Memories of Friedman

Alex Timbers (BBAJ book writer, director; director of ROCKY, MOULIN ROUGE, co-director of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER):

The first development step for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was workshopping the show with a group of young actors at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. We were supposed to present the entire musical by the end of the summer but, as we were arriving at the theater to begin rehearsals, I had written much of the dialogue and yet there were no songs as of yet. Suffice it to say, this worried me.

Each day in the month preceding, I kept reminding Michael… we’d need something from him to rehearse. Michael took that issue seriously and yet still there were no songs forthcoming.

As we got to that first day of rehearsal at 9am up in the Berkshires, I approached the rehearsal hall (really a log cabin) with my pages of dialogue ready to begin — and there was Michael out front sitting on the steps, body contorted, with a small notebook in hand and a pen. At the end of that half hour, he had a song. The next morning, it was the same thing. He arrived half an hour early and 30 minutes later we had a second song. In fact, that was the experience every morning for the following two weeks until we had… a musical.

Sometimes there would be songs I had never even asked for. For example, “Ten Little Indians”, which frames the treaty sequence in the show, was a song that was written inspired by the world and subject matter of the musical but with no placement in mind. We both loved the song and, still at the point where I didn’t know how much more music we were going to get from him, I set about figuring out a way to get it into the show. While it’s not a traditional musical theater song in that it doesn’t “push” plot or illuminate character, it’s one of my favorite moments in the show and it is an example of the unique sort of political song that Michael was great at, which could one moment be delightfully whimsical and then emotionally savage the next.

 

Michael Ritchie (Centre Theatre Group Artistic Director where BBAJ premiered in 2008):

When I think of Michael it is never specific to a moment. I think of him as timeless. Still here. My mind does not say, ‘Remember the time that Michael…’ Instead, I have a wash of images and sounds that are ever-changing, fading in and out, underscored, accompanied by laughter (mine included) and the smiling faces of the hundreds of people who surround him with love and adoration.

 

Oskar Eustis (Public Theater Artistic Director where BBAJ transferred to in 2009):

Opening Night of ROMEO AND JULIET at The Delacorte, Summer of 2007. Michael and I are watching the show together, when all of a sudden a burst of rain ended the show prematurely: for that single night, Juliet lived.

Undeterred by the pouring rain, Michael and I danced for hours at the Belvedere Castle opening night party, completely ruining two great suits, but cementing a friendship and love that even Michael’s tragic death can’t stop.

 

Gabriel Kahane (Bandleader, Williamstown/Center Theatre Group. Singer/songwriter/composer):

Michael gave me my first half dozen jobs in the theater, and was without a doubt my primary mentor. The last of those jobs was as music director for BBAJ, first at the Williamstown Theater Festival, and then at Center Theater Group in LA. When we arrived at Williamstown for our workshop production, Michael had written exactly one song—”Populism, Yea Yea”. But each morning, about ten minutes before rehearsal, he would appear, cyclone-like, in the rehearsal hall, with a single piece of paper torn from a stenographer’s notebook. He would put on the piano in front of me, and say something like, “Here. Okay. Go!” When I would flail in trying to sightread his chicken scratch — a cocktail of brilliant lyrics and illegible chord changes — he would yell, lovingly, “Idiot! Idiot!” While this was unnerving at first, it became clear pretty quickly that this was simply an expression of affection. For Michael assumed that I shared his brain, and if I could not execute what he had in mind instantaneously, his paroxysms were directed back at himself as much as they were at me, or any other collaborator. When Michael and I stopped working together professionally, we remained friends for the decade up until his death, having dinner every couple of months; these dinners generally took the form of me desperately trying (and failing) to keep up with the brilliant ballet of Michael’s brain and spirit. I miss him terribly.

 

John Krasinski (Jim in “The Office”, writer/director A QUIET PLACE):

It is a rare and special occasion to realize that you were present at the first spark of something truly great.  To leave an event and not have the words, just the feeling.  The feeling that what you just witnessed was a seminal experience.  In 2007 I was lucky enough to have experienced exactly that when I was invited by a dear friend of mine, Mike Sablone, to the workshop of a musical he was a dramaturg on.  My expectations going in were not much more than just wanting to be a supportive friend.  There in a bare rehearsal space with not much more than a few chairs and perhaps a prop or two I watched a group of people… create magic.  Never before had I seen such a powerfully irreverent story on stage.  Historic characters, as hilarious as they were heartbreaking, gracefully navigate one of our country’s most transformative and terrifying times… through song.  It was one of the most inspiring theatrical experiences I have ever had, and… the first time I became a groupie. Having travelled to see the show in its following three iterations at CTG in LA, the Public Theater in NY and then on Broadway, I can say with complete confidence that Greenville, SC has no idea how lucky they are!

