The Undertaking Review: The Civilians Take on Death, Again

Death is well-suited to the stage, according to a philosopher quoted in “The Undertaking,” a play about death and dying written and directed by Steve Cosson, the artistic director of The Civilians. Actors playing Lear or Hamlet allow us to “practice” death, the philosopher explains; they are “ventriloquising” death for us. Death is such a common theme and occurrence in live dramas that theater might as well be called one of the fatal arts.

Given this prominence of death in theatrical life, and The Civilians’ own track record,  “The Undertaking” winds up an underwhelming undertaking.

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Appreciating Michael Friedman: Review of His 2011 Occupy Wall Street Musical

In honor of Michael Friedman (September 24, 1975 – September 9, 2017) here is my October 29, 2011 review of “Let Me Ascertain You: Occupy Wall Street, Stories From Liberty Square,” a one-night only musical presented at Joe’s Pub by The Civilians, the theater company Friedman co-founded. (It’s astonishing this was only six years ago, no?)

OccupyonStage1 There is the man who was laid off a year and a half ago as the creative director for a children’s television production company, and showed up at Zuccotti Park a day ago after being evicted from his apartment. There is the firefighter from New Jersey who has served Read more of this post

“Art is what survives from protest movements.” RIP theater composer Michael Friedman, 41

Michael Friedman
All the obituaries for Michael Friedman, who died at the age of 41 on Saturday due to complications of HIV/AIDs, will surely lead with his having composed and orchestrated the music and written the lyrics for “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a cheeky downtown turned Broadway musical that presented the seventh president as a genocidal rock star.
Yet anybody who witnessed his extraordinary collaborations as one of the founders of  The Civilians (“The Great Immensity,” “In The Footprint,” “Occupy Wall Street: Stories From Liberty Square,” and dozens more) or his musical adaptations, or his original music for straight plays from Shakespeare to Kushner, will understand how difficult it would be to sum up the talent of composer, lyricist, dramaturg, artistic director,  political activist and theater visionary Michael Friedman — and how great the loss his early death.
Below are some samples: videos and links to reviews.

The Song Makes A Space: Michael Friedman at TEDxEast

The last paragraph of my review of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson”:
…Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” largely works, because of Michael Friedman’s 13 songs. Played by a three-member band on stage and sung by Benjamin Walker and the rest of the large, capable cast, they are hard-charging, tuneful, inventive — and, unlike much of the rock on Broadway stages, theatrical. Friedman, who is most associated with the seriously engaged “investigative theater” company The Civilians, is making his Broadway debut…as a composer; he was a dramaturg for “A Raisin in the Sun.” He also has written the original music for this season’s revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” at the Signature Theater. Benjamin Walker and Alex Timbers…have been getting the ink for “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Michael Friedman is the member of the team I’d vote for.

From my review of Fortress of Solitude

“Everybody’s singing
A different song
But if they all fit together
Then they can’t be wrong,”
…sing a character named Rachel and various other members of the extraordinary 18-member cast, at the start of a musical that fills the stage at the Public Theater with pop, punk, funk, rap, and especially soul — a brilliant exercise in musical pastiche by Michael Friedman,

Friedman in conversation with Tony Kushner. (Friedman wrote the music for the revival of Kushner’s Angels in America)

Listen to his songs after the presidential election, The State of the Union Songbook


From the Playbill obituary:

Friedman had been working on a piece that musicalized the thoughts of primary voters from across the United States during election season. Each new song would premiere on The New Yorker’s Radio Hour; the magazine had also partially funded the project. “I definitely believe in the politics of music and theater and popular art,” Freidman told Playbill in 2016. “I certainly think they are a conduit. Art is what survives from protest movements.”


New York Times obituary.

The Way They Live: The Civilians Discover America At The Met

CiviliansWashingtonCrossingTheDelawareWhat does it mean to be an American?

The Civilians, the first-ever theater-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, finished their year-long residency with a flourish by addressing that question with their last show at the Met, “The Way They Live.”

The title comes from the first of more than a dozen works of art that the theater troupe selected from the Met’s American Wing,  projecting them one by one on the screen of the museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, and putting each cleverly at the center of its own scene or song. Each scene and song was based on verbatim transcripts of interviews both with people who work at the museum, and with people who were visiting it. A cast of seven portrayed the cavalcade of real people as they commented on or debated the work of art.

The result, which ran for just two performances (May 15th and 16th), was something of an illuminating and unusually entertaining art history lesson — akin to what I considered the best scenes in the recent Broadway revival of The Heidi Chronicles.  The seven original songs, in a range of styles from jazz to art song to Native American folk music, were a highlight. They were surprisingly well-crafted (given that they were based on transcripts) — and not just tuneful, but sometimes even powerful and moving, especially Kirsten Childs’s “Never” inspired by the painting “Dressing for the Carnival” by Winslow Homer (number 7 below), and Ty Defoe’s “In All Directions,” inspired by “End of the Trail” by James Earle Fraser (number 13.)  Overall, “The Way They Live” also offered a glimpse into the way Americans today think (or at least talk.)

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged, with caption.

One of the first things we learned in the show is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art created the American Wing in 1924 with a primary aim of acculturating the rush of new immigrants — teaching them what it means to be American. This seems less easy to define now than then, judging by the dissonant themes explored in the show, including racism, sexism, and jingoism.  That first painting “The Way They Live,” done by Thomas Anshutz in 1879, depicts a black woman and two young boys tending to a vegetable garden. The Civilians performer, portraying a curator the troupe interviewed, points out how angry they look, and that the painting was originally entitled “Cabbages” – which suggests something less than full respect for the people in the painting.

There seemed to be a consensus against the two sculptures by Erastus Dow Palmer, the first (5 Indian Girl, or the Dawn of Christianity) suggesting that conquering the Indians was for their own good, the second (The White Captive) promoting the idea that women want to be raped. (About the first one, one curator remarked: “Everybody says ‘Oh, she’s looking at her cell phone.'”)

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” is probably the most famous of the works of art selected, and it elicited a wide range of comments. One said: “In my 31 years here, I’ve taught that painting maybe 300 times, and it’s never the same.”  Another believed it has more to do with the era in which it was painted — 1851, the period that led to the Civil War — than the era that it depicts. One saw it as representing what’s wrong with war, and preferred the Vietnam War Memorial for emphasizing what all wars are really about — death. “It’s overrated, I think because of its size.” One reported overhearing people saying again and again that its overriding emotion is hope.

“The Way They Live” was the third piece by the Civilians at the Met; the others were “Let Me Ascertain You,” a cabaret-style hodgepodge meant to introduce The Civilians to the museum’s patrons, and “The End and the Beginning,” billed as  “romp through dying, death and the afterlife” at the Temple of Dendur, using transcripts of interviews with the  museum’s Egyptian art curators.  This first theatrical residency has been remarkable, a promising experiment that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, in part because each show had only a couple of performances.

Now, there have been other examples of collaboration between a museum and a theater troupe. The theater company Native Voices has been in residence at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, a museum of the American West, since 1999. But I am unaware of any collaboration that,  like the Civilians at the Met, has attempted to use visual art to create performance art — to translate one art form into the other. The possibilities that could emerge out of greater connections between museums and theaters — practical, economic, and aesthetic — are thrilling.

More information on the works of art:

The Magnolia Vase

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Madame X

Indian Girl, or The Dawn of Christianity

Dressing for the Carnival

Portrait of the Artist by Mary Cassatt

The Last Moments of John Brown