NEW YORK — Michael Friedman, a versatile, cerebral, and witty composer and lyricist who brought a historian’s eye and a journalistic sensibility to pathbreaking work off and on Broadway, died Saturday in Manhattan. The Boston native was 41.
The cause was complications of HIV/AIDS, according to the Public Theater, which announced his death.
Mr. Friedman, a prolific theatrical songwriter versed in a wide variety of musical styles and curious about a wide array of subjects, was best known as a co-creator of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a sharp, sexy, and satirical musical, drawing on contemporary emo music, which ran off-Broadway at the Public and then had a critically praised but commercially unsuccessful run on Broadway beginning in 2010.
He was a founding associate artist with the Civilians, an acclaimed troupe that practices what it calls “investigative theater,” often using verbatim dialogue taken from interviews conducted by the artists.
He was endlessly interested in politics — a subject that informed much of his work and many of his dinner-table conversations — and in 2016 he collaborated with The New Yorker and WNYC on songs based on interviews with voters.
And most recently, he had served as artistic director of Encores! Off-Center, an annual summer program at New York City Center that presents concert performances of off-Broadway musicals.
His death stunned the theater community, which had lost many artists to AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s but fewer in recent years. “Aching with gratitude for the music & joy he gave us,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “Hamilton,” wrote on Twitter. “Mourning all the music we’ll never hear.”
The lyricist Benj Pasek (“Dear Evan Hansen”) called Mr. Friedman’s death “a shocking and devastating loss,” while the composer Dave Malloy (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”) wrote he was “devastated and shaken to the core.”
John Michael Friedman was born on Sept. 24, 1975, in Boston, and was raised in Philadelphia. His father, John, was a marketing executive with The Philadelphia Inquirer, and his mother, Carolyn Friedman, was the executive director of the nonprofit White-Williams Scholars, which provides financial assistance to low-income students.
Michael Friedman took to music early. As a child, only music would quiet his crying, and he began playing the piano at 4 or 5, according to his sister, Marion Friedman Young.
He was educated at the Germantown Friends School, and it was there, while in high school, that he composed his first song, about Icarus, the young man in Greek mythology who dies when he flies too close to the sun.
“He went to music camp, he played instruments, but it became clear early on that he wasn’t headed for conservatory training — he wanted to be more creative and to do more composition,” Young said. “He didn’t want to create art alone — that didn’t interest him. He loved collaborating, and the theater was the place for him to do that.”
In addition to his sister, he leaves his parents.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, he met the composer Elizabeth Swados, who was an artist-in-residence there and who became an influential mentor. The year after he graduated, she brought him on as the music director for a production of “Cymbeline” that Andrei Serban was directing for Shakespeare in the Park. That began a long relationship with the Public Theater, where he served at times as artist-in-residence and director of Public Forum, which organizes audience talkbacks and speaker series.
In 2001, he was among the original collaborators at the Civilians, where he wrote songs for a dizzyingly diverse set of shows, starting with a post-Sept. 11 metatheatrical self-parody (“Canard, Canard, Goose?”) as well as a comic revue about lost objects (“Gone Missing”) and followed by shows about how Americans get information (“(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch”), evangelicals in Colorado Springs (“This Beautiful City”), a 21st Century land use controversy (“In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards”), a 19th century French labor revolt (“Paris Commune”), climate change (“The Great Immensity”), and the pornography industry (“Pretty Filthy”).
“Michael had no medium setting — he was just full tilt all the time, thinking really fast, speaking fast, and a lot of his songs have the speed and agility of how he actually speaks,” said Steven Cosson, founder and artistic director of the Civilians and a frequent collaborator with Mr. Friedman. “His music also reflected his deep curiosity and compassion for other people — he was able in those two to four minutes to tell a rich and complicated story that wasn’t reductive but always just made the world a bigger place.”
At his death, he had multiple unfinished projects, including a musical adaptation of “The King of Kong,” the video game documentary. And a new Civilians musical he wrote with Cosson, “The Abominables,” is scheduled to open Friday at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public, recalled a night in 2007 when an early performance of “Romeo and Juliet” — a Shakespeare in the Park production for which Mr. Friedman had composed music — was rained out. The audience was sent home, while the cast and crew gathered at nearby Belvedere Castle. “In a full thunderstorm, we danced together at the top of this castle,” Eustis said. “That’s my image of Michael: It is pouring rain, and he is dancing his heart out.”