 

Anne Davison (dramaturg BBAJ, Love’s Labour Lost):

As I’m sure with everyone, and as cliched as it sounds, there are so many memories that make me laugh, make me cry, and remind me how lucky I was to have had the chance to work with someone utterly unparalleled in intelligence, talent, volatility, and true genius as Michael.  After a celebratory lunch after the first NYC workshop, while everyone was a bit giddy with Chevy’s margaritas and the aftermath of a successful showing, Michael was focused on how to improve the 3rd section – arms flying, acting out all parts in a rough outline of how that should go.  Most of that is now in the show.  There was the time he got locked in the bathroom of the Jacobs Theater dressing room and after I kicked the door open to free him and could not stop laughing, he walked out as if nothing had happened and started talking about possible lyric changes.  There was the time (more than one, actually) that he had to fly off to Minneapolis for another project simply saying, “Don’t tell Alex, but I have to go to Minneapolis” after which he would disappear for a couple of days still sending incredibly insightful notes as if he were still in the theater. And at the very bittersweet party after the closing of BBAJ on Broadway, Michael told me he was leaving because he was “soulless” and had no sentimentality, etc., etc.  The next day he sent an email to everyone with a photo of his boarding pass to Jackson Hole saying, “Withdrawal and missing you all. At least I’m headed to an appropriate place.”  Withdrawal and missing you, Michael.

 

Bonnie Grisan (casting director, original workshop, Center Theatre Group production):

After an actor sang Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U been gone” as their audition song, he loudly exclaimed:  “I wish I had written that song!”

I just loved how after hearing so many years of Michael’s great musical compositions in so many settings: productions, workshops, auditions for other shows, he could be excited and envious of another composer’s ability for songcraft.

 

Paul Grellong (playwright, MANUSCRIPT, POWER OF SAIL, and TV writer “Hawaii Five-0,” “Scorpion”, “Revolution”, “Law & Order: SVU”):

Mike and I were sharing an apartment at the time he first discovered BBAJ. I remember coming home from work and seeing the script on a table. The title caught my eye, so I asked Mike about it. He told me it was astonishing, a game-changer… but nothing could have prepared me for the production I saw at CTG’s Douglas Theatre the following year. The Douglas crackled with an electricity I’d never seen in a theatre before. The songs are still in my head. The show has only become more relevant with time, the vision and prescience of its creators only more powerful.

 

James Barry (Male Soloist, Public Theatre, Broadway):

It was the winter of 2008/09. After a couple frustrating years of banging my head against the wall trying to be an actor in New York following 2 similarly frustrating years in Chicago, I was crippled by self-doubt, half convinced I didn’t have what it took (talent or perseverance wise) to make it as an actor, and was constantly worried about money. I was tempted to accept an offer to go from temp to permanent at a miserable job at a big bank (those paychecks saved me, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but it was lacerating the artist inside me & I really panicked that whatever talent and drive I possessed was beginning to atrophy).

Commiserating over drinks with good friend and fellow performer Randy Harrison, he told me about Les Freres Courbousier and an upcoming production of a rock musical they were going to produce at the Public called BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON. He said I had to go to this one. He said the creators of the show were my kind of irreverent, sincere, iconoclastic, super people. I begrudgingly agreed.

I sang “Papa Was A Rodeo” by The Magnetic Fields. I wore a black cowboy hat. I got a callback.

Then I met Alex Timbers & Michael Friedman at the callback and shamelessly threw myself at them with all the feral abandon I could muster. I felt like I was fighting for my place in the world at that audition in a building that possesses a scope and history that still intimidates me. I booked it.

We did two sold out extended runs at the Public. Then we went to Broadway. I wore the black cowboy hat at our Broadway closing party.

Many doors were opened. Most importantly I met some of the most wonderful and talented humans I know.

Jonathan Lethem (author of Fortress of Solitude) said of their professional relationship: “Life chooses you, love chooses you, if you’re lucky. That I knew Michael Friedman at all was improbable luck for me. I’ve been asked to speak of our “collaboration,” but it felt more like I got to row out to an island I didn’t know existed and camp out near the fire of his genius for a while.”  I feel that way, too.  I’m remain in shock and disbelief that his genius wanted anything I had to offer.   In that way he continues to change my life.   Directing the students of Wagner College in BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON was an incredible reminder of his genius, and a very intense way to honor his legacy so soon after his passing.

