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Essay

From the Artistic Director: Unknown Soldier

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director
December 18, 2019

Portrait of Tim Sanford by Zack DeZon

 

I heard, telephones, opera house, favorite melodies
I saw boys, toys, electric irons, and TVs
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
and all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people.

“Five Years,” David Bowie

No theater artist I can think of needed “so many people” more than Michael Friedman. And conversely, so many people needed him. As a founding artistic associate of The Civilians, Michael demonstrated an uncanny gift for helping bring to life, and finding the inner music of a vast array of, everyday people. Most of the dozen or so works Michael created with The Civilians reflect the interest of Founding Director, Steven Cosson, in “Investigative Theater” — devised pieces on an array of organizing ideas created from interviews conducted by company members. Some of the conceits have weighty underpinnings, but tonally, most carry a healthy dose of whimsy, in large part because of the songs Michael created for them. He excelled at creating nimble, sweetly ironic songs that actors with limited musical training could perform comfortably.

And he wrote fast. Melodies and lyric phrases just came to him. Michael’s musical theater work began to expand beyond The Civilians in the late aughts. We produced one of his first conventional book musicals, Saved (based on the movie, written with Rinne Groff and John Dempsey) in 2008. In short order, over the next six or seven years, he enjoyed productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Love’s Labour’s Lost (both with Alex Timbers at The Public, the former marking Michael’s Broadway debut), Mr. Burns (by Anne Washburn at Woolly Mammoth and Playwrights), Fortress of Solitude (with Itamar Moses at The Public), and Unknown Soldier (with Daniel Goldstein at Williamstown). During the same period, Michael continued to collaborate with The Civilians and had about five productions with them over that span. (Mr. Burns gets an asterisk; its early development was with The Civilians, but Michael’s role didn’t really begin until its production at Woolly — and that score was rewritten for our production a year later.) Michael wrote like he had “just five years, that’s all we’ve got.” And we, his fans and friends — how could we keep up? Unknown Soldier came and went quickly. I couldn’t even find time to see it. Then two years later, and all too soon, he had died.

“It is worth observing that a soldier is the opposite of a civilian.”

In all my years of loving Michael (beginning in 2004, when he provided original music for Neal Bell’s Spatter Pattern), I kept wondering what project would bring out the best in him. We gave him a commission with another writer in 2008, but nothing ever came of it, and eight years later, he abandoned it, saying he worked best working on other people’s ideas. So actually, Unknown Soldier is unique among his many projects. From what I can tell, it is the only project of his written from scratch. So when Mandy Greenfield (Artistic Director of the Williamstown) called me to suggest we consider it — “People still talk about that show, our audience loved it” — I felt ready, eager even, to give it a look and a listen, if only to summon Michael back to mind for a few hours. It took only a song or two to hear him so clearly. I ruefully remembered all the times we sat in a room together, he at a piano banging and shouting an irresistible score of something new for a good hour or so. But the further I got into it, the more I became aware that he and his collaborator and dear friend Danny had created something fine and new.

It is worth observing that a soldier is the opposite of a civilian. There is one soldier in the play, a WWI casualty who has lost his memory. A character in the present has found a photo of this soldier with her grandmother as a young woman. She enlists a Cornell librarian to help her unlock this mystery. But it doesn’t take long to discover that the real mysteries of the play lie within the play’s civilians, her dead grandmother, the librarian, and herself. The play sets us up to expect that these mysteries will be unlocked through an investigation of the past. But none of our expectations about the play’s narrative are satisfied. Instead the musical takes us through a series of reversals, rendered so skillfully in its sharp, telling transitions from present to past, past to present, leading us inexorably, simply and beautifully, to two songs that lay its two lead characters — the granddaughter and the librarian — exquisitely bare, in two of the most enrapturing, revelatory, pure musical theater climaxes in all of Michael’s work. 

“Had Michael lived, I’m certain this show would have opened eyes about his capabilities.”

How did these two major musical theater artists and dear dear friends write this remarkable show? Danny built his reputation largely on his directing. And while Michael’s many collaborators always praised his insights and input into the storytelling of their projects, he was almost never credited for more than “Music and Lyrics.” But somehow, along with their director, the amazing Trip Cullman, they made this show together, with some of the most intricate, nuanced, economically observed writing for the musical theater one can find. Clearly, working together made both of them better. Had Michael lived, I’m certain this show would have opened eyes about his capabilities. But Danny is here. And I am certain one of Michael’s objectives was to open up eyes to the talent of his friend. I am certain this is going to be a profoundly moving experience.