Michael Friedman is the composer and lyricist behind an astonishing range of theatrical output over the last fifteen years. He wrote his first musical for The Civilians, a downtown theatre group he helped co-found in 2001. Canard, Canard, Goose? was also The Civilians’ first show, taking as its subject alleged geese abuse on the set of the Hollywood movie Fly Away Home. The Civilians’ method of working is a little like verbatim theatre in that the shows are based on interviews with real people. What’s different is that the final product is a heightened version of what emerged from those interviews, as you can probably tell from the sublimely silly Canard (the plot of which effectively disintegrates when the Civilians team realises that the movie wasn’t in fact shot in the hamlet where it was set but in Ontario). You can hear the whole show in this podcast recording of the 10th anniversary concert performance at Joe’s Pub.
Canard set the offbeat tone for an eclectic career. Friedman went on to write the music for a series of shows, some with The Civilians, some not, including In the Bubble, based on the John Travolta movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble; the children’s show Katie Couric’s The Brand New Kid; Gone Missing, an ideas-driven musical on the subject of loss; and an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude, previews of which have just begun in Dallas. He’s written for Shakespeare in the Park, the Public Theater, Signature Theatre, Theatre for a New Audience and many more spaces in New York and beyond. The Civilians’ new show, The Great Immensity, which opens on April 11, has songs by Friedman. He’s certainly a busy man; as this funny New York Times profile from 2007 reveals, he can get “overly busy because I get excited by things and can’t say no”.
One of Friedman’s biggest successes to date is the satirical “emo” musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which he co-wrote with Alex Timbers. Bloody Bloody opened in Los Angeles in 2008 and made its Broadway debut in the last months of 2010. Emo, as Ben Brantley in his New York Times review defined it, “for those of you who don’t download your songs, is a postpunk rock variant that wears its shattered heart on its tattered sleeve, throbbing with the narcissism, masochism and frustrated powerlessness that come with being a teenager”. It also tends to involve a lot of male eyeshadow and black clothing, which lends itself well to the high theatricality of the show.
Bloody Bloody opens in the early nineteenth century with “Populism, Yea, Yea”, a call for power to be returned to the people from the hands of the elite. This is no Les Mis, though; rather a political movement born out of the pent-up frustration, angst and sexuality of adolescence:
Why wouldn’t you ever go out with me in school?
You always went out with those guys who thought they were so cool
And I was just nobody to you, nobody to you, nobody to you…But it’s the early 19th century and we’re gonna take this country back
For people like us, who don’t just think about things, people who make things happen
Sometimes with guns, sometimes with speeches too,And also other things…Populism, yea, yea…
Here, Friedman discusses the opening number and the origins of the show:
It’s a highly literate show with a broad referential field that includes Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault and Alexis de Tocqueville. But it’s also relentlessly un-highbrow. “The Corrupt Bargain”, for instance:
John Quincy Adams says, “If we steal the election, then Jackson will surely cave.”
John Calhoun says, “You can be president if you don’t try to take away my slaves.”
Henry Clay says, “You won’t get Missouri because I know how to play realpolitik.”
James Madison said something prescient about this but he was kind of a dick.
And in “Rock Star”:
John Adams tried to be an American Idol,
Jefferson tried to be a rock star,
Madison tried to make the Presidency vital,
James Monroe was a douche bag.
It’s a fun show, a fast-moving and irreverent survey of President Jackson’s controversial life. We see his early military career, which stoked his belief that the government was not doing enough for the people on the frontier; his astounding success at the Battle of New Orleans; the overturning of his popular election in 1824; his eventual election four years later; the institution of Jacksonian democracy; and, ultimately, the violent confrontations with the Native American population that make him a hotly disputed figure to this day. And all set to rapidfire rock music.
The success of the show lies in the unlikely melding of emo rock music with history. As Ben Brantley wrote, “Long before rock ’n’ roll was invented, it seems, the United States was a sucker for the rock-star charisma of a maverick politician.” American presidents have been immortalised in music elsewhere, of course: a host of them — at least obliquely — in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins; the disgraced thirty-seventh in John Adams’s Nixon in China; even FDR in Annie. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, like the best of them, succeeds because it finds a musical correlative for the atmosphere of the time and its writers’ take on their subject.