Michael also always told me when he thought I was getting fat.

The moral of the story is trust your friends (thank you, Randy). Go to the EPA if it’s a good fit for you. You never know when you’ll end up in front of a big hearted Jordan or Heidi. Or incredibly generous geniuses like Alex and our dear, departed Michael. Or the fearless Oskar Eustis. My life is so much richer because of that. An embarrassment of riches, as Ben Steinfeld would say.

 

Miranda Barnett (The Storyteller UNC Greensboro, AEA actress and local legend):

BBAJ was the first show I worked on with Aaron Brakefield, now my husband. In all sincerity, getting shot in the neck by him every night really brought us together.

 

Jeff Hiller (John Quincy Adams, Public Theatre and Broadway):

I remember Michael telling Jeanine Seralles in the workshop that he loved her singing voice because it isn’t trained at all. She feigned being insulted and he said, “that’s what this song (10 Little Indians) needs! Acting, not voice lessons!

I also remember during the recording he told me that I sing really loud. He said to the rest of the ensemble to sing as loud as I was singing, but I think it was actually a note to me to shut up. Which was kind.

I remember during the workshop when Gabe Kahane was playing that last song – “The Saddest Song,” and he was rocking out on it and Michael lost himself ever so briefly in the music, and then immediately went back to giving notes on how it should sound.

I remember how he played Second Nature and how it sounded and when he told Justin Levine, “Just do it like you do it”.

 

Brian Lowdermilk (Off-Broadway: THE MAD ONES, HENRY AND MUDGE. Other musicals with Kait Kerrigan include: THE BAD YEARS, REPUBLIC, UNBOUND, and two top-charting albums OUR FIRST MISTAKE and KERRIGAN-LOWDERMILK LIVE. ):

I was wandering around the village with friends after seeing FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE at the Public Theatre off-Broadway.  I was explaining to them (with increasing frustration and despair) that they had just witnessed an extraordinary achievement in theatre, and I was stuck. You see, the conversation had fallen into a little hole – a space you had made.  The final song in your score (called “Middle Spaces”) was about how insufficient Art is at portraying real human experiences and societal evolutions, and how vital it is to still attempt to create – to open up new spaces.  And here I was, with insufficient words, illustrating your point at every turn.  (You were a very frustrating genius.)

You were my contemporary.  Sometimes I wonder if I squandered that somehow, if I failed to appreciate the privilege it was to swing for the same fences as you, to advocate for and compete against you.  When the cast album of FORTRESS came out, I did something I almost never do. I went for a walk around my neighborhood and listened to it from beginning to end.  When I got to your last song, from the horrifically relatable opening prayer of any songwriter (“Someday all these bullshit songs will be of use”) to the haunting refrain (“but the song makes a space”) I doubled over, sobbed and played it several times.

You were alive then.  It wasn’t that.  (I would have plenty of time to sob to that song for entirely different reasons.)  No – I sobbed because it felt like you were writing directly to me, because FORTRESS was an extraordinary once-in-a-decade score, because it didn’t transfer to broadway, and because I just felt so fucking grateful to have you as a contemporary.  We make these insufficient pieces of art, we dedicate our lives to them, they often close after a few weeks in one small theatre, we pray that the bullshit songs will be of use. And sometimes there can be enormous solace in simply knowing that your contemporary is listening.

I never got a chance to tell you that.  That I was listening, so very very closely.

Of all the things I hate about your death (and I hate absolutely everything about it), I most-hate how within a matter of weeks you became an idol, an icon – you suddenly feel like a master from an earlier era now.  And that sucks because this is theoretically supposed to be a little note to an audience who is sitting down to watch BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON.  What am I supposed to say, Michael?  That I recoiled from BLOODY BLOODY at first?  That I completely failed to recognize the prodigious weight of your score? That I was furious when I first saw it, pissed off that there were only 27 minutes of music?  (Can I admit this now?)  Opening night of BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON on Broadway: you were bouncing around the room, seemingly everywhere at once, your remarkable, present self… and I was confused.  I thought BLOODY BLOODY was the work of a lazy writer, one who couldn’t have been bothered to fill up the rest of those minutes with music. Only when I stood doubled-over in the street listening to “Middle Spaces” did I finally understand:

You wrote to create space.  You wrote to amplify voices.  Your sensitive, compassionate writing opened up new worlds in theatre. Your scores will continue to challenge, frustrate and inspire generations.  Michael, I’m not done talking to you.  We don’t get to be friends anymore, and we’re never going to have that drink, but my work will always be in dialogue with yours.  There will never be a higher honor for me than to have been your contemporary.

