By Brian Scott Lipton
What is, what was and what might have been. These everyday yet profound questions envelop the minds of both the main characters and the audience of Unknown Soldier, the often moving if sometimes frustrating new musical now on view at Playwrights Horizons.
A labor of love—about love—the show was first developed by composer-lyricist Michael Friedman and Daniel Goldstein about 15 years ago and remained “unfinished” at Friedman’s untimely death from HIV in 2017. Goldstein and director Trip Cullman have since collaborated to create the “finished” product now on stage, and they are to be commended for their dedication.
Still, one can’t help but wonder if Friedman had lived whether, among other things, he would have written more songs for his main characters (the 90-minute show has a few too many repetitive tunes), excised a couple of superfluous numbers that take us away, unnecessarily, from the main story, and even helped smooth out an uneven structure that leads to some confusion. Of course, he may also have done none of the above.
Taking place in three different time periods, the piece’s essential focus is on two related women. First, there’s Lucy, whom we first meet as a crotchety, 90-something-year-old woman in Troy, New York (played by the always-extraordinary Estelle Parsons, who fortunately has a slightly larger presence at the show’s conclusion) and then as a naïve teenager (embodied by the lovely, crystalline-voiced Kerstin Anderson) who escapes to New York City for one night.
There, she supposedly meets—and marries—a man who goes off to war, where he is reportedly killed in action. But when an “unknown soldier” arrives a couple of years later in a mental hospital in Ithaca, it appears that the man—an amnesiac now called Frances Grand (perfectly portrayed by the handsome, strong-voiced Perry Sherman)—may well be Lucy’s long-lost mate, setting off a chain of events that forever alters her life.
The connection between Lucy and the “unknown soldier” is first discovered by Lucy’s young granddaughter Ellen (a feisty Zoe Glick), whom Lucy has raised since Ellen’s mother died in childbirth. It is then re-explored, to greater effect, when the now-grown Ellen (the absolutely fantastic Margo Siebert), a Manhattan-based OB-GYN who has reluctantly returned to her childhood home (supposedly to sell it) finds the same newspaper clipping she first saw (but forgot about) decades earlier. To help solve the mystery, and perhaps make sense of her own now-unhappy life, Ellen ends up enlisting the help of Andrew Hoffman (an excellent Eric Lochtfeld), a Cornell University historian who gets way too caught up in the case and develops a fixation on Ellen (whom he doesn’t actually meet for quite a while) for reasons that are ultimately explained.
These two quasi-love stories are each affecting in their own way, but both would have benefitted from some deeper character development. Moreover, both rely on plot contrivances that can ultimately feel less-than-convincing. What’s left to admire, though, will be enough for many, primarily the uniformly superb performances of the principal cast (which includes Broadway veteran Thom Sesma as the institution’s doctor) and Mark Wendland’s very clever set.
Above all else, though, is Friedman’s uncanny facility to write wonderful songs in such a wide variety of styles (even if there are echoes of Stephen Sondheim, William Finn and Jason Robert Brown in some of them). Listening to the comic “The Worst Town in New York” and vaudevillian “The Memory Song,” to the lilting “The First Time” and the heartbreaking “I Give Away Children,” one feels a deep gratitude that Friedman lived long enough to pen this score and an equally great sadness that we won’t hear new creations from this singular talent. Yes, his future output will remain forever unknown, but based on Unknown Soldier, Friedman would have become a true musical force to be reckoned with.
Unknown Soldier. Through March 29 at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues).One hour, 30 minutes with no intermisison. www.phnyc.org
Photos: Joan Marcus