REVIEW: The Michael Friedman Collection

Recording CoverWhen Michael Friedman died at age 41 from HIV/AIDS complications, the entire musical theater community was struck speechless. Beyond the real, human loss of a beloved man felled by a disease that should be treatable, there was the sense that an artist had been cut off right on the verge of coming into his prime. Despite some justly lauded achievements such as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love's Labour's Lost, and Fortress of Solitude (all three produced by New York's Public Theater), he never quite broke through to the top echelon of creators.

Beyond his affiliation with The Public Theater, Friedman's other artist home was The Civilians, a company interested in "the intersection between the theatrical and the real." Much of their work is research-based and often verbatim, meaning the words spoken and sung by their characters are exact (or lightly edited) transcripts of interviews the artists conducted with real people. Gone Missing, Friedman's first cast recording, was the product of such a process.

When Friedman died, The Civilians (led by artistic director and frequent Friedman collaborator Steve Cosson) teamed up with Ghostlight Records to preserve his work through a long-term program of recording studio cast albums of nine of his previously unrecorded scores. Dubbed The Michael Friedman Collection, the project kicked off with three releases in October, 2019: The Abominables, The Great Immensity and This Beautiful City.

The albums are simultaneously welcome, necessary, and frustrating. They are welcome because they are beautifully produced recordings of wonderful songs. They are necessary because without recordings, theater music has a tendency to disappear into the ether of memory, and these scores (and Friedman's oeuvre more generally) deserve to be remembered. They are frustrating because, in our era of digital-first (or perhaps digital-only?) releases, these recordings are presented entirely devoid of context (There's no indication yet that these albums will see further release on physical media).

Now, there's something to be said for encountering cast recordings as purely audio experiences, and any of us old enough to have started listening to showtunes before the era of Google have stories about the alternate plots we imagined for musicals based on a (mis)understanding of the cast album (For years between first hearing Rocky Horror and first seeing the film, I assumed it took place in outer space and that Brad and Janet were bickering robots in love). But even in the era of Google, you can only find information that someone else has published, and there's frustratingly little about these shows unless you're dedicated to searching deep for it (Here's a hint: instead of searching for synopses, search for reviews).

The album that most stands on its own is The Abominables, a children's show created for Minnesota's Children's Theatre Company about a yeti who joins a youth hockey league (Don't let the "children's theater" label throw you; like "young adult" fiction, this is a fully realized story that focuses on young protagonists but does not condescend to its audience). The most straightforwardly narrative of the three shows in the collection, the songs function as we've come to expect musical theater numbers to in the decades since Rodgers and Hammerstein first promulgated their ideas about the integrated musical. Ironically, this also makes the album the least interesting of the three. The songs are good, and the cast is great – particularly Gerard Canonico as Harry, the yeti, and Johnny Shea as Mitch, the player who finds himself overshadowed by the abominable newcomer. The orchestrations, by Friedman and music director Wiley DeWeese, make the most of the four-piece band.

The other two shows are more typical Civilians fare, looking at a hot topic through the multiple perspectives of the variou stakeholders and observers the company has interviewed. In the case of This Beautiful City, the subject is the Colorado Springs community rocked by revelations of evangelical preacher Ted Haggard's drug and sex scandals circa 2006. The Great Immensity constructs a fictional narrative around real issues of climate change, based on interviews with scientists and activists. The result in both cases is a form of musical somewhat more than a revue but not quite a fully realized narrative work. I have seen The Great Immensity performed; the album is my first exposure to This Beautiful City.

The Great Immensity on stage was an unsatisfying hodgepodge with flashes of genius bogged down by a book trying to do too many things and none of them successfully. As an album, the show plays a bit like "Schoolhouse Rock: Climate Change Rocks!" The songs are catchy, and by virute of the revue-like structure of the show, many of them work just as well sans context if not even better than they did on stage. Some tracks, like the Up With People pastiche "Earth Ambassadors Theme" might get tiresome on repeat listening, but "Martha, the Last Pigeon/The Golden Lemur" sounds like a classic number from a midcentury boîte, and the harmonic work on "The Hot World," "Climate Summit Suite," and "The Great Immensity" is outstanding.

This Beautiful City, to my ears, is the most effective of these three albums. It appears to have even less of a forced narrative than The Great Immensity did, but since the entire piece is investigating the fallout from one discrete event, it has strong connective tissue. The songs benefit from a pop contemporary sound that works as "show music" but could just as easily come from a Christian contemporary radio station (Kudos to music director Dan Lipton for keeping the sound from leaning too hard in one direction versus the other).

In giving voice to sincere evangelical Christians forced to examine their faith in the face of betrayal by a faith leader, as well as to others in the community watching from a slight remove, Friedman and his collaborators open a fascinating window into the kinds of people who aren't often given the spotlight on the musical theatre stage. The result is the best kind of cast recording: the one that makes me want to learn more about the show and seek out a production. I hope some artistic directors and literary managers of regional theaters will have the same response.

I'm grateful all three albums exist, and I look forward to the six others promised in the series. Were Ghostlight and The Civilians to create a limited edition companion booklet (or even a PDF) to accompany the series, I would gladly pay extra to know more about the songs, shows, and artists represented by this collection. If the goal is to not only preserve the songs but promote future interest in these shows, that seems like a crucial missing piece. It might also help to release future installments one at a time to allow each its moment in the spotlight.


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