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Hearing the Call

Date: Mar 05, 2009


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What's a nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia doing writing so many songs about Jesus? Composer Michael Friedman, who follows last year's musical Saved with the Civilians' new show about Colorado Springs, This Beautiful City (at the Vineyard Theatre through Mar. 15), seems as puzzled about it as anyone.

"It's the weirdest thing ever," Friedman says. "Maybe it's something in the Zeitgeist. I got the offer to work on Saved the same weekend we took our first trip to Colorado Springs."

That trip with his fellow Civilians found Friedman meeting and interviewing a wide gamut of evangelicals, as well as a few non-believers, in Colorado's picturesque capital of conservative Christianity. Meanwhile, in musicalizing Saved, a comedy/drama about a Christian teen forced to do some quick growing up, he listened to a lot of Christian rock and pop, and found himself fascinated.

"I responded to it-that music invites an immediate and aggressive response," Friedman says. "It is very powerful in what it does. I liked a lot of it, and didn't like a lot of it."

In This Beautiful City, however, Freidman does something a little different from simply recreating praise-worship styles onstage (though he does a little of that). Instead, he uses the actual words of some of the Civilians' interview subjects to craft odd, funny, even moving songs.

"It was a big thing that I worked on," Friedman says of this unfamiliar songwriting approach. "I think it was partly because most of the characters were so far from ourselves that I wanted to get inside these people's heads and represent them truthfully, and starting with their own words seemed like the best way."

His process mimicked that of the show's authors, Jim Lewis and Steven Cosson (who also directed): "They do the interviews, then they go through an editing process that makes what the characters are saying more clear but is still speaking in their voice."

The songs created this way include impassioned interior monologues about demons, spiritual freedom, and dreams of paradise-and also an extremely bubbly song called "Whatever," in which a young woman drawn to Christian megachurches by the lively music admits that she's not sure she's a believer. She sings: "And sometimes I even find myself singing along/And then I think about the words/And it's just awkward."

As Friedman points out, that's not a lyric a songwriter would be likely to come up with. "You can find a kind of comedy in natural speech rhythm," he points out.

The Civilians call what they do "creative investigation of actual experience," but that leaves the form of their actual shows relatively open. In their previous show, the long-running Off-Broadway hit Gone Missing, the style was impishly lyrical, almost noir-ish, as they explored several stories on the theme of loss, and Friedman wrote what he himself calls "short, clever songs-and one finds one doesn't necessarily want to spend one's entire life writing short, clever songs." Accordingly, This Beautiful City has a different shape: There are sections in which the characters address the audience as if they're the interviewer, in a style not unlike the Tectonic Theatre's The Laramie Project. But then, unlike in most docu-theatre, they also break into song.

Still, it's not a traditional musical, and Friedman reports that as the show has developed, it's been clear that the two modes of communication operate best when they're separate. In one case, for instance, an affecting monologue by a transgendered Christian is followed by a heartbreaking ballad, "Paradise," but she doesn't sing it.

"She's the least lyrical character-her voice is very blunt, to the point," Friedman says. "Letting her have a moment of lyricism, but have someone else sing it, to me is very moving. We found that anybody we tried to have someone talk, then start singing, it felt very weird."

Some New York audiences might feel a little weird watching a show that seems to take the conservative evangelical point of view so seriously, particularly after the historic 2008 elections.

"To me, it's actually it's been more interesting telling the story in this post-2008 election time," Friedman says. "If it was before the elections, it might play like another play about how, 'Oh God, they've taken over the world, be very very afraid'-the zombie movie version, which we never intended to do. Our experience of it is that this is a large part of America, a part that most people in New York and Los Angeles don't deal with daily, and every 20 years or so people like me are surprised and confused by the power of evangelicals.

"So the show is saying, 'Don't look away just because the power has shifted,' " Friedman says. "It doesn't actually shift; it goes underground a little. I think Prop. 8 in California made people realize that we have a long way to go."

For his own sake, though, Friedman-whose new projects include a muscial based on Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude-might have earned a break from all the Jesus talk.

"I don't want to say I'm done with the Christians," he says, "but I think it would be healthy to explore different areas for a while."

Click here for more information about This Beautiful City.