And most recently, he had served as artistic director of Encores! Off-Center, an annual summer program at New York City Center that presents staged concert performances of Off Broadway musicals.
His death stunned the theater community, which had lost many artists to AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, but fewer in recent years. “Aching with gratitude for the music & joy he gave us,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “Hamilton,” wrote on Twitter. “Mourning all the music we’ll never hear.”
The lyricist Benj Pasek (“Dear Evan Hansen”) called Mr. Friedman’s death “a shocking and devastating loss,” while the composer Dave Malloy (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”) wrote he was “devastated and shaken to the core.”
John Michael Friedman was born on Sept. 24, 1975, in Boston, and was raised in Philadelphia. His father, John, was a marketing executive with The Philadelphia Inquirer, and his mother, Carolyn Friedman, was the executive director of the nonprofit White-Williams Scholars, which provides financial assistance to low-income students.
Michael Friedman — he went by his middle name — took to music early. As a child, only music would quiet his crying, and he began playing the piano at 4 or 5, according to his sister, Marion Friedman Young.
He was educated at the Germantown Friends School, and it was there, while in high school, that he composed his first song, about Icarus, the young man in Greek mythology who dies when he flies too close to the sun.
“He went to music camp, he played instruments, but it became clear early on that he wasn’t headed for conservatory training — he wanted to be more creative and to do more composition,” Ms. Young said. “He didn’t want to create art alone — that didn’t interest him. He loved collaborating, and the theater was the place for him to do that.”
In addition to his sister, he is survived by his parents.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, he met the composer Elizabeth Swados, who was an artist-in-residence there, and who became an influential mentor for Mr. Friedman. The year after he graduated, she brought him on as the music director for a production of “Cymbeline” that Andrei Serban was directing for Shakespeare in the Park; that began a long relationship with the Public Theater, where he served at times as artist-in-residence and director of Public Forum, which organizes audience talkbacks and speaker series.
In 2001, he was among the original collaborators at the Civilians, where he wrote songs for a dizzyingly diverse set of shows, starting with a post-Sept. 11 metatheatrical self-parody (“Canard, Canard, Goose?”) as well as a comic revue about lost objects (“Gone Missing”) and followed by shows about how Americans get information (“(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch”), evangelicals in Colorado Springs (“This Beautiful City”), a 21st Century land use controversy (“In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards”), a 19th Century French labor revolt (“Paris Commune”), climate change (“The Great Immensity”), and the pornography industry (“Pretty Filthy”).
“Michael had no medium setting — he was just full tilt all the time, thinking really fast, speaking fast, and a lot of his songs have the speed and agility of how he actually speaks,” said Steven Cosson, the founder and artistic director of the Civilians and a frequent collaborator with Mr. Friedman. “His music also reflected his deep curiosity and compassion for other people — he was able in those two to four minutes to tell a rich and complicated story that wasn’t reductive but always just made the world a bigger place.”
Among his other noteworthy credits: he wrote the music for “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” a 2013 drama about a group of apocalypse survivors trying to recall an episode of “The Simpsons,” and the soul, punk and rap songs for “The Fortress of Solitude,” a 2014 adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel.
At his death, he had multiple unfinished projects, including a musical adaptation of “The King of Kong,” the video game documentary. And a new Civilians musical he wrote with Mr. Cosson, “The Abominables,” is scheduled to open Friday at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
“If you look at how diverse the shows were and how prolific he was, you see what a restless mind he had — he would write shows where he was quoting Kurt Weill one moment, Sondheim the next, and then John Philip Sousa,” said the director Alex Timbers, who created “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” with Mr. Friedman, and then went on to collaborate with him on a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” a musical about Herbert Hoover, and “The King of Kong.”
“He was one of those people you had no idea when they slept, and he couldn’t sit down for more than a few minutes — he was always running around the room, pitching you a creative idea or giving you advice about your life.”
He was exuberant as well as argumentative (“hot-blooded,” Mr. Timbers said).
Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public, recalled a night in 2007 when an early performance of “Romeo and Juliet” — a Shakespeare in the Park production for which Mr. Friedman had composed music — was rained out. The audience was sent home, while the cast and crew gathered at nearby Belvedere Castle. “In a full thunderstorm, we danced together at the top of this castle,” Mr. Eustis said. “That’s my image of Michael: it is pouring rain, and he is dancing his heart out.”
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