With a score by the late Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson songwriter Michael Friedman and Daniel Goldstein, who also penned the musical's book, Unknown Soldier follows Ellen Rabinowitz, who discovers a photograph of an anonymous soldier while cleaning out her grandmother's home and ultimately uncovers some tangled family lore. Ghostlight Records released the Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording of Michael Friedman and Daniel Goldstein's Unknown Soldier for digital purchase and streaming September 24, what would have been Friedman's 46th birthday.
Following a 2015 world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival, the musical had its New York premiere at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons in February 2020, ultimately having its run cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Goldstein pulls back the curtain on creating the show with the late Michael Friedman, who passed away between the work's world premiere and Off-Broadway run, in this exclusive track-by-track breakdown:
Hi listeners. Unknown Soldier is a musical that Michael Friedman and I wrote because we got a commission from Nicky Martin at the Huntington. Neither Nicky nor Michael are with us anymore, so there is always a certain melancholy I encounter when I listen to the record and the music and story contained within. But what I intend to do in the text below is give you a small insight of what it was like to make this musical with him over so many years—and what it was like to re-make it in Michael’s absence. Now that we have a cast album out on Ghostlight Records, I will listen to the album straight through and type as I go. Like all reminiscences, it will be imperfect and incomplete and maybe too long, but I hope it will give those of you who didn’t know Michael a little more of a sense of who this incredible human was.
1. “The Great War”
Okay so firstly, just have to say that Zoe Glick, who plays Young Ellen, is an extraordinary actor. She came into the room for her audition and we were all knocked out. She is a wise grown up human trapped in the body of tween. Her wisdom is unmatched by her peers and only a girl like Zoe can go toe to toe with Estelle Parsons, who plays her grandmother. (Also she can COOK!) This song came out of a session with Michael and Trip Cullman (our director and dear friend) where we were trying to find the simplest way to start the show. Michael was getting more and more frustrated and eventually took a stroll out of the room (with great force...) and soon after came back and said, so is what you’re saying I just need to write a better song? And Trip and I were like, well, yeah. So that’s what he did. This song sounds like Michael talked. His brain went all over the place and was intellectually agile with references to everything in the world and yet laser sharp with his point. “Sometimes you see a picture or hear a song or read a letter—and a person that’s forgotten comes alive for a moment. They can tell you a story...”
2. “The Worst Town in New York”
This song has been in the show in some way or other since the very beginning of our writing it. It used to be preceeded by a bunch of stuff that was really pointless but really cool research about World War One—but as Michael would say, “WHO CARES—just get to the people we want to get to.” It sets up the mystery of the show (we kind of relied on Titanic—the movie, not the musical) and in this epistolary fashion begins the story. The original true story that we based the show on took place in France, in a town called Albert, and it was described as a place that was once a magical place but had become a shell of its former self when manufacturing left. When we decided to set the show in the U.S., mostly so we didn’t have to have English lyrics with a French word thrown in every once in a while—do you do an accent? Don’t you? Nah, just change it to New York—problem solved!—I realized that Troy, New York is exactly that—a once thriving, glorious town that still has the shell of its former life (the steeples are everywhere), but is filled with ghosts. If you’re interested in that amazing place, I highly recommend reading Down From Troy by Richard Selzer, the biography of the writer and surgeon and his childhood in Troy.
3. “This is a...”
Trying to define the voice of an amnesiac was very challenging. We realized early on that if he spoke, he started to sound like Peter Sellars in Being There. It was fun to think about his memory disappearing around him like smoke, words hanging in the air and then crumbling. He almost has it and then... poof. Francis is a man who is struggling not just to remember who he is, but what the world around him is. What is the one thing that makes you who you are? Are you yourself if you can’t remember your history or anything about you? This song was a very early addition to the show when we were first starting to write together. I wrote this lyric in an office that I used to share with Sam Gold at his dad’s publishing company. Much of the early drafts of this show were written there. I sent it to Michael and he set it and we were on our way.
4. “The First Time”
The refrain “Today Will be Our Final Day” came from research that the boys sang that song as they boarded trains and left to go to the front. It seemed bleak and perfect, and so the lyric was borrowed and Michael wrote his own melody. The song itself has undergone many iterations. It started as “the first time” being each of four characters describing the first time they had sex, which for various reasons was fun—it was in the show at The O’Neill—but had to change. We then realized it needed to be Lucy’s origin story—as told to Ellen. So now we have this story as led by the truly remarkable Kerstin Anderson as Lucy Lemay (best character name ever). We used to have the soldier in the scene, but we quickly realized that if we saw the person she was falling in love with, we would think we knew what happened. And so she plays the whole scene out, and we become her love, her soldier, her lost love. This song features a technique that Michael likes to use which is when he would take a bunch of melodies that have nothing to do with each other and then sing them real loud until everyone comes together to sing the same thing at the same time. Usually when we’d rehearse this sequence he’d jump about the room and wave his arms to get everyone to sing harder and louder and then nod his head with great glee and satisfaction when the unison came—in this case “baaaack agaaaaain.” Beauty and unison out of chaos. It is one of my favorite moments on this record.
