Cabaret

Interview with
David Friedman

by Jonathan Frank

For a while, it seemed like you couldn't go to a cabaret show without hearing a song by David Friedman. His songs, such as "Listen To My Heart," "We Live on Borrowed Time," and "I'll be Here with You," have become modern cabaret standards as well as staples for countless benefit concerts. His career encompasses much more than that, however. He has worked as a conductor on Broadway, for several Disney movies, and currently for his own oratorio, King Island Christmas. He has produced albums for Nancy LaMott and Kathie Lee Gifford. He scored the film Trick, and did the choral arrangements for many of Alan Menken's Disney projects. He is currently at work on two shows, which hopefully will end up on the Great White Way (knock wood). David has won two MAC Awards for his songs, as well one for Recording of the Year for the Nancy LaMott album, Listen to My Heart. He has received both the Bistro Award and the Johnny Mercer Award for Composer of the Year, and his oratorio, King Island Christmas, won both the Frederick Loewe Award and Dramatists Guild Award. I have enjoyed singing David's songs for many years now, and it was a real pleasure to get the chance to talk to him.

Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, David. It's funny ... we have been corresponding for years via letters and email, but this is the first time we've actually talked verbally!

David: About time! (Laughs)

J: Yes! Because now I can pose all those deep, penetrating questions I have been dying to ask!

D: Oh-oh! Such as?

J: Well, first of all, I knew you primarily as a songwriter, but when I got your press kit I learned that you started out as a conductor on Broadway. I knew that you arranged the choral sections for a good number of the Disney films, but I didn't know you conducted as well. Did you start out as a songwriter, and the other things ... the conducting, the arranging ... came out of that?

D: No, songwriting was last. Songwriting is the most terrifying thing to me, because you are really laying your heart out there. I have been writing since I was about 20, and at first I wrote in secret and never showed anybody. I was a person who was very concerned about making a living, so I conducted.

My first career was as a coach and a teacher. When I got to Broadway, I conducted five Broadway shows. Then I took Melissa Manchester out on the road with Song and Dance and afterwards, I realized that I really didn't want to do that any more. Then Alan Menken asked me to do all of his Disney movies, and so I music directed the Disney movies and did the vocal arrangements for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Hunchback. I was asked to write the music for Aladdin and the King of Thieves, and then I got tired ... I realized that I wanted to focus on my own stuff. So I gradually phased that out. Composition is definitely what I'm born to do, and it came last.

J: Sounds like your career has undergone a practical evolution.

King Island Christmas
Song Clip Click for Marin Mazzie singing
"The Gift of Trouble"
in RealAudio
D: Yeah, and it always changes. I find that my career keeps shifting; I keep doing the next thing and it keeps growing. I've done a lot of it myself. I wanted to produce Nancy LaMott's albums, so I created my own record company. I publish my own music. I'm creating my own songbook. For some reason it works that way for me; I'm very independent. And that probably has cost me in terms of worldwide recognition and finances but I am a completely free artist. I can really just do what I want to do. And that obviously is very important to me. Because I haven't wanted to give it up.

J: I don't know ... that sounds like a wonderful thing to me.

D: It really has been amazing in that way. And the Nancy LaMott albums ... that was a fantastic thing we had. Then when she died, her family moved in and we had all this trouble ... I became unable to do it with any sense of freedom, which is why Nancy's albums aren't out there anymore.

J: Is there a chance that they will be out again?

D: I don't know ... there's always a chance. I fought for years and spent a fortune fighting and never got anywhere. You should never say never, but some really incredible things would have to happen.

J: So it's improbable versus impossible.

D: Every time I make a move, even though I have the right to do so, I get irrationally stopped. So it's just become too painful, too difficult and too costly, and it finally got to the point where I had to say, "Enough! I have to let this go!" If Nancy is up there and wants it to happen ...

J: I thought she got married at the last minute to prevent all this from happening!

D: That did not prevent it, unfortunately, it helped cause it ...

J: Well, on to happier topics then!

D: Yeah!

J: I'm still glad that you are still producing records. Are you working on Kathie Lee's new album?

