‘Brilliant,’ 41 and Lost to AIDS: The Theater World Asks Why

Published by the New York Times October 11, 2017

By Michael Paulson

Michael Friedman couldn’t make it to Minneapolis this summer. Rehearsals were beginning there for his new musical, but he was homebound in Brooklyn, trying to regain strength after a series of H.I.V.-related infections had landed him in the hospital.

So Mr. Friedman, a hyperkinetic and much-admired young songwriter with two theater jobs and a head full of projects, improvised: He would sing the score by phone to the show’s music director, who would then teach the songs to actors portraying high school hockey players and their overeager parents.

When the phone sessions began, it became clear there was a problem. Mr. Friedman didn’t have enough lung capacity. He could only get through four or five songs before needing a rest, or to fetch oxygen.

In his final weeks, hospitalized and unable to talk because he was on a ventilator, he grabbed pen and paper instead. He wrote fully and furiously, lifting the pages to communicate. Notebooks piled up beside his bed. His hands were stained with ink.

He died on Sept. 9. According to his family, it was just nine weeks since his doctor told him he had tested positive for H.I.V. He was 41.

Mr. Friedman’s death from complications of H.I.V./AIDS has rattled the theater world, both because he was seen as among the brightest lights of his generation and because it shocked those who had come to see H.I.V. infection as a chronic but manageable condition, at least for those with health care.

“It feels like a brutal reminder of another time,” said Jonathan Marc Sherman, a playwright and friend. “It’s going to be a long time for a lot of us to wrap our minds around this one.”

Best known for the 2010 Broadway musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” Mr. Friedman leaves behind several uncompleted shows, including a musical adaptation of “All the President’s Men” — a project he had excitedly presented in June to the book’s receptive authors, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Now his friends and family are struggling to rewind the events of the summer, asking what they, or Mr. Friedman, could have done in response to signs of trouble.

“I wish I could have done more,” said the director Michael Greif (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “Rent”). “I wish I had known more. I wish I could have interceded more. I wish that I could have found a way to let Michael let me be a better friend to him, and I regret that I wasn’t able to do that.”

Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, where Mr. Friedman worked off and on for 20 years, called his death “a real warning shot across the bow for anybody who thinks this disease isn’t deadly any more.”

“It just killed one of the most brilliant and promising people in the American theater,” he said.

‘Things Were Getting Better’

Mr. Friedman had a new job this year, one seemingly perfect for a musical-theater obsessive. He was the artistic director of Encores! Off-Center, an annual New York City Center summer program that presents short-run concert revivals of Off Broadw

ay shows.

“The guy was an encyclopedia,” said Anne Kauffman, who met Mr. Friedman in 1999 at the Williamstown Theater Festival, and who he chose to direct his first Encores! production, “Assassins.”

“He wanted his pals there — it felt like, we had been children together, and now he’d got a grown-up job, and he was like, ‘Hey, do this with me’,” she said.

Tall, gangly and gay, he was an outsized presence — exuberant and emotional, witty and irreverent, opinionated and self-doubting. “When he was at City Center, you knew he was in the halls,” said Arlene Shuler, the performing arts center’s president and chief executive.

But it was also obvious to his collaborators that he was not well. Always thin, he now seemed gaunt. He complained of recurrent gastrointestinal trouble.

Most disturbing, there were purple splotches on his face. Several people who saw him early this summer said they thought the spots looked like the lesions associated with Kaposi’s sarcoma, but then dismissed that thought.

“Of course the first thing you think of is KS, because of all those images from the ’80s, but then the other part of you is, ‘It’s 2017, so of course that’s not what it is; he has some other issue’,” said Trip Cullman, a director and close friend. “I was very concerned, and would try to bring it up as much as I could, but I also knew how much he valued privacy, and didn’t want to be pushy. I obviously very much regret that now.”

In mid-July, Mr. Friedman made it to the first two performances of “Assassins,” but with obvious difficulty.

“The day of the opening, we walked up five stairs, and got to the top, and Michael was completely winded,” said Sam Pinkleton, a choreographer and the associate artistic director of Encores! Off-Center. “Then he pulled me and others aside and told us that he was diagnosed positive. My gut response was, I know a lot of people who are H.I.V. positive, and this is not what they’re like — this is somebody whose body is in the process of being cannibalized.”

On July 14, Mr. Friedman showed up for a meet-and-greet with the cast of a second show, “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” and then went straight to the hospital.

“He said he had H.I.V., he was going to the emergency room, and could I bring him a phone charger,” recalled Daniel Goldstein, a director and writer who also befriended him at Williamstown. “They had caught it at a rather advanced stage, but the drugs were working, and we all thought things were getting better.”

Mr. Friedman, who had health insurance as an employee of the Public Theater, where he was an artist-in-residence and director of an audience engagement program, had known he was H.I.V. positive only since early July, when he was tested by his primary care physician, according to his sister, Marion Friedman Young. He began taking antiretroviral medications that month.

His first hospital stay lasted 10 days, before he was sent home to recuperate. His immune system had been compromised, but his friends and family were hopeful that over time he would make a recovery. By text, he kept friends updated on his progress. By email, he was outlining plans for next summer.

“Every part of me expected him to break through the door of City Center, with an IV hooked up to his arm, shouting something, and the fact that he didn’t frightened me, a lot,” Mr. Pinkleton said. “This was somebody I’d watched be an aircraft carrier for 10 years, and he turned into a baby bird.”

Eamonn Vitt