In this musical by Michael Friedman making its New York debut 30 months after his shocking death from AIDS at the age of 41, it would be impossible not to think of him from the very first song. In “The Great War,” a young girl named Ellen (Zoe Glick) sings conversationally about what she’s learned about World War I for a school report. Then suddenly the lyrics, still simple, turn profound:
I think sometimes you see a picture
or hear a song
or read a letter
and a person that’s forgotten comes alive for a moment
The 16 songs in “Unknown Soldier” do make Michael Friedman come alive in all their eclectic glory. They are pointed or playful or full of passion, recalling the composer of works as different and distinct as the anarchic rock blaster “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the gentle, soulful “The Fortress of Solitude,” and the spontaneous scores that accompanied the many documentary musicals Friedman helped put together as a founding member of The Civilians theater troupe.
But there are also both a picture and a letter in “Unknown Soldier,” on which the plot hinges, and I find it much harder to argue that the show as a whole, co-written with Daniel Goldstein, comes as alive as the music.
The show taps into so many common experiences – stumbling upon a family photograph; recalling a lost love; grappling with memories — but weaves them into a story too far-fetched and convoluted to wind up fully satisfying.
Young Ellen is in her grandmother’s house in Troy, New York in 1973 – which we soon discover is one of the three time periods in which the story unfolds. Young Ellen discovers an old newspaper clipping that shows a photograph of a beautiful young woman having a picnic with a soldier. She asks her grandmother Lucy (the unparalleled Estelle Parsons) whether she is the young woman in the photograph.
Lucy, a cantankerous old lady, refuses to answer and walks away.
Thirty years later, Lucy has died, and Ellen (Margo Seibert), now a 41-year-old unhappily married gynecologist, has returned to the house in Troy to clean out the place. She stumbles onto the photograph again. Via e-mail, she contacts the archives at Cornell University to help her solve the mystery of the photograph. An archivist named Andrew (Erik Lochtefeld) replies, and after some flirtatious email exchanges, gets personally involved as full on detective. (He too, we eventually learn, is also unhappily married.)
What they piece together bit by bit occurs in 1918, when the young Lucy (Kerstin Anderson) meets a soldier in Grand Central Terminal, the day before he is going to be shipped overseas. They get married. Not longer afterward, she is informed that he has died overseas.
Or has he?
A soldier with amnesia is discovered wandering around in Grand Central Terminal, not even knowing his own name. The doctor decides to call him Frances Grand (the Grand because he was discovered in Grand Central. Francis (Perry Sherman, appropriately handsome and blank) is taken to a mental institution in Ithaca, New York. Lucy begins to visit him, thinking maybe he’s actually her husband.
That’s the basic set-up, which took a while to get into focus (although nowhere near as much time or effort as the somewhat similar simultaneous multi-generational saga, Anatomy of a Suicide.)
The confusion of the story is in sharp contrast to the crystalline cleverness and beauty of the songs. We first meet Francis when he sings the song “This Is A—,” which reflects this amnesia by having him unable to remember simple words, and failing to finish his sentences.
When Andrew wants to get personal with Ellen, and asks her out for a milkshake, she sings the witty ditty “a milkshake is never a milkshake.” When Francis is written up in the newspaper, the chorus sings
It’s so so tragic
And yet romantic
He’s our favorite amnesiac shell-shocked celebrity
But the music is also at times genuinely romantic, as when Francis and Lucy sing a duet of operatic intensity under the Grand Central clock. In an inspired flourish by the design team, the clock has no hands, and doubles as the moon. This feels like part of the creative team’s effort to convince us that “Unknown Soldier” is a timeless meditation on memory and love and loss. And we do end up feeling that way, but mostly because we’re thinking of Michael Friedman.
Book and Lyrics by Daniel Goldstein and Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman, Directed by Trip Cullman and Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
Scenic design by Mark Wendland, costume design by Clint Ramos and Jacob A. Climer, lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Leon Rothenberg, projection design by Lucy Mackinnon, hair wig and makeup design by J. Jared Janas, co-orchestrator Marco Paguia, music director Julie McBride, music coordinator Tomoko Akaboshi, stage manager Lisa Ann Chernoff
Cast: Kerstin Anderson as Lucy Lemay, James Crichton, Zoe Glick as Young Ellen, Emilie Kouatchou, Erik Lochtefeld as Andrew, Jay McKenzie, Jessica Naimy, Estelle Parsons and Lucy Anderson, Margo Seibert as Ellen, Thom Sesma as Doctor, and Perry Sherman as Francis.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Unknown Soldier is on stage through March 29, 2020