It says a lot about how young I was when, as an undergraduate, I was offered a chance to work with Liz Swados, and I nearly turned it down to be in a university drag revue. Seldom in life do two roads clearly diverge—the visionary, feminist artist and the nostalgic, misogynistic (as I see it now) Ivy League club. On the advice of a very smart friend, I dropped out and changed my life. Cantata 2000 was Liz's setting of contemporary poetry, stories, and other writing by young and mostly under-the-radar writers, a sort of State of the Union in song, written on and with her undergraduate performers. I had no idea theater could do that. Or that a major theater artist could have such faith and trust in a young music director, treating me, and the actors, like equals and partners, while always maintaining complete authority.

After I graduated, I moved to New York and was working at a consulting firm when Liz called: Would I work on a new piece at La MaMa—oh, and maybe something at BAM, and then maybe this Brecht adaptation with Andrei Serban at Columbia, which did she mention was now going to Berlin—until I was basically working full-time. At some point, the consulting firm kindly told me that since I had stopped coming to work, they assumed I had quit. Two more roads diverging, and I had made the choice, this time without realizing it. I was free. Liz showed me, like she was always trying to show the American Theater, that things don't always have to be this way (whatever "this way" might be): They (work, life) can be more personal, more political, more resonant, more timeless, more.

And the body of work: the most exciting and radical American confrontation with the Greeks, perhaps the most archetypal and thoughtful musical of the '70s, the most unexpected Alice in Wonderland, the always searching works on Jewish themes (over 20 of them across her entire career), the extraordinary oratorio Missionaries, and, recently, a dizzying array of myths and stories, contemporary and classical—Kaspar Hauser, The Golem, From the Fire (about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire), Jabu—and, in an astonishing work, her own depression. There's also the too-little-known masterpiece The Beautiful Lady, a deeply felt meditation on the triumph and catastrophe of the Russian avant-garde. (And look, I've neglected the collaborations with Garry Trudeau! The confrontations with Shakespeare, Brecht, Chekhov! Also, the only person, ever, nominated in one year for best musical, direction, score, book, and choreography at the Tonys. I mean...)

We don't know how to talk about teaching in America. But as Liz's teaching and work were inseparable, let's just say it's hard to think of another theater artist who loved young people more, who understood and listened to them better, and who wrote for them so well. Only Liz could make a work of "community theater" for at-risk youth that was also her "big hit" without contradiction. Take a look at the list of the people who worked with her as students—Adam Sandler, Kris Kukul, Shaina Taub, Sam Pinkleton, Jo Lampert, to name just a few—it is devastating.

That would be enough, but I think another of Liz's achievements has been underplayed—her understanding of music and lyrics. She set words as she heard them, creating satisfying musical structures that were never as interested in rhyme or scansion as much as in intention and communication. Her songs would seem hard to learn (especially her notorious quarter-note triplets), but in performance her music was deceptively, amazingly, natural. Almost—if I'm getting solemn (and Liz was seldom solemn)—as if finally the achievements of Stravinsky, of Janáček, of the Seegers and the folk movement, were being applied to musical theater. Anyone who worked with her, certainly I, could never quite look at songwriting the same way again. Liz is in the DNA of my work.

I wish I could say that in her lifetime, Liz really got her proper due from the theater community, from the New York Times, from the institutions she defined, from me. She did not. (That is what makes next week's concert so special, and so necessary.) But she continued to make work with a huge sense of mission, of purpose, of commitment, setting another example of how to make art that made nonsense of the culture market. At some point Liz sensed that I was itching to make my own work; we were in the loft she shared with Roz and the dogs, and she mentioned that maybe we should take some time off from each other. And that was it. She set me free yet again, which is a gift I will never, ever, be able to repay.


Michael Friedman is a composer and lyricist in New York City. He is a founding artist of The Civilians, director of Public Forum and artist-in-residence at the Public Theater, and artistic director of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center.