Composer Michael Friedman’s Very Big Fall

Michael Friedman puts things into words for a living, but he even he has trouble describing what a tumescent penis should sound like. “There’s got to be a very specific tone, you know?” he mulled recently over Thai food  in the Theater District, a place the “downtown” artist has been spending much of his time lately. “I think it’ll be something very subtle. A bell or chime. Maybe.” 

Mr. Friedman, 35, was discussing sound design for Angels in America, the first of two hotly anticipated mainstream theater projects that feature his talents as a composer-lyricist this fall. The show, Signature Theatre Company’s Off Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning gay fantasia, officially opens Oct. 28, preceded by Mr. Friedman and director-writer Alex Timbers’ Broadway debut, the historical emo-rock musical comedy (and very buzzy) Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, opening Oct. 13.

Mr. Friedman is a rapid-fire talker, one who jumps from musical asides (“I love tubas. Seriously”) to self-depreciation (“Sometimes my ideas are just really bad) like a verbal stone-skipper. (For the record, that “tumescent penis tone” wasn’t irreverence; it occurs every time the Angels‘ angel appears to leading man Prior Walter, played by Christian Borle.)

With both productions poised preopening to be hits–Angels has already extended its limited run, while Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was the Public’s second-highest-grossing production ever during an Off Broadway run this past spring–Mr. Friedman’s staring down what will assumedly be his commercial coming-out party, something the avant-pop melody maker, more closely associated with fringe troupes like the Civilians than big Broadway shows, isn’t opposed to.

“I hate people who are like, ‘Oh, no, Broadway? I don’t care about that.’ It’s Broadway musicals! Come on, that’s exciting,” he explained, gesturing broadly with the kind of lithe, oversize hands that are a genetic lottery win for piano and string players, which he is. “But I wouldn’t say Broadway was ever a dream for me.”

A graduate of Harvard, where he studied American history and classical music, Mr. Friedman considers his ascension from urban planning consultant (yes, really) to legit composer a fluke of timing facilitated by former professor Liz Swados, who threw him early gigs. “[In the late ’90s] directors and playwrights were using songs in plays more. People liked weird little music. I could do that. I sort of became the go-to guy if you wanted some music in your play because I would work for free.”

Which is selling himself short. Music direction for early productions like Shakespeare in the Park’s Cymbeline eventually morphed into full-on song and lyrics writing with interview-based troupers the Civilians. Through shows like the journalism-infused New Life Church study This Beautiful City, fanatic Christianity dramedy Saved and urban living reflection Gone Missing, Mr. Friedman’s built a name as an insurgent observer, one frequently able to squeeze an affecting body of insight through the keyhole of parody.  

“I consider Michael to be a Kurt Weill for our times,” says his Bloody Bloody collaborator, Mr. Timbers. “His melodies can be almost deceptively simple but the subject matter is so complex. The way he twists something like, say, hagiographic socialist concepts into a song you can sing along to is pretty brilliant.”

“Brilliant” isn’t a word Friedman is entirely comfortable with. With regard to his place in American songwriting, he personally prefers the title “anthropologist.” And it’s true, no one definition is entirely accurate, given how diverse his body of work already is. In Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson he runs the gamut from satirist–reducing the principals of populism to tongue-in-cheek show opener “Populism, Yea Yea”–to historical adapter, distilling President Andrew Jackson’s real 1824 campaign ditty “The Hunters of Kentucky” into a western-tinged theme song fit for iTunes.

Mr. Friedman said he already has three ambitious new projects in the works: The Great Immensity, a play with music about the global environmental crisis; porn examination Pretty Filthy, his newest piece with the Civilians, with songs covering everything from the discovery “squirter porn” to the love affair of the industry’s leading married couple; and Mr. Friedman’s pet project, an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude. With these, he looks toward transcending the “satirist” label, since the occasional issue with satire is that people miss when the author’s being earnest–which the composer frequently is. Take a slice of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson‘s “Illness as Metaphor” for example: “A wise person once said/ Illness is a metaphor … But Susan Sontag’s dead/ So I guess/ Her cancer wasn’t metaphorical after all … Sorry.”

“People who’ve seen the show assume I hate Susan Sontag because of that! I have nothing against Sontag,” Friedman half-laughed. “I think she’s fantastic. I meant that line–illness ISN’T a metaphor if she’s dead, right? But that’s how it goes.”

So, with two openings fast approaching, does Mr. Friedman feel the pressure of commercial theater scrutiny? “Not … really?” he said. “I have a harder time coming to terms with being ‘a composer.’ I can’t even say that sometimes without giggling. I was at a dinner table with Stephen Sondheim a while back and he asked me what I did. I didn’t want to tell him. How do you look at Stephen Sondheim and say, ‘Oh, I do what you do?’ I can’t wrap my head around that.”

editorial@observer.com

Composer Michael Friedman’s Very Big Fall