If you think of musical theater as fluffy diversion, composer and lyricist J. Michael Friedman challenges you to think again.
Take This Beautiful City, one of four works by Friedman slated to premiere this year. One of three Hodder fellows at Princeton, Friedman and the documentary acting troupe he helped found, The Civilians, are fine-tuning the play, which explores the interplay of religion and civic life and is based on weeks of interviews in Colorado Springs, Colo., home to a large population of evangelical Christians.
“My projects tend to come out of intellectual curiosity,” says Friedman, who in 2007 won an Obie award for sustained excellence in music. “I like working on new things, and with The Civilians, we like to do projects where we know nothing about the subject in the beginning. And I’m OK with not being sure of the outcome.” Friedman is spending this academic year at Princeton composing music for a theatrical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel Fortress of Solitude, about two boys, one white and one black, growing up in Brooklyn. He also is working with playwright Rinne Groff on an adaptation of the movie Saved!, a comedy about teenagers at a Christian high school.
Friedman is just the kind of up-and-comer for whom the Hodder fellowship was created: promising humanists with highly acclaimed work under their belts who are tackling new endeavors that might not be possible without the “studious leisure” a year at Princeton provides. The other two Hodder fellows are novelist Monique Truong and poet Kathleen Graber.
During their time at Princeton, fellows give presentations to the University and local community; in Friedman’s case it was a concert version of The Civilians’ Gone Missing, a look at dealing with loss created from interviews with New Yorkers after Sept 11. Truong and Graber gave readings from their works in October.
“The fellowship brings students and faculty in contact with some of the most exciting early-career artists in their fields,” says Lewis Center for the Arts Chairman Paul Muldoon. The artists “benefit from having some time and space in which to pursue a new project. We benefit from being exposed to new ideas. It’s a perfect arrangement.”
Truong, who is teaching a creative writing course this spring, mainly has used her time at Princeton hashing out her second novel, Bitter in the Mouth, whose main character lives in New York City and looks back at her childhood in a small Southern town. Truong’s debut,The Book of Salt, was set in late 1920s Paris and imagined the life of Binh, a fictional Vietnamese cook for Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. Like Binh, Truong was born in Vietnam.
For Truong, attending readings at 185 Nassau St. punctuates the days of solitary work. “To be there with writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Edmund White makes you feel as if you’re part of a greater literary endeavor,” she says.
Graber, on leave from New York University, also is teaching at Princeton this spring. She has spent fruitful hours in Firestone browsing material for a series of poems on St. Augustine. “A lot of my work emerges out of my response to other texts,” she says. “There is, as one would expect, a huge body of critical literature on [St. Augustine],” she says.
Winner of the 2005 Saturnalia Poetry Prize for Correspondence, Graber echoed Friedman and Truong in emphasizing the gift of time the fellowship gives — one that all three deem invaluable.
“My only regret about being a Hodder fellow is that I [will] have to leave,” Graber says. “It has been a kind of writerly paradise for me.”