If this raucous, uncivil presidential election doesn’t exactly sing to you, Michael Friedman may have a possible solution.
The composer, whose works include Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Gone Missing and Fortress of Solitude, has been spending the last few months following the campaign trail as it careers from primary to primary. In each state, he interviews citizens and voters, later transforming their testimony into songs.
The project is being supported and partially funded by The New Yorker, which airs each new song on The New Yorker Radio Hour as they come in. So far, subjects of the tunes have included a confused quasi-Trump supporter from Charleston, SC, who loved hunting as a child and whose family had a black maid; an undocumented Latino immigrant from Texas dealing the stress of leading a marginal existence in the United States; and an Iowa resident who grew up in a split household, with his father a Republican and mother a Democrat.
Before he’s done with the enterprise, Friedman hopes to have visited roughly 15 states, as well as both cities where the Democratic and Republican conventions will be held.
He said he had been in same room with Hillary Clinton, and had come across Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, but made no attempt to integrate them into the song cycle.
“I haven’t been asking people who they are voting for and the candidates,” says Friedman. “It’s much more about the state of the union. I’m not that interested in people with power. It’s mainly citizens.”
“I’m like the photographer who, once the speech is made, turns and looks at the audience,” he continues. “That’s what I’m interested in.”
The notion of following the election came to him after he and The Civilians—the experimental theatre group he often works with, known for their documentary-style productions—had a residency at the Metropolitan Museum. The group had the free run of the American wing of the museum, and were interviewing visitors, curators, guards and other people. At one point, Friedman interviewed someone about a famous Currier and Ives drawing from the 19th century that depicts an execution-bound abolitionist John Brown kissing the baby of a slave.
“It was one of those interviews where it was a bit of a gift,” says Friedman. “It started with a perfect exegesis of the painting, and then he started talking about his own life and Ferguson, and he told this very moving story about his experience as a young black man.” Friedman wrote a song using the interview in the next couple days and submitted it to actor Kyle Beltran, who had been in Fortress of Solitude. Two days later, Beltran learned the song, and the day after that he performed it at the Met as part of the Civilians residency.
“The immediacy of that experience was something I’d been missing in writing for musical theatre,” explains Friedman. “In musical theatre, if it goes well, it takes five years.”
He had already been talking to The New Yorker about collaborating on some sort of project. The two parties agreed a musical accounting of the fraught 2016 presidential election might prove rewarding. Nonprofit theatre companies Friedman has worked with in the past have lent help in the form of transportation, housing and connections to the surrounding community.
“Also they get to be part of this whackadoodle project!” jokes Friedman.
Once Friedman finds people willing to talk to him, he arranges to meet them for an interview.
“I’m a talky guy,” he admits. “But I just shut up and listen to people and listen actively. I really listen to what they are saying, and draw them out.”
Once he has his material, he gets right to work, sometimes writing a song on the plane ride home. Because the lyrics are taken verbatim from the interviews, and because, well, these are Michael Friedman songs, the compositions tend to be word-heavy, rhythmic and syncopated.
“The lyrics tend to spill forward,” he says. “Certainly, for anyone who thinks Michael Friedman songs have too many words per minute, these songs are not going to change their mind.”
Unlike much political music of the past, the songs don’t stump for a particular point of view. They are not partisan anthems. Rather, they tend to express the mental and moral quandaries of their subjects and, by implication, the puzzlement and chaos that has beset the nation.
“I’m less interested in the diehards,” says Friedman. “It’s pretty easy to parody people like that, and I’m mostly interested in the nuances of people’s confusion. And people right now are in a lot of confusion and distress about America. That’s across the spectrum. Something feels wrong.”
The songs are getting more difficult to write as the campaign tightens up, he says.
“I’m at a point in this project where a lot of themes are coming together, but they’re coming together in a way that’s tricky,” he explains. “As the election comes into focus, what the songs should be doing is also coming into focus. At first, it was, ‘There are 20 candidates. Do whatever you want!’ And now we’re down to two-and-a-half.”
Friedman does not know what he’ll do with the collection of compositions once he’s done with the project. He may present them into a revue, and he may not. He hints that he may perform some or all of them on Election Day.
Friedman isn’t certain whether he considers himself a political person, but he does think his art has the potential to be political.
“I definitely believe in the politics of music and theatre and popular art,” he says. “I certainly think they are a conduit. Art is what survives from protest movements.”