5. “Where in the World”
There used to be a version of this song where it was just the doctor and the nurse (a character that we cut after the Williamstown production—more on that later) but I couldn’t be happier with this version which I put together after Michael died, in preparation for the Playwrights production. The doctor functions as the consciousness of the outside world, and also the world inside our soldier’s head, and the chorus is society at large. These performers—Thom Sesma as the doctor, James Crichton, Emilie Kouatchou, Jay McKenzie, and Jessica Naimy—are a remarkable ensemble and function as one collective soul. Incidentally, “Is Fatty Arbuckle a sex fiend” is a lyric that only Michael Friedman could have written.
6. “The People Stare”
When you think of a Michael Friedman song, this is it—the descending bass line, the simple emotional melody. I sent him the majority of this lyric from that office, based very much on what it would be like for this amnesiac to go on a tour of various towns and try to understand who he is—to remember—by seeing if anything sparked a memory. Michael then took it and added the story about “Charlie and the light....,” a recurring memory that almost takes Francis to the place where he lost his memory—with that soaring melody—leading us back to the beginning where memory is only fleeting. I cannot deal with how gorgeous Perry Sherman’s voice is. He plays the title character, Francis. There are a few songs in the show that make me miss Michael especially. This is maybe at the top of the list.
7. “A Husband Takes Care of the Things”
So this is a song that was written after Michael’s death. Here’s the story. Before the last performance at Williamstown Theater Festival, Michael suggested that he and Trip and I sit down and have ice cream (at Lickety Split, natch) and talk about all the things we wanted to fix for the next time. It allows you to watch the final show and just be proud of, happy with, what we made and gave us a chance to question everything before we have other things on our minds. One of the main things was that we had to cut a character—the nurse. The actress who played her was terrific, which only showed us more so that she needed to go. Just as we get to know this young woman who has gone on a journey to claim the man she fell in love with, we go into two fantasy songs with two different characters that were delightful, but unnecessary. So we decided that we would cut her and the songs and dedicate that real estate to Lucy. Michael and I never got to do that rewrite together, so when we were thinking about re-making the musical, Mandy Greenfield from WTF gave me and Trip and Marco Paguia (our WTF music director and Michael’s co-orchestrator) a room to work out what to do. We cut one of the two songs and I took the other and rewrote the lyrics which became this song, the moment when we see Lucy realize that her husband is gone, a moment that she might have every morning as she lives in denial that her husband is never coming back, until she sees a newspaper that sends her to Francis. The solitude in that room as I sat there by myself and hand wrote new lyrics to Michael’s melody was the closest I had felt to him since he died, and the saddest. And the moment at the end where Lucy cries out for “John! John! John!” (Michael’s given first name) is all of us—in denial that Michael is not coming back.
8. “Worst Town (Reprise)”
This is another post-Michael addition. Trip felt like we needed a little check-in with Ellen, to see where she is and what her mental state is doing, and to remind us of what she’s questioning. It follows a new scene with her younger self, which I very much enjoyed writing for Margo—more on her later—and Zoe, who makes all of the jokes work always. Also, I have never eaten oatmeal cold out of the pot. Or at least not often.
The idea for this song came from a friend of mine who I went to Edinburgh with. He was hitting on a young woman who was hesitant to go out with a guy she’d met on the street and he said, “Okay we’ll get a milkshake. It’s just a milkshake, no big deal. How about that?” And so when Andrew shows up at her house, unannounced, he asks her for a milkshake, to lighten the situation. So then I wrote the lyric, “A milkshake is never just a milkshake” and the song was born. The list of complications—like the snapshots in “Run Lola Run” spiraling outwards to ultimate doom. I sent Michael a bunch of lyrics about how things were never what they purport to be and Michael wrote the rest, making it better all the way, especially one of my favorites, “Walk down the aisle, say I do, but then you think, wait, who are you?” It was, at one point, Ellen’s big song toward the end of the show, but it was replaced with “I Give Away Children” and during Williamstown, Michael brilliantly repurposed it for this spot.
10. “Do You Wonder”
Another lyric that began in the Sam Gold office. One two three four. What do you say when you don’t know what to say? Originally, it was very much a duet, but this is the place where Peter Sellersisms seemed to happen the most. So, it became so much more interesting to see moments of Lucy trying so hard to get him to say her name. Can we also just talk about these soaring melodies and string arrangements? This is the part that I always want to play for people who only know Michael from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and say “See? See? See what he can do?” Also—I am really obsessed with Kersten’s little voice glitch on “Say Lucy I love you”—it’s that kind of raw emotional life that makes this record so human and so beautiful.