D: No. That's a pop album, and I have nothing to do with it. Kathie and I started a record company and we did her album, Born for You, which I love! It was like doing one of Nancy's albums ... it's so true, so pure, and Kathie did the best singing of her life on it. It's a gorgeous album; it's like the soundtrack of her life. She sings "Help is on the Way," on it, she sings a song that we wrote together called "Only my Pillow Knows" and it's a gorgeous album.

I actually don't like to produce albums. I hate producing albums, as a matter of fact, because I'm an obsessed mixer and I can't leave it alone. Everybody hates me during the process, but they love me when the album comes out. I mixed Kathie's album for 800 hours! It's worth it, because you end up with a fabulous album, but I don't like to do it too often because it's distracting from my writing. And it becomes an obsession! So it's very rare that I produce an album. I haven't produced an album since Nancy died, but this one was worth it.

J: How did you get involved in the movie Trick? I was so surprised when I popped that movie in the VCR and saw your name and heard your songs!

D: I love that movie! Jim Fall is an old friend of mine. He was the director, and years ago he came up to me and said, "When I make my movie, you're going to score it." And I said "Yeah, right!" Then he came up to me and said he was directing Trick. I really understand that film and that sort of isolated, painful and yet hopeful situation of thinking you are never going to find love and then having it come to you in such an unusual way ... I just love that film.

J: I had to watch it a couple of times so I could catch all your musical quotes in it.

D: Yeah, I had fun sneaking stuff into the nightclub scenes! (laughing) I figured some cabaret pianist would be banging away some of my hits!

There are a lot of songs that aren't mine in that movie, by the way. I just wrote the score and the final number, "Trick of Fate. "I didn't even write "Enter You;" that was written by the author.

J: Do you have any other films coming up?

D: I don't. I haven't been pursuing that. I've just been doing my big theater projects, which take years, and writing a song here and there. I've written several deeply personal songs this year, which I really love. Some of them came out of intense sadness and difficulty ... this has been an extremely difficult year for me personally, but it spawned some great songs. And that's sort of the hidden blessing.

J: It's interesting ... all of your songs, even the most tragic of them, are always hopeful. That's what I love about them.

D: That's what people always say to me, and I agree. As a person, I'm not that hopeful, but somehow the hopeful part of me reveals itself through my songs. People have said to me that I would have bigger hits if I wrote wrist-slitting songs about how 'I would die if I don't have you,' but that's just not what I have to say.

When Laura Branigan recorded one of my songs, I went to Hollywood and thought "Great! I'm going to be a pop writer!" But although I could write those kinds of songs, I didn't want to. When my writing really started to take off was when I made a decision that I would write only what I wanted to write, and if ten people wanted to hear it, that's fine. And if 10,000,000 want to hear it, that's fine too! As a result, I may not be the most famous songwriter in the world, but you know a David Friedman song when you hear it. And it took me a long time to appreciate that.

When I was working on Nancy LaMott's company, I had somebody come and run it for me. He was a very competent businessman, and he would bring all sorts of project offers to me. And the question I would always ask him was "Is this something that you would be proud to stand up in front of the whole world and say 'I put this into the world?'" If it's not, don't do it. So I'm trying to have everything that I put into the world be something that I'm really happy I put into the world, and which makes a difference to the world in the way I want to make a difference.

J: May I take this moment to say that your choral work on Hunchback was incredible and helped make it one of my favorite Disney movies. I can't wait for it to come out on DVD!

D: Thanks! That was really fun because we did it in London with a hundred-voice choir. Beauty and the Beast, for instance, had 16 people singing 16 times over. So it's sounds like a chorus of 256, but it's really 16 people. For Hunchback, we tried that and it didn't work ... we needed this live, gigantic choir. So we went to London and I put the fear of God in them and said, "This is Disney! And I need singers who can sing high D's, hold them for 18 seconds, and do it 60 times!" And I got there and that chorus was overwhelming!