 

Mike Sablone (dramaturg BBAJ, FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, Producing Artistic Director of the Warehouse Theatre):

I have been in a state of shock and still am finding it difficult to wrap my head around this enormous loss. We have lost one of the most talented artists I’ve ever encountered, let alone had the good fortune of working with.

The thing is, I was so lucky. I got to be around Michael Friedman pretty consistently during my time at CTG. I think if you add up the days I spent almost a full year just in workshops with him. Watching him work was a joy and inspiration, even when he imagined the world was collapsing around him and the project was the worst thing he had ever seen in his life (this happened…frequently. And his instincts that something could be better were always proved correct when he would amazingly make something phenomenal even more phenomenal.).

I’ve never stopped listening to the demos and recordings from workshops where Michael would sing, with great gusto, the songs he had just written for BBAJ for FORTRESS. He held nothing back, he poured his heart out as if this was a piece of music written 40 years ago, not 4 minutes ago. His laugh was infectious. His intelligence inspiring. His music beautiful. His lyrics haunting.

The first time he played “Rock Star” from BBAJ for me is seared in my memory. I immediately told CTG that he had somehow just added the best song in the show in a show filled with best songs.

His music made me cry. Ugly cry. I sat in a theater in Dallas watching the end of FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE and couldn’t breathe. The stranger next to me held one hand and my wife Taylor held the other.

His music made me laugh. It made me think the impossible was possible. He captured deep feelings about alienation, legacy, emotion. It affected me, deeply, to my core. It still does.

There are countless memories I have of him, but the one that hurts the most is realizing I won’t be able to add more over the next 40 years. It is impossible to think that he won’t be here to see this production of BBAJ. I cannot accept this

The last time I heard from Michael was in response to my announcement of taking the Warehouse job. He wrote back saying that he needed to introduce me to one of his favorite people who lived in the Greenville-Spartanburg area. His college roommate, Catherine Schumacher was here, and when I found out Michael had passed we got together again to help each other mourn. Of course Michael knew someone in the city I was moving to. He was connected to everyone, somehow. It’s comforting to know that a bit of his beauty and spirit spread across the country. His legacy will continue this good work and I’m proud to honor his memory with this show.

 

Catherine Schumacher:

Michael was a year behind me in college, part of a gang of theatre types who migrated to New York City to pursue creative careers while living in tiny apartments and drinking lots of cosmopolitans (it was the late 90s, after all). Michael moved into my apartment when Liz and Jason moved out, joining Teddy, another college friend, who like me eventually left New York. As the years passed, Michael became the star we knew he would be, and travelled all over the world making amazing theatre and just being the freakishly gifted human he was.

One year (perhaps when we turned 40?), my phone lit up on Ted’s birthday at the end of May. I opened the video message, forwarded to me by Liz and Jason, now married with two adorable–and musical–children the same age as my own. It was Michael’s birthday present to Ted, a performance of “Let It Go” from Frozen, music directed by Michael and featuring Liz and J’s kids, recorded in their Brooklyn living room. Michael is sitting in the middle on the sofa, holding a lyric sheet, singing at the top of his lungs and bouncing in his seat, waving his hands and conducting the kids in a performance that goes increasingly off the rails. It was goofy and hilarious and full of love for music and Ted and our group of friends of more than twenty years.

When we learned of Michael’s death, we again circulated that video. It made me laugh and cry and miss a person that this world lost entirely too soon.

 

Meredith Ries (Props Master, Public Theatre for BBAJ):

I was long ago the props master on the Newman production of BBAJ — it was the last thing I did before I went to grad school and the friends and collaborators I met on that show are still very close. I can’t seem to chase down a lot of photos, but have two of Carlos the lizard — who was originally Andrew’s pet (I think [Mike Sablone here: he was. Originally right before everyone leaves the White House and Van Buren comes in Andrew would say “it’s just you and me Carlos”. This then switched to be Van Buren. I’m still mad at Alex for cutting this. {just kidding}]) — we made a gazillion adjustments to him until he was finally cut in previews. The whole process was like that — they team was unafraid to cut ideas that were really great if they didn’t fit into or balance the whole. It takes a lot of bravery to do that. I learned more working on that show than I can say and still think about it all the time.