11. “Andrew’s Story”
I wrote a monologue based on an event that happened to me a long time ago and sent it Michael with the note, “maybe there’s a song in here?” We wanted a moment when Andrew revealed something about himself to Ellen and I thought this might suit, but instead of just writing a song, Michael set the monologue, like it was a Civilians piece. I felt very vulnerable having this story out there, and also so honored that he set it like this, finding the phrases in the text that sang—“and I died a little...” It is the single song that is the hardest for me to listen to without crying. Erik Lochtefeld is the only actor to ever sing this song, and pretty much the only one to play Andrew. He is one of my best friends from Northwestern and he has been with the show since the first full reading at The O’Neill during the summer of 2011. His performance is remarkable on this record as it was on stage. The majority of this track is from his second take—the first one was so emotional and hard to get through—but we kept the very ending of the first. Erik would call himself a crybaby, but so am I, and it is the honor of a lifetime to have him sing our work and to call him a friend.
12. “The Memory Song”
We had two big deep emotional monologue songs next to each other and it felt like it was really too much big emotion, so we decided to split it up with a vaudeville ditty. It was based on an Eddie Cantor song I found on YouTube called “The Dumber They Come, The Better I Like Em,” which is amazing and pretty offensive. I sent Michael the simple lyric “I always forget the things I want to remember and remember things I’d rather forget” and he came up with the rest, showcasing his remarkable lyrical skills. It gives us a chance to talk about amnesia without talking about amnesia, but really it was just a chance for us to catch a breath.
13. “I Give Away Children”
This is the song that replaced “Milkshake” in this spot. Mandy gave us the note during a reading that it’s Ellen’s show and that her song wasn’t as good as Andrew’s, and we agreed. And Michael said, I have an idea—and then he came in with this song. He sat down at the piano and played it with no music just a sheet of lyrics, as was often his way. I had nothing to do with it. And I think that it is the single best song Michael ever wrote. The honesty and the brutal humanity of it all. And the counter melodies in the orchestration breaks my heart, especially the clarinet right at the top of the chorus. Margo’s performance of it, which I am SO sorry she had to learn for her audition, is remarkable in so many ways. Her ability to combine stunning vocals with perfect storytelling is a miracle. And in a song that takes up two full spaceless pages in the script, she makes it seem effortless. Also, Margo was once the favorite babysitter to my daughter—Gracie called Margo “Mardo”—and to Erik’s daughter Ellee. Making this show together was like spending our days with family.
14. “The Clock”
This is what Michael would call a secret reprise. Very little in this song is new material, but it sounds like a new song. As the complex story wound to an end, we wanted to spend some time inside the mind of our soldier to see where he was and to find out if he remembered anything at all. And all he remembers is the way his friends on the front dissolved into the rain, “like sugar into water”—the original title of the song—which was a phrase that jumped out at me from a letter I read of a soldier writing home, describing what the battles were like and what it was like to see men jump out of the trenches and be blown to bits. Seeing that day after day, no wonder it seems possibly a more apt way out to simply not remember. Trip’s staging of this moment was always a favorite of mine, with Kersten and Perry on opposite sides of a table that would be spun around—the lovers so close but yet never allowed to meet. A simple visual metaphor for an incredibly complex and hearbreaking time.
Michael and I realized VERY late in the process that we had written a reverse Odyssey—one where the Soldier is in Ithaca and Helen is the one on the journey to find him and bring him home. We realized this at the heaven that is The O’Neill, and Michael promptly went outside with his computer, sat under a tree and typed this song into Finale. He didn’t tend to compose on a piano. He could hear it and write it straight into the software. It’s also my second favorite song in the show, and the only other one that I had nothing to do with writing. Secondly, let me now take a moment to profess my undying love for Estelle Parsons. She agreed to do this show not once, but TWICE, which means that she actually liked it. The heartbreak in her voice when she says, “Oh my... oh my....” And who knew that she could sing so well!? There is no one in the world one would rather have read your words than Estelle, and you can believe that when she comes into rehearsal and says, “I have no idea what the FUCK that means,” you better believe you go home, pour some whiskey and get started on the rewrites. I love that we kept the letter that reveals everything in the recording—it was inspired by the climactic letter in the Hitchock-Wilder collaboration Shadow of a Doubt—and the orchestration in the moments coming out of it are my personal favorite. I don’t know how melody can break my heart like that over and over, but it does. Maybe it is the answer to the line, “Honestly John, or Francis, or whoever you are. I believe that you are the lucky one. Every day I lose you all over again, and wherever you are, blissfully, hopefully, you remember nothing.”
16. “The Ending”
It isn’t really a SONG per se, but it’s the ending of our show and it reminds me that John Michael Friedman turned to me one day and said, “Well you know what we have to do. We have to end the show with Grandma Lucy dancing in her bathrobe, right?” I wish that I could claim credit for that idea, for it is genius, but it was all Michael. His ability to get to the heart of it, that our unfulfilled wishes could be encapsulated with an old lady dancing a waltz with her young soldier—well, that was his genius. I think most days what it would be like if he were with us in the theatre at Playwrights, in the recording studio making the record even sharper with our brilliant album producer, Dean Sharenow, sitting here next to me telling me what to type or grabbing the computer to do it himself. At the end of the record, while watching Lucy dance with her young soldier, Andrew says “but that’s not what happened.” But Ellen, with the experience of having lived through much loss, wisely says, “I know... but isn’t it better?” Boy would it be better if he were here.