Michael Friedman's Accomplished Score in Unknown Soldier Is Trapped in Nonsense
The late composer's memory is let down by collaborators Daniel Goldstein and Trip Cullman at Playwrights Horizons.
When an artist dies, there is, inevitably, a subsequent exhibition of their "final" works, often finished by other collaborators. After lyricist Fred Ebb's passing in 2004, Broadway saw three of his unfinished projects put on over the ensuing decade, finished by longtime partner John Kander and others to varying degrees of success. The late playwright Edward Albee, meanwhile, avoided public scrutiny of his long-talked drama Laying an Egg by ordering all of its manuscripts destroyed in his will. With the New York debut of Unknown Soldier at Playwrights Horizons, we've begun the parade of composer Michael Friedman's "last" musicals, but co-writer Daniel Goldstein and director Trip Cullman have let his memory down.
The main character is Ellen Rabinowitz (Margo Seibert), a fortysomething gynecologist who has discovered a photo in an old magazine of her grandmother Lucy (Estelle Parsons) as a young woman (Kerstin Anderson) on a picnic with a World War I soldier who has lost his memory (Perry Sherman). Ellen knows little about the origin of this image — the resentful Lucy died without telling her ward anything — so she enlists the help of Andrew Hoffman (Erik Lochtefeld), a librarian at Cornell University, to help solve the mystery.
Traversing the 20th century, Unknown Soldier then explores the bourgeoning flirtations between unhappily married Ellen and equally unhappily married Andrew, and the emotionally unstable Lucy's seduction of the eponymous unknown soldier.
Friedman, who died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 41 in 2017, contributed a typically accomplished score that at once contains his thoroughly distinctive voice and a sweeping classical texture that feels relatively new for him. There's even a pair of songs (beautifully delivered as solos by Lochtefeld and Seibert, respectively) that I would feel comfortable calling two of the best musical-theater ballads of our young decade. This is an album that I'd be very happy to listen to alongside The Fortress of Solitude and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, mainly so I didn't have to think about Daniel Goldstein's incomprehensible book and lyrics (the latter of which, to not completely blame him, Friedman also contributed) and Trip Cullman's perplexing staging.
Unknown Soldier is a story built on piecing together a puzzle, but building that puzzle has outsmarted its surviving creators, who give us a clutter of tone, style, and Brechtian distance that undercuts the emotions on both sides of the proscenium. Messy sexual politics dog both principal storylines; the most glaring occurs when Lucy takes advantage of the soldier's amnesiac state to get herself pregnant. The main characters are female, and yet they all seem like products of the male gaze (the only women on the immediate creative team are the musical director and the projection designer). No one seems to know that sugar doesn't melt into water; it dissolves (listen for that lyric). On a more basic level, it's slow, hard to follow, and bewilderingly designed, with one of the most weirdly proportioned sets (by Mark Wendland) that I've ever seen.
The performances are all quite good; in addition to Seibert and Lochtefeld, Anderson is extremely convincing as the delusional Lucy, while the 92-year-old Parsons, who never met a line she couldn't earn a laugh on, is delightful as a Lucy whose feelings have hardened with age and time. They and the music salvage this woebegone production, which proves that sometimes it's just better to let sleeping shows lie.