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Michael Friedman, a Man of Many Voices and a Gift for Prophecy

Once again, there was selfishness in the sorrow, a feeling of being deprived of a talent that still had so much to give, both to us and to a popular art form that always needs shaking up. And I don’t think Mr. Friedman was accorded his due as an innovator. He wrote so fluently in so many styles, that it was tempting to dismiss him as a pastiche artist.

Photo

A scene from “The Fortress of Solitude,” which mixed soul, pop, hip-hop and other musical styles.

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which was scripted and directed by Alex Timbers (and which had a brief run on Broadway in 2010), used the adolescent angst of emo music to convey the growing pains of a restless young nation. For the musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” another collaboration with Mr. Timbers, staged as part of Shakespeare in the Park in 2012, Mr. Friedman riffed on Broadway-style brass and bubble gum sugar to conjure the goofy self-consciousness of young swains discovering romance.

Then there was “The Fortress of Solitude,” a stage version of Jonathan Lethem’s novel (seen at the Public in 2014), in which Mr. Friedman aurally charted the evolution of a friendship through the years via echoes of what was borne on the radio waves, in orchestrated currents of soul, rap, pop and funk. And that’s not even counting the music that Mr. Friedman composed for the Civilians, the exploratory theater troupe with which he was long associated, and for Shakespeare in the Park.

His versatility is such that it’s hard to conceive of the same artist coming up with the whispery, elegiac setting for Ariel’s “full fathom five” incantation in “The Tempest” and the futurist distortions of Eminem and Britney Spears (and Gilbert & Sullivan!) performed in Anne Washburn’s dystopian masterwork, “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.” Such disparate creations do, however, share an advanced musical frame of reference and a crucial sense of what works in a given theatrical moment.

Video

In Performance | Luba Mason

Ms. Mason sings “Beautiful” from “Pretty Filthy,” a musical about the porn industry, accompanied by the show’s composer, Michael Friedman, on piano.


By Erik Piepenburg and Erik Braund on Publish Date February 16, 2015.


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Watch in Times Video »

If that makes Mr. Friedman sound like a journeyman composer, then I’ve misled you. But he was willing to let his music blend into the background in a way seldom associated with musical theater artists, who like to stamp their signatures big on a production. Perhaps this seeming lack of ego came from his extensive work with the Civilians, a genuinely collective company, whose journalistic approach to a variety of subjects was a perfect fit for Mr. Friedman’s mutability.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that Mr. Friedman ever wrote by rote. More often than not, his compositions are steeped in authentic, subliminal feeling that is the opposite of mechanical. Listen again to the quieter ballads from “Fortress of Solitude” or the song “Beautiful” from “Pretty Filthy,” the Civilians musical about the pornography industry. These are numbers that throb, delicately but persistently, with the longing and regret inspired by life’s illusions and evasions.

As for “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” yes, Mr. Friedman was working from the template of a mopey pop genre. But he wasn’t making fun of the hungry, aspirational characters in this presentation of an American leader as a crowd-rousing, egomaniacal rock star. Mr. Friedman infused that work with an emotional ardor that goes way beyond irony.

“Bloody Bloody” hardly became the Broadway blockbuster that is Lin-Manuel’s “Hamilton,” another musical history lesson rendered in contemporary styles. And I wouldn’t make a case for “Bloody Bloody” being a better show than “Hamilton”; it’s sketchier, for sure, and less celebratory. But in 2009, Mr. Friedman heard America singing in ways that match exactly this nation’s temperament today.

That requires an uncommonly sensitive ear, and a gift we could use more than ever.

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