Whether penning radio hits or conducting Broadway showstoppers, David Friedman has truly been a prolific force in the music industry, even if the bulk of his work was done behind the scenes.
Indeed, Friedman's brushes with some of the pop world's biggest and brightest names could fill a library in their own right, with tunes that have been recorded by the likes of Diana Ross, Barry Manilow and Petula Clark. His numerous collaborations with the celebrated Nancy LaMott have gone on to become the stuff of cabaret legend, while Disney fans will recognize him as the conductor for the beloved scores for "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," among others.
Come Oct. 22, however, the veteran composer, lyricist and conductor will take center stage once again at the New York nightspot 54 Below. As Friedman prepares for "Songs That Have Written Me," his first solo club act in over a decade, his enthusiasm is downright infectious -- all the more impressive given that "Scandalous," the new Broadway musical he co-wrote with Kathie Lee Gifford and David Pomeranz, is currently in the midst of previews, with an opening night scheduled for Nov. 15.
Friedman took time out from a packed schedule (which also includes promoting "A Different Light" and "Let Me Fly," two new albums featuring his own solo recordings) to talk to The Huffington Post about the new show, and why he feels more fulfilled personally and professionally than ever before.
The Huffington Post: Given that you're best known as a composer, writer and a conductor, how do you feel about performing at 54 Below?
David Friedman: I’m delighted that I was asked…the last time I did a solo club act was 12 years ago at the Firebird! It’s not something I do very often; I mostly write, and so it’s like, “Yikes!”
But I’m happy to do it also, because I have a new [take] on what my songs are about and what they mean to me at my particular age. So I wanted to [share] the revelations that I’ve had about what music is for me and how different it is from when I was younger. It was really about trying to be famous and trying to be successful and trying to get a hit…now my songs are really about the voice of experience speaking to me and through me.
How did you go about selecting your material for the show?
The show is sort of in two halves. I start with my more recent material…songs that really changed my perspective. My partner, Shawn Moninger, is a Unity minister…so I have a life that has a lot of new thought in it. So the songs that I start with are ones that sort of led me to that. And then I go back and do all the songs that people know and are coming to hear. I also tell a lot of stories about my work with Nancy LaMott and Laurie Beechman and Broadway and people I’ve worked with.
Most of the songs that really changed my life were about disasters in my life. I’ve lived a life that has periodically had tremendous "disasters," and every one of them has turned out to be something that really gave me direction and understanding in my life. So I chose the songs based on sort of the story of my life in the first half plus the big songs that I’m known for in the second half.
Looking at the show as a whole, is there one particular story or message you're hoping to convey?
Listen to the voice of spirit, however it comes through you, and don’t worry about the particular stuff and issues in life –- they are just sort of the mirror of what’s here to help you. I’d like people, as they listen to my songs, to get in touch with the voice that comes to them…it’s not a religious statement, it’s a spiritual statement, no matter what spiritual path you’re on. I’d like people to sit here and feel, "Hey, I’m OK," and to look into their own life and see how the spirit comes through them.
For me, it comes through songs. My show is called "Songs That Have Written Me," and I always say I don’t really know how to write a song, I know how to create a condition in which one is likely to come through.
What's the one song or segment in your show you're most looking forward to performing?
I’m not going to tell you! (laughs) There’s something that’s going to be great fun and I don’t want to reveal it; it’s not a big secret but it’s sort of what the show hangs on. In some ways, though, my show is like my baby, so I’m really looking forward to performing everything. I never know which song is going to touch me on a particular night.
Your collaboration with the late, great Nancy LaMott produced some truly incredible material. What was the experience of working so closely with her for so long like?
It was amazing. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience; she was my muse in many ways. Nancy was an amazing vehicle and I learned a lot from her. She was really a person who led a very troubled, difficult life and yet when she was onstage, she just sang and let all of her material pass through all of those challenges. I really loved working with Nancy, I tell a lot of stories about her in my show…and I must say almost stopped writing when she died [in 1995].
There was something just so extraordinary about her, and I feel very blessed to have worked with her…I generally say, “I just spread my arms and created a space for Nancy to do what she did.”
There seems to be a resurgence, at least here in New York, in cabaret and cabaret-style performances. What do you think it is about the form that makes it so timeless and so appealing for performers?
Cabaret is one of the smallest of the art forms, and because it is, there’s no corporate stuff at sake, there’s not big money at stake, there aren’t big critics at sake, so it allows for the brightest and most personal range of expression of any art form.
If you look at 54 Below for example, every night it’s somebody different doing something completely different. There’s nothing riding on it, so in a way, everything’s riding on it. I think it’s a valuable and precious thing. It’s the most human of the art forms.
You've had the privilege of writing music for a number of legendary artists, among them Diana Ross, Barry Manilow and Allison Krauss. Which current pop performer would you most like to write something for?
I would love it if someone like Michael Buble or Diana Krall would sing my stuff. I’d love to have Celine Dion sing one of my songs; I get letters from Susan Boyle fans asking when she’s going to record one of my songs. But my dream in life has always been to have Dionne Warwick sing something of mine; she was my idol from childhood. So that would be just a dream come true.
If you do this to have hits, you’ll going to spend most of your time feeling disappointed. You do it because you love it and you’re with people and you learn about yourself…then it’s a joyful career. So I really not to stress about things like that.
Do you get nervous when you’re asked to perform for an audience?
Oh yes! And people say, "What are you nervous about? These are your own songs!" And I go, "So it’ll be even more embarrassing if I can’t remember them!" I wouldn’t say I get stage fright, because everyone gets nervous on the stage. I define "stage fright" as having fear of fear –- you’re afraid of the way you’re going to feel on the stage. And I feel nervous, but it won't kill me. It's going to be friends in the audience -- no one's there to kill me.
What's next for David Friedman?
Well, "Scandalous" opens on Nov. 15, and that's very exciting. It'll be nice to have a hit on Broadway, but I'm just grateful to be working on Broadway. After that, we're walking on "Desperate Measures," which is a six-character, country version of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure." I have another book to write, I do a lot of lectures...my CDs are out so I'll probably be doing this concert elsewhere.
I’m always doing a million things, I have a lot going on. Every day I wake up and I’m doing something different. I would say I’m enjoying my life more at this time than I ever have. I’m really happy, I’m happily in love, I’m happy writing…I’m just enjoying the combination.
David Friedman plays New York's 54 Below on Oct. 22 and 29. For more information, click here.