Between the Lines: Unknown Soldier

BETWEEN THE LINES – UNKNOWN SOLDIER: A weekly look at the creative process through a literary lens.


Unknown Soldier writers Michael Friedman and Daniel Goldstein and director Trip Cullman have spent many summers at the Williamstown Theatre Festival over their careers. As they neared the mid-point of rehearsals, they sat down with WTF’s Playwright-in-Residence Max Posner to discuss their histories at the Festival, the creation ofUnknown Soldier, and the process of writing musical theatre.

All three of you have come of age as artists at WTF. Can you talk about your collective history at the Festival, and what it’s like to come back?

When I was here at nineteen and twenty, those were formative moments. It wasn’t just about meeting professionals and assisting people like the great Roger Rees on the Main Stage—it was about the fringe, it was about the Mac Wellman piece I put up on a lawn at 2AM, with actors who remain my friends and my collaborators, with designers I still work with. I met Ben Stanton, who is designing lights for Unknown Soldier, when I was nineteen and he was a lighting intern here. Danny and I were directing interns.

I was doing a production of Mud upstairs in Greylock and Michael was around and he asked me, “Do you want music for your show?” and I said, “Sure!”

[MICHAEL FRIEDMAN] I was officially the “Nebulous Music Intern.” I think I just walked around saying, “I have an accordion and a cello!”

[MP] Where did Unknown Soldier come from? There are so many layers, so many moments in time, so many love stories or almost-love stories quilted together. What was the initial seed?

[DG] We had a commission from Nicky Martin at the Huntington and we began researching World War I and corresponding with each other.

[MF] We wanted to address the transcendent, crazy-making power of love, and then out of our correspondence about our WWI research grew the idea of delving in by way of two contemporary characters.

[MP] I’m ashamed to admit how fuzzy my knowledge of WWI really is. Is it just me? The opening of the show seems to address this very fuzziness. Is this just because so much time has passed, or was it the last war of its kind?

[TC] It was the first war where bodies did not come home. You would be told your beloved died in the war, and there would be nothing tangible to grieve. So things like The Living Unknown Soldier happen, wherein this man comes back and he has amnesia, and all of a sudden people are saying “that’s my brother,” “that’s my husband,” “that’s my son” —their grief is so humongous and they have nowhere to put it, so they engage in these acts of magical thinking.

[DG] There was no object of your mourning and it made people crazy.

[MP] The three separate eras of the piece are so intricately layered. How do you go about defining these different universes, and overlapping them so elegantly?

[DG] We started with two tenses, WWI and the modern day, but it became clear that we needed to visit places in the middle. I actually remember the advice to bring the little girl, who used to be pretty much an offstage character, into the play came from a friend of mine who read the script. Mandy Greenfield encouraged us to add an older woman. So, through the process of sharing and collaboration, we ended up with four generations of characters in the piece.

[TC] For me, the charge was to create a theatrical container that could house multiple time periods, so that the visual storytelling wasn’t beholden to a WWI set, a separate contemporary set—the whole thing felt more fluid. The fun is to find moments of visual overlapping, characters doing the same gesture at the same time, separated by almost one hundred years of history, seeing a woman in a beautiful dress in 1918 and another woman onstage at the same time in a bathrobe and sweatpants from our contemporary era. This layering of time feels very theatrical.

[MP] So much of the piece is about Ellen combing through her family’s history and digging for something she doesn’t have access to. How do you guys relate to that experience?

[MF] Andrew and Ellen, the contemporary characters, have a tendency to talk and sing like us, but I think one of the big ideas is that there are moments in anyone’s chronology, a family or a country, where no one knows what happened for a week, or for a year. There are things that the people in the present will never know about the past. There are things that the people in the past won’t know about themselves.

[MP] Talk to me about Troy. What role does the town play?

[MF] Apologies to Troy, in that the whole opening number is called “The Worst Town in New York,” but I think the thing that happens is that the town, in a weird way, emerges triumphant. Troy itself has a journey from 1917 into the present.

[MP] I want to talk about The Odyssey, which might seem slightly academic, but it also feels very embedded in the show, and the song and metaphor of Penelope feels far-reaching and all-encompassing.

[MF] All Western stories about returning home from war come from The Odyssey, whether they mean to or not, and in our case we didn’t initially mean to make that connection. At some point we noticed a resemblance. The interesting thing about The Odyssey is the question: what is it like to wait and not know? That’s the emotional center. What is that experience of waiting and waiting and waiting, and hoping?

[DG] At what point do you give up, and if he does come home, is it the same person who left? Are you still responsible for loving that person?

[MP] So much of the piece is deeply felt, detailed and real. At the same time, vaudeville plays a huge role in the stylistic universe of the post-WWI world. What is it about vaudeville that inspires you?

[TC] I think the form of musical theatre is incredibly liberating is incredibly liberating because it can encompass a multitude of styles. You can have a vaudeville number next to a realistic number. If you have a really emotional song, you also need comic relief.

[DG] The reason we picked vaudeville was that it was the period-appropriate music, but also there’s something about this story which is so inward and personal, and vaudeville is so presentational.

[MF] If you think about the great plays, there’s a slow gathering of tension towards something. In musical theatre, things tend to come in waves with more frequent peaks and valleys. You want a reason for things to get louder and softer more often. Also, people automatically expect a certain level of stylization, of theatricality, in a musical, so that can allow you to have these changes of vocabulary.

[Photo: Michael Friedman (Music & Lyrics), Trip Cullman (Director), and Daniel Goldstein (Book & Lyrics). Photo by Paul Fox.]