Gay Musical Director David Friedman Brings Anthems of Hope to Boston
Some of the most talented creative people in the performing arts fly just under the radar, doing their best work out of the spot light, behind the scenes, responsible for the success of famous productions, and supporting the work of some of our best known stars. Among these unsung heroes, one that should be on our radar screen, who has worked in the realm of musical theatre, cabaret, and film musicals, is composer/lyricist, vocal arranger, musical director, conductor, and producer David Friedman.
Those who do know Friedman, know him best as a songwriter, primarily story songs, ballads, and personal anthems, that get picked up by cabaret artists like Alix Korey, Lucie Arnaz, the late Laurie Beechman, and the late great Nancy LaMott, as well as renowned concert performers and recording artists, such as Barry Manilow, Diana Ross, Petula Clark, Kathie Lee Gifford, Leslie Uggams, Lainie Kazan, Laura Branigan, and Jason Alexander.
Fewer people know that he has been equally active on the Great White Way as Musical Director for the original Broadway productions of “Grease” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and Musical Supervisor/Vocal Arranger for “Beauty and the Beast,” a gig he got through his work as conductor and music arranger on the 1991 Disney film of the same name, along with conducting/arranging/scoring other Disney animated films such as “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and “Mulan.” Gay audiences will know the out songwriter for his original compositions written for the 1999 gay fave rom com “Trick,” most notably the song “Trick of Fate,” sung during the closing credits.
Though film and Broadway may have been Friedman’s most lucrative endeavors, it is his work as an independent songwriter that leaves the deepest and most long lasting impression. Such soaring anthems of hope and inspiration as “Listen To My Heart,” “Help Is On The Way,” “I’ll Be Here With You,” “We Live On Borrowed Time,” “Trust the Wind,” and “Just In Time For Christmas” resonate with singers and audiences alike, touching on our universal need for optimism in tough times. It is this collection of songs that Friedman wove into an Off-Broadway show, “Listen To My Heart,” that played Upstairs at Studio 54 in 2003, and has toured nationally and internationally over the past decade. Now, on the show’s 10th Anniversary, Wheelock College will present a free performances of Listen To My Heart on May 15, at a time when Boston most needs its messages of overcoming adversity through community and love.
As Friedman explains it, the show “Listen To My Heart” is intended to be an exploration of the writer’s process. “It tells my life story, not what happened to me physically, but what happened in my head,” explains Friedman. “It is an exploration of situations that happened to me that happens to everyone.” And because his messages are so universal, and strike such an emotional chord, the show often elicits intense reactions. “It is designed to be an unconsciously emotional healing experience,” Friedman affirms. “People cry in the second act all the time, and they are surprised. In Tampa, they had tissues all around the audience. Not to say there isn’t humor and hilarity, which there is, but it is also about love. I do tend to explore the pain in life and how it can be used for good.”
Ironically, Friedman is not an optimistic person, but is often quite serious and pensive about life. “If you think I think ’Help is On the Way,’ you are out of your mind,” exclaims Friedman. “I wrote it because I needed to hear that at the time, as much as anyone. I don’t write my songs, they write me.” In the show “Listen to My Heart,” Friedman sits at and sings from the piano, talking about life experiences or emotional states of mind that then lead to the creation of a song, and the other five actors on stage, in this production, LuLu Picart, Alison Burns, Fred J. Ross, Heather Krueger, and Craig Sculli, each play the voices in his head, and by singing one of his songs, convey the message he needs to hear at that moment.
A painful moment
One particularly painful moment in his life was the untimely and premature death of his muse, cabaret and recording artist Nancy LaMott, at 43 from uterine cancer in 1995. “It was just horrifying. I didn’t write for months after she died,” Friedman laments. “And then I was walking down the street one day, and a song came to me, and I had to go into a stationery store to write it down. And it shocked me that this song was coming to me, and the song was “Trust the Wind.” The whole meaning of the song shifted for me. It told me that when I write, I’m receiving inner guidance, which I need to trust, and my whole writing life changed after that.”
LaMott, a simple midwestern girl from Michigan, conquered the San Francisco cabaret world at a young age, and struck out for New York to make it even bigger, meeting Friedman there. Always battling illness, such as Crohn’s Disease, she struggled with hospital bills while living on a singer’s modest income. LaMott connected with Friedman’s songs in ways few other singers could, and her interpretations of his songs are often definitive. Friedman saw this, and not only continued to write songs with LaMott in mind, but created his own production company, Midder Music to produce the six recordings she made while she was alive, as well as two posthumous recordings, “Live at Tavern on the Green,” and “Ask Me Again.” “We lost her just as she was about to go over the top,” Friedman recalls. “She never had made more than $20,000 a year, and in her last year she made $65,000 and had $250,000 of bookings lined up.”
LaMott’s last recording, “Listen To My Heart,” was about to launch her to national fame. For the first time in her career, her songs were scored for orchestra, with orchestrations by Peter Matz, who orchestrated all of Barbara Streisand’s early work.
