Experiencing the late Michael Friedman’s work was like being immersed in a marvel—his adeptness in blending infectious, up-tempo melodies with profound, introspective lyrics left an indelible mark on all who encountered it. However, delving into personal conversations with him revealed an entirely different facet of his eclectic, dazzling personality that left you dizzy from his kindness and humanity.

Stepping into Professional Theater

Friedman’s professional theater journey began shortly after graduating from Harvard University. While in college, he was mentored by renowned composer Elizabeth Swados, who at the time was a Harvard artist-in-residence. He told the New York Times in 2007, “My entire career, almost all the people I know and the work I’ve done can be traced back to Liza Swados.” Two of his earliest gigs were with Swados, her Cantata 2000 (1997) and a production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1998), for which she did the music.

Wearing Many (Impeccable) Hats

Friedman was known as a prolific lyricist and composer. In 2007, he won an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence for Music. In that same year, he wrote songs for Melanie Marnich’s musical adaptation of Katie Couric’s book The Brand New Kid and Jenny Schwartz’s God’s Ear, directed by Anne Kauffman at New Georges and later at Vineyard Theatre. The two works would be integral for his Broadway debut, and most recognizable work, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

From composing the scores for Charles Dickens parodies to breathtaking revivals, Friedman’s compositions are unmatched in creativity, despite coming late into writing. “I saw a lot of musicals growing up,” Friedman told the Los Angeles Times, “but I never wrote a song until I was 25, which is a little embarrassing. When you come to something at 25, you are an outsider and always will be. My approach is to show up and say, ‘OK, let’s figure out how to do this.’ I enjoy that, hitting the ground running.”

Breaking the Status Quo

Friedman had a knack for meshing unlikely topics into musical masterpieces. The Tony-nominated Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, his rock musical with Alex Timbers that transferred from The Public Theater to Broadway in 2010, did just that. Hailed by the New York Times as “both smarter and cruder than your average Broadway fare,” Bloody Bloody redefines Andrew Jackson as an emo rock star and focuses on populism, the Indian Removal Act, and Jackson’s relationship with his wife Rachel. 

A passion project of his included “The State of the Union Songbook,” presented by The New Yorker Radio Hour, which follows the 2020 Presidential election campaign where Friedman created songs based on voters’ reflections on the current political moment.

Founding an Investigative Theater Company

Friedman spent much of his time cultivating and contributing to The Civilians. Described as “investigative theater,” The Civilians has a mission of conducting in-depth field research and shares its findings upon the stage. Committed to its journalistic ethos, Friedman was there from the start as one of the company’s founding artists. In the words of The Civilians’ Artistic Director Steve Cosson, he was “fully open to the world,” describing him as “part-explorer, part-essayist” and saying he could find “a point of connection with anything.”

Behind Unknown Soldier

Friedman, along with writing partner Daniel Goldstein, began working on Unknown Soldier almost two decades ago. In 2006, the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston commissioned a new musical from the duo Friedman had chanced upon an article in The New York Review of Books about a World War I soldier with amnesia. Inspired by A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession and Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, they began to write a show about present-day characters finding their way into the past.

Friedman’s score emerged — “sweeping, strongly melodic, more focused than his usual pastiche style.” (The New York Times). This labor of love, inspired by historical narratives and literary works, showcased his ability to craft sweeping, melodic scores that resonated deeply with audiences.

I think sometimes you see a picture

or hear a song

or read a letter

and a person that’s forgotten comes alive for a moment

“The Great War” from Unknown Soldier

Unknown Soldier  at Arena Stage

Unknown Soldier will begin performances on March 29 at Arena Stage.

Cleaning out her grandmother’s home, Ellen Rabinowitz discovers a mysterious photograph of a soldier, tucked away in a box of keepsakes. And so begins this sweeping, heartfelt musical about one woman’s journey to unearth the secrets buried in her family’s past. Spanning three generations, Unknown Soldier unravels a delicate tangle of family lore, as Ellen chases the extraordinary story that unlocks her history—and charts her future. 

Get tickets to see the sweeping, romantic musical now!