You know, when I actually talk about my life, I realize, "Wow! I have been busy!" It sometimes feels like I'm not doing anything ... (Laughs) I love how busy I am now ... I'm enjoying rehearsing the show I'm currently working on, Nicolette and Aucassin. When you do something like that, you think "Wow! I sat in my little room and wrote this! And now look at all these actors, musicians, designers and directors who are doing all this stuff on my behalf!" It's a very heartwarming feeling.

J: What is Nicolette and Aucassin about?

D: It's based on a famous French love story from the 13th century which is actually called Aucassin and Nicolette, but the producers reversed it because they thought Nicolette was more pronounceable! (laughs) It's a wonderful musical that I wrote with Peter Kellogg. It's being done at the Westport Playhouse through September 9th as a pre-Broadway tryout and we're very excited about it. We're hoping to transfer to Broadway in the spring. Chuck Cooper and Bronson Pinchot are in it.

J: Is this the first musical that you have written?

D: No, I have a musical called Goodbye and Good Luck, based on a Grace Paley short story, which we are going to do this year. I also have King Island Christmas, which is my Christmas Oratorio, and there are 20 different productions of it this year. Thomas Z. Shepard produced a recording of it for us, and we have a lot of Broadway stars on it: Marin Mazzie, Chuck Cooper, Paolo Montalban ...

J: What is King Island Christmas about?

D: It's a true story and based on a children's book called King Island Christmas that was written by Gene Rogers, who is sort of the Dr. Seuss of Alaska. It was brought to me by the librettist, Deborah Baley Brevoort, who lived in Alaska for years.

There's an island in the Bering Sea called King Island. It's a little dot on the map and is the tip of a volcano that basically goes straight up from the sides. You can't walk around it, you can't dock on it, and 150 people lived there in houses on stilts on the side of the mountain. Every Christmas, a ship called the North Star used to come to King Island and bring a priest so they could celebrate Christmas, and the supplies that they needed to get them through the winter. And the North Star had to get in and out before the ocean froze.

Since the ship couldn't dock, the way that they got the priest and supplies to the island was with these boats called 'oomiaks' which are gigantic and made of walrus skin. It takes 15 people to carry them. This one year, the ship came and there was a storm, so they couldn't get the oomiak to the ship. They noticed that the gulls were flying towards the lee side of the island, which meant that the weather must be better on the other side of the island. So they radioed the ship and asked them to go to the other side of the island. And the entire community of the island carried this gigantic boat over this sheer mountain, which had never been done before. They brought it to the other side, got the priest and the supplies, and crossed back over the mountain and celebrated Christmas. So it's a story about how a community can do something that a single person can't.

J: Where is it being done?

D: It's being done in Eureka, California, which is one of my favorite productions. They've created something called The Oomiak Foundation. I write and direct the Duke University Children's Hospital Benefit every year and there was a little boy who was from Eureka, California who was flying twice a month to Duke for chemotherapy. And his parents created The Oomiak Foundation to raise money for children who have this problem with transportation. So they are doing a production of King Island Christmas to kick off The Oomiak Foundation and they will do it every year as a fundraiser.

It is also being done in Juneau, Alaska, in Indianapolis, at Papermill Playhouse in New York, at Duke University, in Virginia, in Florida, in Dallas ... it's all over the place.

J: How can one get a copy of the King Island Christmas recording?

D: It's not available in stores yet, but it's available at Amazon.com.

J: Great! Now, what is the best way for people to contact you either about putting on King Island Christmas or to get songs?

D: The best way is to e-mail me at midder2000@aol.com. I have seven songs available as sheet music, basically all the Nancy LaMott songs except "Your Love," plus "My Simple Christmas Wish." I'm working on a songbook, because I have started a new thing ... for the first time I did an evening of my songs at The Firebird where I sang everything. It was really successful, and I was very happy with it. So I'm going to do it again in Eureka and Indianapolis when I go out for the King Island Christmas productions. I've been doing a lot of studying singing, and I'm thinking of recording an album containing all my old war horses and putting out a songbook at the same time. Amanda McBroom has been helping me with that ... we actually wrote our first song together the other day ...

J: Ooh ... that's definately one for me to get!

