On the Phone With Composer J. Michael Friedman ’97

From the backseat of a cab traversing a Sandy-stricken New York City, Obie Award-winning composer and lyricist J. Michael Friedman ’97 picks up the phone to dial Fifteen Minutes.

From the backseat of a cab traversing a Sandy-stricken New York City, Obie Award-winning composer and lyricist J. Michael Friedman ’97 picks up the phone to dial Fifteen Minutes. The cell service is spotty—it’s what disaster-zone reporting must be like, Friedman quips—but that doesn’t stop him from happily chatting about anything from writing music on the subway to his time as a History and Literature concentrator.

A member of the critically acclaimed investigative theater company The Civilians, Friedman made his Broadway debut in 2010 with “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which opened in Boston on Oct. 19. The complete version of this interview can be found online.

1. Fifteen Minutes: When you first came to Harvard, were you interested in entering musical theater?

J. Michael Friedman: I was a music guy, like a classical music guy…. Honestly, I am the latest bloomer ever. I had never really written a song for theater before I was 25. I am a hope for late bloomers everywhere. When I was at Harvard I think I didn’t write a single thing.

2. FM: Were you going to be a musician?

JMF: No, I think I thought I wanted to go to law school. Or business school. God, I don't know. I had no plan. I was an undergraduate with no plan. No goals, no plan. Terrible!

3. FM: You were a History and Literature concentrator. Does that mode of thinking influence your work?

JMF: I always joke that my entire career is based on books that I didn’t read in college. I took “Jacksonian America” with William Gienapp—History 1620, I think. It was one of the most amazing and transformative courses that had a lot of influence on why I wrote “Bloody Bloody,” and all the books that [collaborator Alex Timber] and I read were the books assigned in History 1620—a few of which I will admit I’d never read. And when I wrote “Paris Commune,” which was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, that was actually based on an article in a book that I had been assigned in my Hist and Lit tutorial sophomore year that I had never actually read. I read it some rainy day because the book was sitting on my shelf like a reproach, so in fact even the books you don’t read in college can have a huge influence on your life.

4. FM: You compose music in a variety of styleseverything from pop to folk to salsa. How do you match subject matter to musical genre?

JMF: For "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" I started looking at emo rock and also at Americana, political songs, etc. And then for a show like “This Beautiful City,” that was about evangelical Christians, I looked at a lot of Christian worship rock, obviously. For a show like “Gone Missing,” that contained a salsa song, it was like, it was a show about lots of interviews—totally different interviews with people who had lost things in New York. And I wanted the songs to each feel like they might have been written by a completely different person so there’s a German song, and a salsa number in Spanish and a rock song in English. So I think it's about making music reflect the content of each piece and letting each work dictate what the musical form will be.

5. FM: It seems like you have a new song on The Civilians' podcast every few weeks. How often and how much do you write?

JMF: I once had a banner year when I wrote like 75 songs in one year, which was crazy. Not all of them were good, not all of them were long, but there were certainly many of them. I try to write every day. I write very early in the morning, like between 4:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. weirdly. I just can't write after lunch. I try to write every day, but sometimes writing means sitting staring at your computer and eating a bagel…. I get most of my best writing done on the subway.

6. FM: Why do you think that is?

JMF: I don't know. I think maybe the pressure's off. Then you take your notebook out and don't have to worry about it. Any situation in which it feels like “I don't have to be doing this but I'm doing it” is when I write my best lyrics or music, weirdly. Airport terminals! Oh my god, I get so much done in airport terminals. I have trouble writing at home, honestly.

7. FM: Is musical theater changing to reflect contemporary culture?

JMF: I think anyone my age is astonished—I hate to use the phrase “anyone my age,” that’s terrible, makes me feel old—anyone my age is astonished by how mainstream musical theater has become. People who really liked musicals when I was in college were slightly shameful…. It was like the musical theater was always kind of the bastard stepchild of better things. But it’s so funny, between “Glee” and “Book of Mormon” and all these things, it seems like musical theater, for lack of a better term, came out of the closet. Like, it’s become fashionable, which is shocking and even a little upsetting to somebody like me who still thinks of it as a little bit shameful.

8. FM: So was shame the reason that you waited until after college to become heavily involved in musical theater?

JMF: There was a little piece of me that always thought, “Really shouldn’t I be doing something better than this?” But that’s what’s good about [musical theater]. I think it’s powerful because it’s a little unsure of what it is. I say these apparently negative things about musical theater, but you’re talking to someone who believes that “Marriage of Figaro” or the late Verdi operas or “Porgy and Bess” are as great works of art as have ever been written. So I think at its greatest musical theater is possibly the greatest form of art. It’s funny that way.