The composer/lyricist Michael Friedman, best known for the scores of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Fortress of Solitude, among many others, died on Sept. 9 following complications from HIV/AIDS. He was 41.
Michael Friedman wouldn’t let you get a word in edgewise even when you weren’t trying to. Ask any of his collaborators—and I am very lucky to be able to count myself among them—and they will tell you that when Michael was explaining an idea, it would emerge as a torrential monologue during which, if he sensed that you might be about to speak, or perceived the tiniest shift in your facial expression or body language, or even if due to past experience with precisely this phenomenon you endeavored to remain perfectly still and make no sound at all, he would periodically hold up one hand and say, “No, no, no, just, hang on, because” to fend off any possibility of interruption before continuing until he was done—which, since this idea would inevitably be followed quickly on its heels by another, he never really was.
I learned this firsthand during the seven years Michael and I, and the director Daniel Aukin, spent adapting Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude into a musical. Before we worked together I knew Michael as the scarecrow-limbed composer for the Civilians, for whom he’d demonstrated a unique ability to take raw interview transcripts and transform them, often without changing almost any of the subject’s actual words, into dense yet sprightly lyrics that somehow rhymed and scanned, set to musical phrases that subtly drew your attention to an emotional and psychological core the subject themselves often didn’t even realize they’d revealed. And I knew him socially to be smart, funny, warm, and generally a delight.
But it wasn’t until we worked together on Fortress that the sheer magnitude of his talent really became clear to me. For one thing, he had no evident ceiling and also no apparent walls, which is to say that his music was both exceptional and authentic irrespective of idiom: He could write in any style as though it were the one he’d grown up steeped in and loving the most. For Fortress in particular, Michael set out to do something that for almost anybody else would have likely been impossible, which was to write what he described as “a jukebox musical of songs that never really existed”—a score made up of soul, R&B, punk, and hip-hop that sounded like they might be actual undiscovered gems we’d unearthed and repurposed for our show but were in fact original songs that also carried the necessary narrative and thematic weight.
And he succeeded. Seriously, if you’ve never heard his score for Fortress of Solitude do yourself a favor: Stop reading this piece and go listen to it right now. The ultimate short- or long-term fate of the musical itself aside, Michael’s score will in my admittedly biased opinion go down as one of the best in the history of the American musical theatre. It was an astonishing thing to get to witness as it happened, one of the great privileges of my artistic life.
Working with Michael could also be somewhat difficult, in the same way a bull can be somewhat difficult when a human attempts to sit astride it. He once told me that his friend and frequent collaborator Alex Timbers had given him the nickname “fight and flight,” due to his habit of storming out of the rehearsal room while simultaneously shouting angrily, usually just after having tried out a new piece of material for the first time, and usually at himself—usually something like, “I was wrong! I ruined it! I’m sorry! I’ve ruined the fucking show!” and then slamming the door…only to return sometime later, without warning or regard for what else might be happening in the room by then, waving his hands apologetically and calling out in an entirely different tone, “Sorry! Sorry about that! I see how to fix it now! I see what to do.”
If this behavior sounds extreme, it was. But it was in his case the result of the same extreme sensitivity that made his work possible. If it is a truism that an artist can be good only to the same degree that they are willing to be vulnerable, Michael didn’t have any choice but to be great. He moved through the world as though missing a layer of skin, a man-sized exposed nerve, and a consequence of this was the bottomless empathy that allowed him to identify completely and in equal measure with, say, an evangelical Christian in Colorado, a porn star in Van Nuys, and a ’70s soul singer from a Brooklyn novelist’s mind.
This empathy extended, crucially, to everyone in Michael’s life. If he came to see something of yours that you were having trouble with, what he said afterwards would always somehow illuminate your own piece for you in enormously helpful ways, incisively diagnosing the issues for you while somehow also inspiring you to keep working rather than demoralizing you. And if a friend was in some personal need—and you will hear this about him again and again as well—he would be there, proactively, to listen, or give excellent advice, or just lend calm. Yes, calm. The more dire your crisis the calmer he became: Perhaps because it so often felt to him like the world was ending when it wasn’t, he turned out to be exactly who you wanted around when it was.
Michael regularly frustrated the hell out of me and drove me insane. He also grabbed me by the hand, as he grabbed so many of us, and dragged me to artistic heights it would have been inconceivable for me to even attempt to scale on my own. And he was my friend and I loved him and I will miss him terribly. But Michael has left the room again now, and this time he won’t be coming back. And so those of us who are still here will have to remember what he taught us the best we can, so that when the next crisis comes we can at least try to fix it for ourselves—until maybe, someday, we walk out into a certain lobby and he is sitting there, on a bench or on the floor, head down, all elbows, left foot balanced on his right knee, which is bouncing madly, scribbling in a notebook in his lap. And he hears us coming and looks up and smiles sheepishly and says, “Oh, hey. Sorry about all that. Now I see what to do.”
Itamar Moses is a playwright and screenwriter based in Brooklyn.
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