Sue Matsuki interviews David Friedman on the success of his new Off-Broadway musical Desperate Measures.
Congratulations on the success of bringing your show Desperate Measures to Off-Broadway! How exciting! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview.
Reading the show description…
“Inspired by Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, this madcap musical that tells the tale of Johnny Blood, a handsome young man whose life is in danger over a saloon brawl. Set in the early 1890’s, Johnny must put his fate into the hands of a colorful cast of characters including a wily sheriff, an eccentric priest, a authoritarian governor, a saloon girl gone good and a nun out of the habit as they all struggle to decide Johnny’s fate. Laws are broken and hearts are won as they try to find justice in a world that often doesn’t seem just.“
I’m pulled by this last line…”…as they try to find justice in a world that often doesn’t seem just.”… Any intended connection to the current world order?
As I like to say, “Any resemblance to any current political figures is purely intentional.”
Mike Nichols said that in order for a comedy to really catch the public’s attention, it has to be not only funny, but have relevance to something that resonates with people’s lives today. Well, this is a musical about a misogynistic, narcissistic governor who unjustly accuses someone of a crime but agrees to pardon him if the accused’s sister, who is about to become a nun, sleeps with him. You figure it out. What’s interesting is, people come the first time and just laugh their asses off, but somewhere in there they realize, “Hey, this is about something more than that.” I think that’s the reason we have so many people who come back 3, 4 even 10 times.
I suspected as much and did actually go to this place when seeing the show the first time which is why I asked this question. I am also curious to know if doing a farce was the original idea and how did the unique way of writing this show, in a Shakespearean rhyming pattern and couplets, come about? Each song is like a sonnet. Were you just sitting around a table and someone said, “Hey, let’s make everything rhyme?”
My collaborator Peter Kellogg was a Harvard English major, so he is really literate and smart. “Measure For Measure” has often been called Shakespeare’s “problem play,” in part because it doesn’t know whether it’s serious and moralistic or funny. Somehow Peter felt that it was an obvious choice to set this in the Wild West. Originally it was not in verse. Though it did well in some regional productions, we felt it needed something. We have another show called “Aucassin & Nicolette” (which we just presented in a reading in New York – after 3 really successful regional productions we’d like to bring it to Broadway) and that show is in verse, so Peter thought, “Why don’t we re-write it in verse?” We did a trial production out of town and the reaction was extraordinary. That production, plus current events making the show so relevant, really caused it to catch on.
Sometimes people are afraid of seeing something that rhymes, thinking they won’t understand it. But this is country-western rhyme. It only makes the show funnier and more understandable. One of my favorite things, which has happened many times, is that I will be standing in the lobby at intermission and I’ll hear someone say…”Ya know? I think everything rhymes.”
If anything, to me, this should make people run to see the show rather than have any reservations about everything rhyming! Also, because of the way the music presents the lyrics, and because it’s in a country feel, I think it makes it easier to take in and understand and yes, funnier!
The “wordsmitting” is genius and, as i said above, the way your music allows this pattern to be understood tells us a lot about your collaboration with co-writer (Lyrics and Book) Peter Kellogg…can you talk to us a bit about how the two of you came to this being the show we are seeing today and about your relationship and collaboration?
Peter and I have written 5 shows together and we always work the same way. Peter hands me a complete script and lyrics, I write nothing for a out 4 months during which time we discuss and discuss, I ask a lot of questions, “Why is this here? I don’t understand this. I think this could be strengthened or changed.” Then, when we have the arc and I understand where we’re beginning, where we’re headed, I begin to write rather quickly. We go back and forth a lot, tweaking and changing and when we feel we’ve got it we put it on its feet. Inevitably we learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t work when we do a reading, and we keep going back to the drawing board until we get it right.
Writing country was fun for me on this. Country makes sense to me, it’s about heart and story. And I spent a good deal of time in Nashville so I know the genre. I always like to write music last, because I create melodies based on the inflection of the way we actually speak. I think this is what makes my songs singable and emotionally accessible and understandable.
You may have a whole other career in country music, David! So, how and when did this project begin and how long did it take you to get it from book to Off-Broadway?
