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Why This Songwriter Is Working on Other People's Shows

By: Linda Buchwald
Date: Jul 12, 2017

The new artistic director of Encores! Off-Center is a theatre-maker himself


Obie Award-winning songwriter Michael Friedman (of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Civilians fame) is kicking off his new gig as the artistic director of Encores! Off-Center with a bang -- literally. The first production of the three-show summer season is a revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's musical Assassins, and the gun-toting presidential haters are played by a bunch of Broadway big shots, including Steven Pasquale as John Wilkes Booth, Steven Boyer as John Hinkley Jr., Alex Brightman as Giuseppe Zangara, and Tony winner Victoria Clark as Sara Jane Moore.

Inspired by the success of New York City Center's long-running Encores! series, which has been revitalizing lesser-known Broadway musicals since 1994 via stripped-down and star-studded limited-run stagings, Off-Center was launched four years ago to focus on groundbreaking Off-Broadway musicals. After the founding artistic director, Tony-winning Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori, decided to step down, Friedman was tapped for the position. And he's certainly planned quite an eclectic season, with Assassins (July 12-15) followed by Kirsten Childs' semi-autobiographical musical about a dancer The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (July 26-27), and the Carole King-Maurice Sendak family tuner Really Rosie (August 2-5) inspired in part by the kid-lit icon's Nutshell Library.


"I think Off-Center is very much about representing all the ways in which theatre produced Off-Broadway can be interpreted," Friedman says. "What I love is that we have two of the giants of the American stage [Sondheim and Weidman]; we have one of the undersung giantesses of the American stage, Kirsten Childs; and we have two pop-cultural icons of the 20th century."

When the season was first announced, Friedman joked that it was about "children with dreams, adults with guns, and a bubbly black girl who is finding herself." However, there is a subtle connecting thread: our country. "Like any good American musical, I think they all talk about America pretty closely," he says. Another thing they have in common: Friedman considers these musicals some of his all-time favorites. Of the three, Assassins -- which debuted Off-Broadway in 1990 but enjoyed a Main Stem revival in 2004 -- is by far the most famous, with a score and ambition Friedman admires. He caught the more obscure Bubbly Black Girl during its brief but Obie-winning run at Playwrights Horizons in 2000. "This has been a really exciting opportunity to give a brilliant show a little more life," he says. As for Really Rosie, he knew the songs and stories from the 1975 half-hour TV special, which was expanded into a full-fledged stage musical in 1980.

Since Friedman is a theatre-maker himself who's collaborated on many Off-Broadway shows, he believes he brings a unique perspective few other programmers share. "Traditionally, artistic directors don't come from writers or composers, and I hope that my point of view is different," he says. "When you write you are so selfish, and the most amazing part of this job so far has been to not be worried about my own work. Instead, I'm focused on all these other composers and lyricists and directors who I think are so amazing, trying to support them."

Already looking forward to future Off-Center seasons, Friedman hopes to continue to unearth forgotten Off-Broadway gems. He says there's no template for choosing shows; he'll consider any musical so long as it has "a truth" at its center. "It doesn't mean the show can't be a comedy, or silly and delightful," he says. "But it does mean that the artist is taking the thing that they are doing seriously. One of the great thing about Little Shop of Horrors [a show Off-Center presented to great acclaim two years ago] is how seriously [creators] Ashman and Menken believed in that story, which is why we care about Audrey and Seymour, and we are delightfully scared and laughing. I think it's about trying to do shows that I think represent the American musical in the broadest and biggest possible way."


Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Victoria Clark, John Ellison Conlee, Shuler Hensley, and Steven Pasquale in Assassins. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.