The prolific Broadway composer Michael Friedman died on Saturday, Sep. 9, at the age of 41 from complications of HIV/Aids.
His death was a shock — not just because it is rare to hear of artists dying of Aids today, but because Friedman continued his prolific output until shortly before his death.
He had not yet reached the mega-fame of Lin-Manuel Miranda — who mourned Friedman on Twitter — but his work has had major influence on the theater world.
I knew Friedman in college, where we lived in the same dorm. We worked on two productions together, 20 years ago, in another life. He was the musical director for the late Liz Swados‘s first Harvard project, Cantata 2000. Swados hired him for subsequent professional projects, starting with Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling’s Opera, where I was part of the workshop cast at the La Mama Theatre.
From there, the New York Times obituary notes, he moved on to work with the Public Theater and with a politics-inspired troupe called the Civilians. We lost touch, but the tributes pouring in from the arts world match my memories of a brilliant, joyful, sprightly and sensitive man.
Before there was Miranda’s Hamilton, there was Friedman’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, co-created with Alex Timbers, which told the story of the rise of America’s first populist president through emo rock music. Friedman saw echoes of Jackson in both Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and in the Tea Party movement that followed it. He anticipated the rise of Donald Trump, and even wrote songs about Trump supporters during the 2016 campaign.
One of those songs, “The Ballad of a Trump Fan,” is a surprisingly sensitive portrayal of a South Carolina man who laments the loss of “character” in public life, and yet likes the way Trump has “upset the apple cart.” In contrast to typical liberal portrayals of Trump supporters as racists, Friedman’s song describes a voter who is justly angry at the political system. (The song includes a dig at former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.) The man confesses to being a “redneck,” but overcomes the racism of his boyhood to support the removal of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State House — even as he embraces the flag as a private source of historical memory and pride.
Listening to the song, one can hear echoes of Swados’s influence, especially the emphasis on lyrics and precise storytelling, which the melody enhances but does not overwhelm. Like Swados, Friedman respected difference, seeing his characters’ humanity beyond any political and social divides.
As with many artists, sadly, Friedman’s work may only be more widely known after his death. But nevertheless, his music will continue to enrich us all.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.