As with many musicals, it’s been a long pull. We did this at the NYMF Festival, in its non-rhyming form, in 2006. Then we had productions in Dallas, Ft. Worth, Buffalo, Seattle, Wisconsin and Montana. We put it into verse about 4 years ago and did it at a tiny theater in Connecticut called Spirit of Broadway. People came up to see it and loved it. We sent it to the York Theatre, they hooked us up with our fabulous director, Bill Castellino, we did a reading and as soon as we did that the York moved heaven and earth to get us on their schedule as the opening show. It was a mad rush to gather the funds and get the production together but we did it. The reviews were raves, and the show seemed to hit a real chord between the Me Too Movement and the election of our current President. Then Pat Addiss, our producer, walked in, saw it, looked me in the eye and said, “This is the best show I’ve ever seen. This show is going to be a hit if I have to die a pauper to get it there.” Pat has been such a blessing, the rare producer who truly puts her money where her mouth is. Her passion for the show, her joy and commitment, are amazing. She brought two other main producers on with her, Mary Cossette and Willette Klausner who have also been extraordinary.
I have learned from my songwriting that rather than chasing the fashion, I write what I write and let the fashion come around to me. This show is more timely than when it was written and I’m grateful that we were able to get it on at this time where it can make people laugh about things it’s hard to laugh about, while addressing some of our greatest concerns.
Was this vision of Director/Choreographer Bill Castillino for this show “simpatico? with what you and Peter wanted and envisioned? For all our readers who may want to direct some day, talk to us a little bit about how Bill was brought on to Direct and what this process was like.
James Morgan at the York Theatre suggested Bill and we loved him when we met him. What’s brilliant about Bill is that, yes, his vision completely jibed with what we saw for the show, but we never could have seen half the things he came up with. With a great director like Bill, he really talked to us about what we see and what want, but then we were able to hand it over to him and trust him to give us so much more than we’d asked for. Jim Morgan did the set design and he and Bill are old friends and long-time collaborators so they work beautifully together and feed each other’s creativity.
I saw it at The York Theater in backer previews, have there been any major changes from that production to the current one at The New World Stages?
The show is very much what you saw at the backers audition, but of course it expanded in so many ways when it went into production. We also made quite a few small but significant changes for New World Stages. The theater is twice as big, so the stage is built out more and this allows us to open things up. One of the challenges of this show is that it’s a comedy but it’s based on a man being sentenced to death, so although the opening number is really spoofy, we wanted to make sure people knew they could laugh. Peter wrote a new prologue for this version which the brilliant and hilarious Lauren Molina does, and the audience unmistakably knows that this is funny.
The entire cast at The York had some of the best voices and comic chops I have ever seen in a show…EVER! Is it the same cast?
All except for one. Emma Degerstedt who played the nun at the York signed to do “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” just before we found out we were moving to New World Stages. The brilliant Sarah Parnicky created the role for New World Stages, and our director, in his wisdom, completely re-rehearsed the show so she could really create her part afresh. Her being in it influenced every aspect of the show and every relationship. It’s the same show, but different.
Congratulations on The Drama Desk and Outer Critics Awards! The reviews were all stellar! Did this make it easier to secure the backers needed? Tell us a little bit about this process…how does one get a show to Off-Broadway? Also, how does one keep a show on Off-Broadway?
Well, the awards came when we were already rehearsing at New World Stages. But I would imagine that the reviews, the word of mouth, and yes, the awards all contributed to people wanting to jump on board. Off Broadway is a real challenge. It doesn’t have the budget to publicize the way Broadway does, so we very much depend on word of mouth. Articles like this, on line stuff, and mostly people seeing the show and telling other people to see it, are what keep the show running. Plus very committed producers, very creative and innovative publicity people, and a cast and crew willing to do anything to keep the show in the public eye. I have never worked with such a lovely, joyous, talented group of people. There is real love among all of us who are involved in the show, and it shows onstage. What’s really encouraging and exciting is how night after night people come out of the show raving and let me know. So I would just say, if you haven’t seen this show and want to have a wonderful time, laughing your head off about not only the just plain silliness of it, but about the issues of the day, come on down. I was talking to David Hancock Turner, our brilliant music director and orchestrator (A Princeton graduate. I move among a lot of smart people – all I did was graduate from New England Conservatory) and he was saying how Freud has said that laughter is often our best way to release the tension of things we’re really upset about.
We just have to look on line to see that so many of us spend so much time being really angry and disillusioned about the current state of affairs in the world and especially n this country – this show lets us release that tension with laughter. Come see us. I guarantee you’ll have a great time. And then tell your friends.
