Michael Friedman on “Paris Commune” at BAM

Jeremy Shamos in The Civilians’ Paris Commune at the Public Theater. Photograph: Carol Rosegg.

Composer Michael Friedman, a founding Associate Artist of The Civilians who is well-known for his work on the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, talks about music, politics, and collaboration through the lens of Paris Commune, The Civilians’ newest show. With Paris Commune, The Civilians have applied their investigative approach to theater to the little-known story of the 1871 Paris Commune, the first socialist revolution in Europe. Their theatrical retelling of this short-lived event in history–a moment when art, culture, and politics formed a volatile core of daily life–touches upon performance as a political act, and is nothing short of timely given the current upsurge in direct democratic movements. Paris Commune, which Friedman co-authored with Artistic Director Steve Cosson, is at BAM Fisher from October 3-7 as part of the 2012 Next Wave Festival.

Paris Commune has been a work in progress for years—what’s the backstory, and why is it happening now?

Paris Commune has never officially premiered until this fall. It’s hilarious but true. It’s a project we started working on early in The Civilian’s life and have kept coming back to.

About half the pieces I’ve worked are based on ideas from books I didn’t read in college. I found this article by an NYU Professor about performance in the commune. She described this concert that I’d never heard of before, where the people of Paris took over the city and drove out the government. They took over the Tuileries Palace and threw this amazing crazy concert, and then the next day the army came in and killed everyone and the Tuileries burned to the ground. It felt like this amazing event that no one knows about. That concert’s at the center of our show.

We worked on Paris Commune in NYC, and went out to La Jolla Playhouse [CA], and then took some time off. Oskar [Eustis] got interested and gave us a lot of dramaturgical insight and we worked on it at The Public LAB [2008]. We got a lot further with the show and felt very confident about the script, but then factors in the difficulty of production and working on more than one project at a time made us put it aside. Finally, when we were talking with Rob Orchard at ArtsEmerson (Boston) and Joe Melillo at BAM last year, it seemed like a great time to bring it back.

Paris Commune seems extraordinarily resonant politically at the moment.

What’s been amazing about this piece has been the ways in which its politics are almost like a prism for looking at the political situation. The last time we’d worked on it at The Public was at the beginning of the Iraq War during the Bush Administration, before the economy had turned the way it did, before the war, before the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, before all these events that make the show now feel very different politically than it did when we started it. That said, the current, current political situation is almost amazing, and going through the material from the Paris Commune through the lens of Occupy, thru the lens of The Arab Spring, is almost uncanny.

Tell me about the music in Paris Commune.

It’s all period music, although I did a lot to it. I’ve translated and adapted the lyrics, and adapted the music.  I think some of what I’ve done might make the writers turn over in their graves. My biggest goal was to make songs that were dangerous in 1871 still feel dangerous today.

The amazing thing about the Commune is that there were a lot of artists in its government, the most famous being Courbet the painter, and two songwriters. One of them, Eugène Pottier, wrote the Communist International during The Commune and two of his songs are in our show. The other is Jean Baptiste Clement, who wrote the song we call The Cherries of Spring. He kept writing songs while he was in government, while the Commune was happening, while people were getting killed in the streets, and his songs are almost journalistic. Some of the best evidence we have about what happened is through these songs, because he’s clearly looking out the window and writing about what he sees. This is the era before real news photography or the many other ways we now have of documenting and recording events.

Was this a difficult project to research?

As a subject, this is still the revolution people don’t know how to grapple with it. That said, because France has such terrific libraries and because the Commune, being an open government, kept unbelievably well documented transcripts of just about everything, there’s lot of material. There’s a crazy amount of evidence of what was going on day by day because every single meeting was scrupulously documented. You have these public meetings where people are getting up, much like community meetings in Brooklyn, where you realize that this woman doesn’t exist in history except here and only here. These are the kind of people who are generally anonymous in history and we’re really interested in the individual stories, because that’s how you know what really happened. To us, there’s something very moving and exciting about these people. And our play is really about that.

How do you reconcile your version of musical theater with the more mainstream definition?

I don’t call what we’re making musical theater. I like to call it “music theater” or “shows.” To call something a musical can lead to very specific expectations that misleads or narrows the audience. But musical theater is as old as theater. The oldest theater we know—Greek theater—was extremely musical, and also extremely political. Opera in the 18th and 19th century was unbelievably political; Verdi and Wagner were banned. The question of whether the tiny little form we call Broadway musical theater, which existed on a very tiny piece of real estate in the 1940s, whether that is relevant or political is a separate issue. Theater is going to survive and will involve music and will be political, and that to me is the bigger question.

Do you call what you do activist theater?

I’m really interested in the ways that theater can reflect events and make people think about politics or society. Activist theater should make people take to the streets, right? And I’m not sure that theater makes events happen, but it holds up a mirror. I think we [The Civilians] are better in reflecting than taking to the streets. I think the question of this show is: “At what point do you realize that you have to do something? At what point do you have to seize control of your own life?”

This is the first time you’ve written a script?

This is the only show we’ve worked on where I’ve been an author of the actual script. I met Steve [Cosson] in 1999 and we’ve worked on seven or eight projects together. We have a very good relationship, even though it doesn’t get any easier over time.  In our shows, we’ve always been very much in each other’s business, so I don’t think this show has felt that different from other collaborations. In a show like In the Footprint, I was getting on him about getting the speeches in the wrong order, and he was getting on me about needing a song that says this, not that.

Has co-authoring a script been that different from only writing the music in a show?

The biggest thing people don’t understand is that categorization—“best book” or “best music”—is such bullshit. Everyone knows the hardest thing to do in a musical is the book. Which is to say the book is always the problem because the composer creates problems: you show up with a song completely fucks up everything. Even though everyone loves the song, it leaves the poor bookwriter having the characters do nine things that make no sense. The book’s by everyone, which is to say the good parts are usually by the bookwriter, and the problems are by everybody.

I think collaborating on the music and lyrics for a show is not that different than writing a play. Sometimes I sound like I’m trying to take credit for books, but it’s the opposite. I know how hard I make the lives of the bookwriters I work with. What songs do is so powerful in a simple way, and what bookwriters have to do is so complicated, and they’re left so much less room than they would have in a regular play. When you write a musical with someone, you have to have the same skills of knowing how to place songs and structure something. When you get good at that, you understand that the structure is partly your fault and is a shared responsibility. You have to be an equal partner in understanding that this is a structure of songs and speech, of different forms of narrative.

The Paris Commune works because it uses so many kinds of narrative: it uses letters, journals newspapers, songs, poster, public speech, and public meetings all as ways of telling that this event took place. It’s like a collage. That’s why I think the “awardization” for the kind of work I do has gotten out of control. What we do in theater is collaborative, and it’s depressing to see it compartmentalized. Everyone’s having ideas, and I’ve never worked on something I’ve been proud of where these elements didn’t come together.

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