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The "Intelligent" Composer’s Guide To Scoring A Play

Date: May 06, 2011


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Michael Friedman has composed several major musicals, including Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Saved, but that's only half of his professional puzzle. He's just as likely to score plays, such as the New York premiere of Tony Kushner's latest epic, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

"I’ve been doing incidental music longer than I’ve been writing songs in musicals, so I think of myself as having two careers that sometimes coincide," Friedman says. "I think in a funny way, my work as a songwriter has always been informed by my work as a composer for plays. Everything I know about dramaturgy and making a show comes from my experience working with playwrights as a composer for plays, and so my work in musicals somehow derives from that."

Friedman signed on to Kushner's latest opus, now at The Public in a co-production with The Signature, prior to its 2009 world premiere at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. (He also scored the Signature's revival of Angels in America earlier this season.) The play was still being written as he was working on that initial production, and even at The Public there have been cuts, additions, and rearrangements of scenes.

However, Friedman enjoys working on plays that are still emerging. "When you’re writing a musical, it’s yours, and you’re one of the primary artists. It’s your vision that is being served in creating the show," he says. "When I'm working on a play, I like to think that I’m serving other artists. I think of myself as a servant of someone else’s text, and especially in a new play, which is a fragile, changing thing, you really want to be supportive of what those people need and how you can help that come to life.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide follows Gus Marcantonio (Michael Cristofer), a retired longshoreman who asks his children to vote on whether or not he should commit suicide. Like most of Kushner's work, it’s a massive undertaking, tackling weighty political themes with a surprising amount of humor. "With a play this ambitious, with this many characters and this many scenes, it was about trying to create something that’s as simple and as clear as possible," Friedman says.
In thinking about the world of this play, he thought about what Gus’ house would sound like. He opted for a jazz-influenced score and listened to ’60s jazz recordings to get a sense of that style. "It felt like an interesting way to place that world without being too specific about an era, but also to imagine the kind of music that Gus might enjoy or listen to and the kids would have grown up listening to," he says.

 Friedman also listened to opera, especially Verdi, and international and American communist and socialist anthems, all of which are significant to the characters. Music from Aida is not only referred to, but used in the play, as is the union song "Union Maid," and these elements had to sit comfortably with his score. 
Ultimately, however, Friedman wants to serve the play without calling too much attention to the music. He says, "I never like music in a play like this to be overwhelming. I like to be as self-effacing as possible—to let Tony’s wonderful play come through."


Linda Buchwald blogs for StageGrade and her own blog,Pataphysical Science. Follow her on Twitter: @PataphysicalSci