“Nancy was a remarkable singer,” muses Friedman. “She did all the studio cuts for ’Listen To My Heart’ singing only with a piano, but knowing the recording would ultimately be orchestrated, she sang with a fullness appropriate to orchestral accompaniment.” On that recording she sings three Friedman songs “We Can Be Kind,” “I’ll Be Here With You,” and the title song.
A musical connection
Though Friedman is Jewish (“I’m a cultural Jew, not a religious Jew”), he is heavily involved with the Unity Worldwide Ministries, where he met his partner of 11 years, Shawn Moninger, who is a Unity Church minister. “My spiritual beliefs are closer to Buddhism,” notes Friedman, “and Unity does not worship Jesus, but takes the teachings of Jesus and regards him as a teacher, and therefore is probably closer to Buddhism.”
Friedman’s involvement with Unity began from a musical connection, rather than a spiritual one. His friend, Broadway actor Norm Lewis, who was a Unity member, wanted to sing one of Friedman’s songs, “We Can Be Kind,” at a service, and asked Friedman for the music. Friedman offered to join him to accompany him on piano, and was surprised with the reaction of the congregation. “When I entered, I got a standing ovation, because they had already been singing my songs for a while,” Friedman remembers. “So then I started going to the services because it made me feel better, since it was not long after my partner had left me and I was a mess.” One of the directors, who noticed Friedman’s regular attendance, offered to hire Friedman to sing at one of their retreats about healing one’s heart. “At the retreat, I was sitting in a chapel, and I had this epiphany, ’Patti LuPone must have auditioned for ’Cats,’ but Betty Buckley got it, and that didn’t stop Patti,’” quips Friedman. “I realized then, I have a lot to offer. At that moment, Shawn walked in the door, and hit on me, and I responded. We’ve been together for 11 years.”
Moninger had actually met Friedman years earlier, though Friedman was unaware. It was at LaMott’s memorial service, while Friedman was still with his former partner, that Moninger said to himself he was going to be with Friedman. It is that kind of inner voice spiritual determination that Friedman now fosters through his own program called Thought Exchange, which Friedman uses to help others. “I think of myself as a healer, whether it is through music, workshops, or conversation,” says Friedman. In early May, in addition to giving a cabaret Master Class, Friedman was also at Wheelock College teaching teachers about Thought Exchange. All the proceeds from his master class, and teaching workshops in Boston will be donated to the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus and the Boston Unity community. “I went to college in Boston, so I have a great love for Boston,” declares Friedman.
Working with Kathy Lee
Another fan and major supporter of LaMott’s was Kathie Lee Gifford, who learned of LaMott through Friedman, though it was a circuitous connection. “I had a friend doing production for Regis and Kathie Lee, and she would call me in to be a house pianist for various singing guests on their show,” recalls Friedman. Gradually Gifford and Friedman got to know one another, and she learned he was also a songwriter, and asked to hear some of his music. He handed her a Nancy LaMott recording of his songs, and she remarked, “Who is that singer!” Gifford not only had LaMott on her show as a frequent guest, but she supported LaMott’s career through her cancer treatments, buying her expensive wigs during her chemo, and putting LaMott up in Frank’s and her country cabin to recover from harsh treatment sessions.
Friedman and Gifford bonded through LaMott’s ordeal, and became routine writing partners. Not long afterward, they began collaborating on a project, along with songwriter David Pomerantz, which ultimately became the short-lived Broadway musical about the life of early 20th c. radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, which closed after only three weeks December 9, 2012. “’Scandalous’ was Kathie’s baby, and I did the project because my friend Kathie Lee asked me to, and I enjoyed it,” asserts Freidman. “Audiences also really enjoyed it. And Carolee [Carmello] was amazing.” Carmello was just nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her vocally stunning performance as ambitious McPherson.
When asked whether he watches “Smash,” and whether it realistically reflects the process of creating and mounting a Broadway musical, he guffaws. “Marc Shaiman [the show’s songwriter] is perfect at capturing a style, and he has always had it,” pronounces Friedman. “I love seeing my friends on ’Smash.’ But it’s ridiculous. We love to hate it, but we can’t keep our eyes off it.”
Regarding the realism, he merely mentions the episode where the composer decides an hour before opening night that a new finale is needed, he writes it, orchestrates it, the star learns it, and performs it. “It’s not realistic at all. It’s entertaining, not the way show business is,” recounts Friedman. “When I wrote a new song for ’Scandalous,’ I handed them the song, and said, ’Can it be in the show tonight,’ and they look at me incredulously, and I say, ’They did it in ’Smash!’’ and they all laugh.”
Wheelock College will present Listen To My Heart, featuring David Friedman, on May 15 at 6pm at Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 The Riverway Boston, MA 02215. To reserve your free tickets, call the Wheelock Family Theatre Box Office at 617-879-2300.
From our media partner EDGE