D: So I'm moving myself and my songs out there a little more. It was really fun doing the show and I realized as I was doing it, that there is no seam between my songs and myself ... they really are me. It's not like I'm performing or entertaining; I'm just singing stuff that I really believe. So I feel very comfortable ... well, I'm not comfortable singing in front of people yet ... that's going to take another 100 performances (laughing).

I don't think of my songs as "Hey! I've got to get this song cut and it has to be a big hit in the industry," I think of them as there to be something and to move people emotionally. And if I move the people who are sitting in front of me when I'm singing them, then I've succeeded. And if my song changes somebody's life or helps them through something, then that's what they are there for.

J: I was talking to some friends about your songs, and we found that the words we used to describe them were ones like 'inspirational' and 'spiritual' ... not in a religious way, more like meaning the spirit within.

D: Thank you! That's how I think of them. And it's interesting, because it's not as if national 'inspirational/religious' people are going to figure out what to do with my songs. But I feel that they come to me from elsewhere. In the show I did, I mentioned that people often say to me "You wrote such-and-such a song ... you must be so deeply spiritual, and so comfortable and relaxed," and I always say "If you think I 'trust the wind,' you're out of your mind! " (Laughing) But what I add to that is that as time goes by, I realize that I do trust the wind. And that I often write my songs for myself.

I just had a big surprise birthday party, and all these spectacular people like Liz Callaway, Anne Runolfsson, and Kathie Lee Gifford sang a concert of my songs to me. And I heard these songs, and I went "Oh! That's a good piece of advice ... maybe I should follow it." I feel like those pieces of advice are from elsewhere and pass through me and are what I represent. I'm happy that those songs come to me, and come out of my own life and experience.

And I've learned to understand the value of that. I remember I was talking to my friend named Judy Wicker, who is my metaphysician; my spiritual advisor. I got a letter from somebody who said that they were about to kill themselves, but they listened to a song of mine and it saved their lives. And I was in an idiot place, where one gets when one is worrying about their career, and I said "Well, that's fine! But did I win a Grammy this year???" And she said, "Every time you get a letter like that, or a call from someone who says that your song moved them or changed their lives or something like that, write down $10,000." And I started doing that, and found I was a multi-millionaire very quickly.

In the music industry, we value large success, and try to figure out what 'they' want, sell ten million records and have a hit. And I realized that while I would like that, that it's not what my writing is about. And if I start making it about that, it becomes impure. So more and more I find myself just writing songs, I don't even think about where they are going to go, or who's going to sing them, or if they will make money. I just write them and hope they find their way to their highest good.

J: But you have had success in the music industry. Your song "Your Love" was recorded by Diana Ross and was a multi platinum hit ...

D: Yeah ... I mean those things happen, interestingly enough, but I know a lot of people who have tremendous commercial success and they go directly for it. And there's something that has always been difficult about that for me. It's an interesting line that I walk ... the AIDS crisis has done a lot for my songs and made them proliferate, and my songs have contributed a lot to that cause as well. But it's not about "Oh yay! I can get a hit song." It's "What can be my personal contribution?" And what I can do is write a song. And if that song gets well known, fine ... but that's not the purpose of it. The purpose it to get it known so it can do its job.

I'm not totally altruistic ... I've always had great career ambitions. But it has to come out in an organic way. There's a wonderful expression, "What you take by force you have to hold by force." So if you push yourself out beyond where you are supposed to be, there's this pressure, this force that's there. I hope my songs reach the people they are supposed to reach, I hope they give me a career so I can write more songs, and so I can participate with people. And so far they seem to be doing that at a nice level.

J: And when you write them, send them my way, since I love singing your songs!

D: Thank you!

David Friedman's songs have been recorded by many performers, including Laurie Beechman, Bobby Belfry, Laura Branigan, Charles Cermele, Maurice Clarke, Jonathan Frank, Kathie Lee Gifford, Sammy Goldstein, Alix Korey, Lina Koutrakos, Nancy LaMott, Lee Lessack, Bill McKinley, Byron Nease, Joanne O'Brien, Diana Ross, Joan Ryan, Chris Williamson, and Bill Wright. There is also a album available through and benefiting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS entitled I'll Be Here With You.


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