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Tales of the Beautiful City

Composer Michael Friedman talks about The Civilians' exploration of Evangelical communities in the company's new show at the Vineyard Theatre. logo
Michael Friedman
(© Tristan Fuge)
"What's going on in the Evangelical communities in America is very important politically and culturally to what's going on in America generally," says Michael Friedman, the composer for The Civilians' This Beautiful City, which begins previews February 3 at the Vineyard Theatre after previous runs at the Humana Festival, the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, and the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.

The piece, scripted by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, is culled from and inspired by a series of interviews that the New York-based avant-garde troupe -- whose previous works include the critically acclaimed Gone Missing -- conducted in Colorado Springs in 2006. "We couldn't have picked a better place to do this project than there, partly because of the way the community works, and partly because while we were there was such an explosive time."

A large part of that explosiveness had to do with the Reverend Ted Haggard, who was ousted from his pulpit at the New Life Church in November of that year after admitting to having sex with a male prostitute (and is now back in the news again thanks to new allegations of consensual sex with a young man). The scandal is part of the Civilians' play, but Friedman says that it's not what the play is about."

"It's used as a kind of catalyst event, rather than the main story. We would've followed New Life anyway, no matter what happened. What we set out to do was to take a portrait of a city in which the presence of the various evangelical churches has been particularly noticeable, and really learn about the whole community. The lead character in our show is Colorado Springs. We followed three churches: New Life, Emmanuel Baptist Church, which is the largest black church in town, and a small church called Revolution House of Prayer, which during the time we were there almost went out of business. We also followed people who were campaigning during the election, particularly about Referendum I, which was about affording rights for same-sex couples."

Friedman says the previous runs of the show were all very useful. "Each incarnation tells us new things," says Friedman. "In L.A., we were particularly interested in shaping the second act. We tried some new material, and while much of that has made it into this version, a lot of the structure has been changed. I've also added a new song in Act One, and replaced another in Act Two."

During the recent New York rehearsal process, even further changes were made. "It's amazing working on a show where the story we were following keeps going, and where the atmosphere of the country has changed so much while we've been performing," says Friedman. "We have tried to keep the show within the timeline (2006-2007) that we were in Colorado Springs. But even that story changes when looked at through the prism of the last year. It's not as much updating the show to the present, as making it sharper and tighter in the 20/20 hindsight we now have."

Stephen Plunkett, Brad Heberlee, and Emily Ackerman
in This Beautiful City
(© Craig Schwartz)
Friedman's songs incorporate some of the actual language used in the interviews, while also spanning various musical styles including cowboy songs, worship rock, and country & western. "My biggest question was how do I write music that responds to what we're doing without feeling like what I'm writing is being The Civilians responding," says Friedman. "I really wanted to stay within the Christian point of view as much as possible, which is why almost every song has taken an interview to its heart. I don't know any other group that uses music quite as dogmatically as a tool for its documentary theater. The music stylizes the situation and shows we're taking liberties with the text. We're trying to capture something real from the experience artistically, not only holding up a mirror, but also trying to say something."
But according to the composer, the message of This Beautiful City varies depending on who you talk to. "Different audiences read this piece differently," he notes. "While there are certain things we want to get across, we also want to leave some of the questions raised open. Different people come in with different perceptions, and rather than try to create a show in which everyone has the same reaction, we tried to embrace that. I'll be interested to see what New Yorkers think -- after Prop 8 passed, Obama has been elected, the economy has changed so much, and with people like Rick Warren back in the news, and a new focus on churches as a support system in hard times. It'll be exciting."

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