/The New York Times/Redux.

THE LATE COMPOSER-LYRICIST Michael Friedman entered my life in such a whirlwind that I can’t even remember exactly where we met. Perhaps our most significant encounter was at “A Safe and Special Place”, a fundraiser for the Trevor Project and KIND (Kids in Need of Defense) organized in response to a line from one of then president-elect Donald Trump’s tweets: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.”* I contributed a song but wasn’t going to be available to attend, so Michael was slated to play and sing it for me—but then the evening wound up running long, and I made it there just in time for us to sing it together. I was deeply fond of Michael, and I was devastated when I learned, almost a year later, that he had died from AIDS-related complications on September 9, 2017. I count us all lucky that his first three albums are now available as part of The Michael Friedman Collection, a project of Ghostlight Records and the Civilians, a theater group he founded in 2001 with his longstanding collaborator Steve Cosson.

Reflecting on Michael’s catalogue, I am struck by his great intellectual and emotional intelligence. As a lyricist, he writes in vivid language that keeps you on the edge of your seat. In “The Hot World,” the opening number of the climate-crisis-themed musical The Great Immensity (2014), Michael effortlessly conjures the image of a decaying city landscape in one stunning verse:

This is a picture of Staten Island, November 2012. 
The water hasn’t quite receded yet. You can’t tell where the sea ends and where the land begins—pieces of cars, pieces of people’s lives lie scattered in the mud. 
But already things are growing here; tall invasive grasses, a triage stationed by a fallen tree. 
A sea-soaked teddy bear looks out like a widow watching, waiting for a ship to return across the sea.

He chases this with a chorus that is both rousing and ominous: “And the world is wide. And the world is so small. And so we ride on our little leaky, sinking boat of hope across the hot world to come.” Compare and contrast those leaky, sinking boats of hope with the demons that haunt the evangelicals living in Colorado Springs in his song “Demons” from This Beautiful City (2008): “There are demons all around and they’re walking next to you. So many demons all around. And they know your weakness; they know your weakness.”

Steve Cosson, This Beautiful City, 2008. Performance view, Kirk Douglas Theatre, New York, September 20, 2008. Young Woman “God’s Grace,” T-girl Christian (Emily Ackerman). Photo: Craig Schwartz Photography.

In “An Email from Ted” and “Another Email from Ted,” Michael uses a technique the Civilians call “investigative theater,” drawing from primary texts or verbatim interviews to musicalize two seemingly banal correspondences written by fallen megachurch pastor Ted Haggard before and after a male prostitute outed his secret life of meth and gay sex. In these two short songs, Michael brilliantly captures Haggard’s flawed essence without judging him, using piano, Spanish guitar, and gentle, lilting melody to comment on Ted’s own words while extending him just a little bit of grace. 

In The Abominables (2017), a musical written for young audiences, Michael brings his sharp wit and charm to the story of a kid competing against a Yeti to reclaim his spot on the “A team” in his Minnesota youth-hockey league. In lesser hands, this quirky premise would merely tread water, but Michael weaves in a sophisticated humor throughout. In “Minnesota Nice,” the second track on the album, he takes us into the passive-aggressive dynamics of a family preparing for a competition that ultimately winds up ending not so nicely for them:

But everyone is nice. We’re nice. We’re Minnesota nice. And here in Minnesota you learn how to sacrifice. Don’t think twice. Just be nice and toe the line and it will all be fine! It will all be fine! Everything is gonna be fine! Everything is definitely gonna be fine on the Minnesota ice!

Listening to these works was such a thrill that I decided to revisit Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2008), Michael’s subversive portrait of the seventh US president, which I had not heard since I attended a concert version of the piece at the Public Theater in 2009. Returning to the score with fresh ears, I recognized the true scope of Michael’s dramaturgical prescience. I was reminded of an event at New York’s City Center the night before Trump’s election, where Michael presented some music from his 2016 “State of the Union Songbook.” Afterward, he expressed to me his certainty that Trump was going to win, which I had been in denial about. The fact that he wrote, nearly ten years prior, a piece musicalizing—with a catchy, emo-punk score—the rise of a racist, authoritarian American president on a wave of populism that culminated in the founding of the Democratic Party only confirmed Michael’s genius for me. He had the unique ability to look forward and backward at the same time, holding up a fun-house mirror to humanity, no matter how ugly the truth.

Michael R. Jackson is a composer and lyricist based in New York City. His musical A Strange Loop was produced in association with Page 73 at Playwrights Horizons last year.

*The full tweet read: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”