Michael Friedman on Herbert Hoover, Andrew Jackson, and Porn
The composer currently has two big projects in the works: Here's Hoover! The Historic Herbert Hoover 2014 Comeback Special and Pretty Filthy, a musical about the adult film industry.
Like the protagonists in his most recent show, The Fortress of Solitude, it seems that Michael Friedman has superpowers. What else can explain the massive volume of work the composer has pumped out in the last two years? In addition to the musical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's novel (which just ended an extended run at the Public Theater), Friedman has contributed music and lyrics to Love's Labour's Lost, Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, and The Great Immensity.
Now, he's reuniting with his Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson collaborator Alex Timbers for another rock musical about a misunderstood American president: Herbert Hoover. Originally called Hoover Comes Alive, the show will receive a workshop production at Abrons Arts Center under the title Here's Hoover! The Historic Herbert Hoover 2014 Comeback Special (December 5-21).
Friedman plans to stick around Abrons for the month of January, when the theater will host Pretty Filthy, downtown investigative theater company The Civilians' musical exploration of the adult film industry.
TheaterMania spoke with Friedman about his busy schedule, his radically different artistic partners, and the bipolar nature of the American presidency.
Why a musical about Herbert Hoover?
Les Freres Corbusier [Alex Timbers' theater company] has done a lot of investigations into presidents, especially presidents whose current reputation is a little shady. The thing about Hoover is that he presided over a catastrophic event in American history. The parallels between his presidency and the last decade of American history, in which we watched government become more ineffectual and economic systems spin increasingly out of control, are really exciting to us.
The show is billed as a comeback concert. How does Herbert Hoover come back from having a reputation as one of the worst American presidents?
Some historians would like to change his reputation a bit and counteract some of the legends that have grown up around his presidency. It's a comeback tour and a setting-the-record-straight tour. From Hoover's point of view it's setting the record straight. I don't always agree with Hoover. In fact, I often disagree with Hoover. Since it's Hoover trying to tell his own story, I think audiences can tell where he's setting the record straight and where he's trying to change what actually happened.
Aside from Jimmy Carter, Hoover is the longest-serving ex-president in American history. Do you think it was difficult for him to watch the country transform over those thirty-one years from the laissez-faire policies of Harding and Coolidge to the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson?
I think he was kind of into it. Some of the strongest policies of the Roosevelt administration are adaptations of things that happened under Hoover. He did not have the power, strength, and vision that FDR had and I think that was an enormous source of frustration for him. Unlike Jimmy Carter or John Quincy Adams, his late career is not his best time. The era right before his presidency is his strongest time. There's something unhappy about watching him as he becomes increasingly isolated and reactionary. The young Hoover had real vision. He lived the American dream and his activities during World War I were extraordinary. He's also one of the presidents legitimately born into real poverty.
Very much like your last musical president, Andrew Jackson. Have you found them to be more similar or different?
Both are interested in telling the story their way. Jackson shoots the storyteller in the neck and Hoover fights against the prevailing view of what happened in the twentieth century. At the same time, they're very different. Andrew Jackson got stuff done. A lot of that stuff was really problematic. In terms of executive power being exercised aggressively, however, Jackson is up there with FDR, Lincoln, and to a certain extent George W. Bush. That was not in Hoover's personality.
How do you juggle the different styles and working habits of your collaborators?
I would put it another way: How do they put up with me? I'm lucky to work with people who do. Getting to go from one project to another keeps you fresh at moments where you might be dried up.
You are premiering the porn industry-centered musical Pretty Filthy with the theater troupe The Civilians next year. How much fun have you had researching for it?
I wish I could say that porn sets are fun. Sometimes they are. They're also really boring. Shoots take forever. We had a truly memorable time in the San Fernando Valley and San Diego. I saw some things I never thought I would see. It was really about meeting people who opened my eyes about a lot of things I'd never thought of before. That was really crazy, exciting, and weird. That's the part I always love in a Civilians process — that you get to wander into a world that you knew very little about intimately. By the end, you're fully immersed.
You've previously stated that you have a hard time coming to terms with the label of "composer." Have you gotten over that?
I guess I have. I usually say I'm a "composer/lyricist" or that "I write music for shows." Because I get to collaborate and work in theater, which is its own strange world, I don't actually say I'm a "composer." I'm a little more at peace not bursting into giggles when saying what I do for work. Maybe I'm just getting old and finally having to accept the facts.