The Public Theater filled its entire Astor Place complex—from its stages to its lobby to its Library bar—on October 23 to celebrate the life and legacy of Michael Friedman, who died September 9 at the age of 41 following complications due to HIV/AIDS.
As the Newman stage welcomed several alums of the composer’s works to perform musical tributes, a live feed streamed the commemorations to the various venues around the building and online. Speakers, including Maria Dizzia, Sam Pinkleton, Greg Hildreth, and Anne Kauffman, shared their memories of their friend and collaborator and delivered readings throughout the rooms of the Public.
It was an appropriate arrangement, as Friedman was a mainstay of the Public Theatre; he served as an artist-in-residence, premiered multiple musicals there, and helmed the theatre’s Public Forum program. In the Shiva Theater, Associate Artistic Director Mandy Hackett recalled how he would search for a piano in every room to play. “There isn’t a room here he didn’t storm out of,” she added in a moment of levity.
The promise to continue loving Friedman rang throughout the halls. In his opening remarks, Artistic Director Oskar Eustis asserted, “We will—in learning to lose Michael—learn to continue to love him and make his energy continue, his artistry continue, his ideas continue, and all of our relationships continue.”
Executive Director Patrick Willingham noted Friedman’s plea for “radical inclusion,” and that mission continued as the Public celebrated the artist in song.
Performances included the vulgar and equally tender “Applesauce” from Pretty Filthy (featuring Rebecca Naomi Jones and Steve Rosen as a husband and wife who found love in the adult film industry); “Painting,” an introspective ode to art’s hold on the events surrounding us from The Fortress of Solitude, by Kevin Mambo and Doron Mitchell; the free-spirited “The Tuba Song” from the cast of his 2013 musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost as a reminder to celebrate the present (introduced by director Alex Timbers, who recalled his “creative first date” with Friedman that led to their Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and, eventually, their musicalized Shakespeare piece); and a contemplation on loss: Gone Missing’s “Stars,” performed by Michael Esper and members of The Civilians. Friedman’s collaborator on the musical, Steve Cosson, offered a juxtaposition that Friedman would often bring up to performers: “This is a breakup song; the guy is dumping someone and he’s using Plato as a justification. He’s a huge dick.”
Nevertheless, the performance carried a somber tone, as members of the investigative theatre company wiped away tears as they sang through the ballad.
In an ultimate representation of “radical inclusion,” the proceedings ended with a “great big lefty sing-along,” as Friedman was prone to lead at the Public’s Joe’s Pub. In saying farewell to Friedman, friends, loved ones, collaborators, and fans sang Friedman’s translation of “The Internationale” from Paris Commune, the Civilians’ exploration of socialist revolution.
“It’s the last hour of combat; let each stand in his place,” attendees sang. “The international will free the human race.”
Watch the full memorial service below.