Philadelphian is one busy and versatile music man

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The high-glam projects are circling Michael Friedman like airliners in air-traffic-control gridlock.

Having worked on two unlikely New York theater hits that opened within weeks of each other this summer, the 31-year-old Philadelphia-born composer is in the final stages of a musical about the evangelical movement titled This Beautiful City.

He's also having discussions about a major project for the New York City Ballet, and has at least four more musicals in the works on subjects ranging from Andrew Jackson to Alice in Wonderland, spread over several American cities.

"As someone who doesn't think of himself as writing musicals with a capital M, I have a bunch of them happening this year," he says, "which is terrifying."

If his name isn't on the lips of those in search of the next Stephen Sondheim, two factors are likely. His compositional voice changes from one dramatic moment to the next, which is to be expected from somebody who discusses researching different song genres as musical archaeology. More remarkable, he welcomes assignments where his music is felt more than heard.

The Public Theater's acclaimed, now-closed production of Romeo and Juliet in Central Park had Shakespeare's characters writhing in poison-induced convulsions, while effectively underscored by quiet, classical-guitar chords.

More in the foreground is his score for Gone Missing, a sort of documentary cabaret revue about what New Yorkers misplace - a concept rather than a plot, requiring music from Burt Bacharach-style pop to Schumannesque art songs. His lyrics have their searching moments: "Our possessions are only shadows, echoes of fate, the things you lose you never possessed." After opening for a limited run at the Off-Broadway Barrow Street Theater, Gone Missing was extended into January.

"That's totally new for us," he says of a show that began life five years ago at the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. "We never had a show . . . exist longer than three weeks without running out of money."

Though Gone Missing is as smart and polished as anything Off-Broadway, some Friedman shows have been in bars, as part of the Civilians, a theater collective in which he is the unofficial resident composer.

Friedman has worked on several shows for the group, named after vaudeville slang for people not in showbiz, including (I Am) Nobody's Lunch - mostly genre-blurring plays with music.

His other important professional connection is director Michael Greif, who directed Broadway's Rent as well as this summer's Romeo and Juliet, an endeavor some composers might consider thanklessly anonymous. But there's an idiosyncratic lack of ego in the way Friedman jokes about his hour-plus score for Romeo as being "a Mahler symphony that nobody hears." That extends to the potentially political This Beautiful City: He believes commentary is not needed from him.

Obviously, Friedman is an ensemble player with a strong sense of artistic function. Consider his attitude toward Romeo and Juliet: "The play is so much about haste," he says. "Impeding the haste of everybody's experience in that play is a disservice. The score was about helping them [and] to not pull the primary focus away from their story."

At least this time: "There's an R&J I did at the Williamstown Theater Festival with a Mexican rock band onstage."

This is not what's usually heard from somebody whose background is classical music - where the composer rules. Friedman had a relationship with music from a young age (starting with piano lessons) that suggests it was more a need than a want, though after graduating from Germantown Friends School, he considered but decided against the concentrated music curriculum at Temple University.

As a history major at Harvard, Friedman studied composition with the avant-gardist Luciano Berio, but more significantly with theater composer Elizabeth Swados, best known for Runaways.

Moving to New York City if only because he wasn't ready to return to Philadelphia, he worked in urban planning, and by age 25, was with the Civilians and, for the first time, writing songs. Quickly. The nine Gone Missing songs were written in a month.

"He always loved the theater," said his father, John Friedman, retired from the administration of Germantown Friends School, "but not that much. Who knew?"

In a way, having so little popular-music background was a plus.

"I come at them [song genres] as a complete incompetent, or as somebody wide-eyed about how it works," Michael Friedman says. "What's important is to make sure I'm writing honestly, and not as an exercise. The most successful songs leave behind their genre trappings and become whatever [they are]. I tend to go where I'm needed, but when I get there, I'm writing for and from myself. I'm trying to re-create a world."

There's much more world than he thought when he set out to write This Beautiful City, now in development at the Sundance Institute in Utah. Last year, the Civilians spent time in the U.S. evangelical nerve center, Colorado Springs, Colo., and came out neither converted nor ready to ape the critical documentary film The Jesus Camp.

"You have to ask, 'Where does it come from? What does it mean that there's this political force in America?' " he says. "Colorado College agreed to support the development of the show. They brought us out. . . . We were there before Pastor Ted [Haggard] was outed [for homosexual activity]. We'd seen him preach. We'd met his kids. We couldn't believe what we were given access to. We were at a service watching 7,000 people in tears and speaking in tongues."

If this approach sounds similar to that of the great British playwright Caryl Churchill (who also uses journalistic research), it's no coincidence. She's on the Civilians' advisory board and is a major influence, he says.

Amid all of this, will Philadelphia ever see him again?

"I like Philadelphia a lot," he says. "It's thriving in ways that it wasn't when I was a teenager there. It's exciting to come back and see things like . . . the crazy fringe scene."

However, he's now working seemingly everywhere else.

Saved (based on an evangelical film starring Mandy Moore) is at New York's Playwrights Horizons this fall. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson opens in Los Angeles next year, as does This Beautiful City in Washington.

With Greif, a musical of the 1976 movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is in workshop. Shouldn't there be an opera in there somewhere?

"Opera is a bit of a Holy Grail. I have an ambition to write a large-scale, fully musicalized piece of theater. Would it be an opera?" he says. "I'm not sure."


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@ phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/

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