 

Matthew Rocheleau (John Quincy Adams, Center Theatre Group):

I have a hard time putting my thoughts about Michael and BBAJ to paper. Obviously that show was so special to all of us, but it’s impact on me continues and my feelings about Michael and his work only deepen. It feels almost cliché to say that he changed what I thought a musical could be but truthfully he really was one of the great musical artists that opened my ears to so much more.

When I think back to my time with Michael specifically, for some reason I can’t help but picture him in that purple chair (do you know what I’m talking about? I feel like we had a big blue couch and purple chair in the lobby? I guess it’s been awhile…) anyway, sitting in this chair with his legs and feet high up, resting on the top of the couch and just shooting the shit

There are so many wonderful memories of us actually working, but strangely my thoughts of him are mainly him on the couch, head on a pillow and his legs in the air, gesticulating wildly of course, and his eyes to the ceiling, sometimes lost in thought and sometimes engaged in passionate conversation with anyone who happened to be lounging with him in the lobby with him. He was so funny and smart and a great artist.

 

Nadia Quinn (Ensemble Broadway):

I remember beginning BBAJ rehearsals and being terribly frightened of Michael, yet simultaneously desperately wanting his approval. Somehow, I was never able to tell if he was pleased with me or not- he was always scowling or fretting or geniusing-out on something. During previews, I was cut from playing guitar on stage during Saddest Song and was feeling a bit disappointed. Before dinner break that day, Michael found me backstage and pulled me into one of the quick-change rooms to very directly, seemingly-out-of-nowhere, tell me that being cut had nothing to do with me and that he thought I was doing a great job. It meant so extra much because….well….he wasn’t the kind of guy to throw around compliments.

 

Kait Kerrigan (Kait is a playwright, lyricist, and bookwriter. Off-Broadway: THE MAD ONES, HENRY AND MUDGE. Other musicals with Brian Lowdermilk include: THE BAD YEARS, REPUBLIC, UNBOUND, and two top-charting albums OUR FIRST MISTAKE and KERRIGAN-LOWDERMILK LIVE. Plays include FATHER/DAUGHTER, DISASTER RELIEF, IMAGINARY LOVE, and TRANSIT. Co-founder with Lowdermilk of the start-up NewMusicalTheatre.com. @kaitkerrigan on all social media. www.kerrigan-lowdermilk.com):

Michael would hate that I’m writing this. He would roll his eyes and ask why I wasn’t spending my time writing something less reflective / more ambitious. Michael hated when things got sappy. He wasn’t sentimental. He cared about big things. He saw irony everywhere. He loved the intricacies of the way a person talks so much that he set spoken dialogue to music. But even something that romantic – setting text to music – was undercut by a wit and an irony that was keen and unflinching. His heart beat for the political, for the movements, for the way people as a peoplemight change. He would hate this.

Michael was the shiniest person in the room. He had the biggest eyes, the most explosive gestures. He knew everyone. And yet, for reasons I’ll never understand, he singled me out and we became friends. Being singled out by Michael was terribly flattering. He made you feel smart. He made you feel heard. He would listen to you with bugged-out eyes, nodding along, grinning if it was funny, frowning if it was serious. And then he would whip out the smartest idea you’d heard in a month, send you down a rabbit hole with a simple question, or connect what you said with wide-ranging references. He was vociferous, unstoppable, infectious. He was the embodiment of a life force.

I’ve lost other friends. I’ve felt the hole at the center of a small community before, but it’s always felt deeply personal and private. Apologies to Michael for all this sap, but my heart is not beating for my own personal loss this time. The death of my friend Michael has a butterfly effect on the people as a peopleof our theatrical community. I don’t know how many young writers and directors and theater artists (especially women and people of color) will not be recommended for jobs because only Michael would have thought to advocate for them – and Michael advocating for you was a game changer. I don’t know how many important quiet voices will go unamplified without Michael running ragged around the country recording them and turning them into songs

There’s a kind of fire azalea that’s pollinated by butterflies. Smaller insects like bees don’t have a wide enough wingspan to pollinate it effectively. Most of us in theater are worker bees, going from project to project, keeping our heads down. But Michael was the butterfly pollinating our impractical beautiful fire azalea garden. Our theater community is so diffuse and spread out that it takes someone like Michael – who’s curiosity and perpetual energy and open wingspan of personality – to connect all of us. And so I fear we’ve lost more than a friend and an artist in Michael’s death. My only hope is that impact Michael had on those of us lucky enough to know him is profound enough that we will open our wings to the wider community and use our energy for the growth of our rare fire azalea garden.