What is your favorite reviewer quote? What review sums up what you think this show is?
I think Peter Felicia’s review says it best. Here’s a link.
Your body of work is massive and impressive. You have been in this business for a long time and have many successes on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in film writing/scoring, Disney, as an award winning songwriter, you were Nancy LaMott’s mentor and dear friend…how many shows and songs have you written? Do you know?
The shows I’ve written are Desperate Measures, Aucassin & Nicolette, Nellie Bly, Money Talks (at the Davenport Theatre last year) and Lincoln in Love with Peter Kellogg, King Island Christmas with Deborah Brevoort, I contributed half the music to Kathie Lee Gifford’s Scandalous, I’ve written songs for The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Bambi II, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, and Trick, I’ve written 100 songs(we’re just doing our hundredth now) with Kathie Lee Gifford for the Today Show’s Everyone Has a Story segment, and I don’t know, definitely hundreds and hundreds of songs for everyone from Nancy LaMott to Diana Ross. And of course, I did my Off Revue Listen To My Heart – The Songs of David Friedman. One of my greatest joys was producing all of Nancy LaMott’s CD’s and having the privilege of knowing her and working with her so closely. I also conducted 5 shows on Broadway and conducted the films Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontis and The Hunchback of Notre Dame for Disney. Lots more, but too much to name.
WOW! You can go to David’s website (see below) for a full list of all his many credits. How does this Desperate Measures experience compare to all your other successes…how is this show different?
This is my first long, successful run in New York. And as I said above, everyone involved is not only so extremely gifted, but talented beyond measure. I feel so supported and honored that this extraordinary group of people has chosen to do my work and support me in the way they do.
Please tell us a bit about your next project “Aucassin & Nicolette”?
Aucassin & Nicolette is about a French, Christian count who falls in love with his black, Muslem serving maid in the year 1224. We know, but they don’t, that she is actually the long lost daughter of the King of Carthage. It’s a musical, in verse, about prejudice, race, sex, money, and it’s very funny. We’ve had three really well received out of town productions, I won the Barrymore Award in Philadelphia for music, and we’re working on bringing it in to Broadway. John Rando is directing a reading and we have a truly all star cast.
So another not so thinly veiled, politically topical show (she says with tongue in cheek!) It sounds great! We’ll all look forward to your Broadway opening!
OK…I must know…I Googled you and there are many David Friedman’s so…I looked for “David Friedman, Songwriter, NY” and found you are Middermusic.com…why Midder? Does this have any special meaning?
When I tell people to look me up I say, “I’m not the Economist. I’m not the lawyer. I’m not the percussionist”…..and one friend wrote to me and said, “It’s amazing how you write all this wonderful music and still have the time to be the ambassador to Israel.”
That’s very funny!
MIDDER was the name of my first pet dog (baby talk for Mister). I loved that dog so much I decided to name my publishing company and my record company after him.
Awww…that’s so cute! I knew there had to be a story to this name! In closing…what would you like our readers to know that I may not asked you?
I always love it when my work moves people in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Lauren Molina, who plays Bella, the “saloon girl” with the heart of gold in our show, told us that she was talking to a young guy and he said, “I was at my therapist’s office a few months ago and I was so depressed and suicidal that she told me that as soon as our session ended I was to go straight to the hospital and check in. I told her I couldn’t because I had “Desperate Measures” tickets that night. She said, ‘Alright. But the moment the show is over I want you to check in.’ I went to the show and when Conor Ryan sang the song ‘It’s Good To Be Alive’ something clicked in me and I realized that I had a real desire to live. I called my therapist after the show and told her, ‘I’m good.” Nothing gives writers and performers more gratification than knowing that their work really made a difference.
If you haven’t heard of Desperate Measures, if you’ve been on the fence about seeing it, if you don’t know what it’s about, treat yourself. Take a picture of yourself in the “jail” in the lobby. Post on line about it. And write to me to tell me how you liked it. You’ll make my day.
If you would like to know more about this amazing composer, producer, performer and speaker, or to learn how to study with him, purchase his music; book him to lecture or learn more about The Thought Exchange, please visit: www.MidderMusic.com
To buy tickets to see Desperate Measures please visit: www.desperatemeasuresmusical.com
THANK YOU David for your time and insight. You are a treasure to all who know you and certainly to the music community!