by Clark Groome
When composer and lyricist Michael Friedman moved to New York after graduating from Harvard University, the 37-year-old Chestnut Hill native said in a recent interview, “There were people working on Broadway. There were people working in the commercial theater. In the smaller not-for-profit realm, however, there was a little niche for me. There weren’t a lot of people doing incidental music for theater on the scale I was working. I got to know a lot of playwrights and a lot of directors that way. I was lucky.”
His latest composition will be part of the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s world premiere production of “Stars of David,” which begins previews Oct. 17, opens Oct. 24 and runs through Nov. 18 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets.
The show, based on Abigail Pogrebin’s book, “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk about Being Jewish,” turns the original interviews — of Gloria Steinem, Aaron Sorkin, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Joan Rivers, Norman Lear, Tony Kushner and Wendy Wasserstein, among many — into songs. Each song has a different composer, including William Finn, Sheldon Harnick, Marilyn and Alan Bergman and one of the last songs written by the late Marvin Hamlisch. Friedman took the interview with playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) from Pogrebin’s book and turned that material into a song.
Friedman’s interest in music goes back to when he was about 5. He began piano lessons then and continued all the way through school. He also studied the cello and composition while a student at Germantown Friends School, which he attended from kindergarten through 12th grade. He was part of every musical and theatrical program they offered, according to GFS’s theater head Lisa Hemphill Burns. She noted that his talent was evident early and that he was bright, energetic and a delight to work with.
As a youngster, Friedman took piano lessons at Chestnut Hill Academy as part of its Suzuki program and also sang in the kids choir at St. Paul’s Church, which is right up the street from his family’s house.
After graduating from GFS in 1993, he entered Harvard where, four years later, he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history and literature.
“Elizabeth Swados, a composer, writer and director, came to Harvard and was in residence there when I was an undergraduate,” Friedman said. “We worked together. When I got to New York, she asked if I wanted to work on something with her. One thing led to another. That’s most important in terms of what I do now.”
A lot of his work since arriving in New York has been writing incidental music for dozens of plays, ranging from Shakespeare to more modern playwrights like Kushner, John Guare, Theresa Rebeck and Sarah Ruhl. His selection in “Stars of David” came from having written incidental music for “Angels in America” at New York’s Signature Theatre and for Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” at Minneapolis’ famed Guthrie Theatre.
Along the way he has worked at theaters all over the country and with many of the American theater’s most prominent directors, including Andrei Serban, Moisés Kauffman, Des McAnuff and Mike Nichols. He has also served as music director and arranger on several shows.
He has also worked extensively as a composer and lyricist. He wrote the highly acclaimed “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which was first produced in 2008 and reached Broadway in 2010. The show was honored for its score by the L.A. Theater Critics and was named best musical by New York’s Outer Critics Circle. It also received the Off-Broadway League’s Lucille Lortel Award as best musical
The New York Times’ chief critic, Ben Brantley, wrote in his review that “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” was able “to stake a claim as the most entertaining and most perceptive political theater of the season.”
Friedman does not have any one favorite musical theater composer or influence. He’s a “great fan of the giants,” among whom he includes Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Frank Loesser. “On each project I’m dabbling in different traditions. Not having one major influence I wouldn’t say makes me have a more individual voice, but it allows me to draw from a whole lot of voices. On every project I start at a very different place depending on the material. I let the music come from the material itself.”
Friedman’s interest in musical theater grew out of his passion for music, which he shared as a visiting faculty member at Colorado College in 2006-2007, at Princeton in 2007-2008 and again in 2009-2010 and at the University of California, San Diego in 2011. Earlier he had served as an adjunct faculty member at New York University and Marymount Manhattan College.
Friedman’s career hasn’t brought him to Philadelphia very often, although he and his family have a long-term relationship with the Philadelphia Theatre Company. His father, John Friedman, is a past chairman of the theater’s board. Michael “made my Philadelphia theater debut playing a street urchin offstage in PTC’s ‘Citizen Tom Paine,’” which starred Richard Thomas, in 1987. He has also done a show at the Prince Music Theater and at Pig Iron Theater.
“I’ve been very very fortunate to make a living doing what I’m doing,” the native Hiller insisted. “In the end for me, what I like about this is the collaborative element. I don’t like working by myself. I like the input of other people. One nice thing about theater as opposed to film or television [is that] when you’re the composer/lyricist on a show, you’re right in the thick of it with your collaborators from beginning to the end. I’ve been really lucky in the collaborators I get to work with. That’s the thrilling part of it.”
For ticket information to “Stars of David,” call 215-985-0420 or visit philadelphiatheatrecompany.org