David Friedman is one of the most successful people you might not have heard of. The veteran composer, lyricist, and singer has been behind some of most iconic popular music of our time.
Friedman conducted the music for Disney movies such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas. He has written songs for Diana Ross, Alison Krauss, and Barry Manilow, and almost all the songs of the late great cabaret singer Nancy Lamott.
Viewers of NBC's Today Show will know him from his regular "Everyone Has a Story" segment with Kathie Lee Gifford, in which Friedman writes a new song each month to be performed on-air with a big name from Broadway.
Friedman appears this Sunday as part of the Savannah Voice Festival, in a concert featuring some of his prolific original work, much of it inspired by his longtime interest in spirituality and metaphysics. "Listen To My Heart" happens this Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. at Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church.
Some people would kill to have your job.
David Friedman: I agree with you! (laughs) I'm delighted to be doing what I'm doing. I have a wonderful life and every day I wake up and I do a variety of things that really appeal to me. I've been very blessed to be able to do what I do. As always, doing it is not exactly what it looks like from the outside. Like anything, success has its challenges.
So how does the work with Disney actually commence? Are you given a storyboard and a script?
David Friedman: What's interesting about writing for Disney is you're subjected to market considerations, and a lot of executives and a lot of feedback and a lot of changes and a lot of considerations other than artistic. When you work for Disney it's definitely a business. And it's very gratifying. You are juggling both. You are in a certain way constrained, and in a certain way inspired by what you have to write.
The thing I always say about Disney — because there's a whole component to my writing that has to do with metaphysics and spirituality —I'm very aware that when I'm writing for Disney I'm under those constraints, but also that millions and millions of people are going to hear what I write. So I always try to slip in as much spirituality and lessons as I can.
A lot of composers work as part of a team, but I understand often you write both music and lyrics yourself, which is somewhat unique.
David Friedman: It is somewhat unique. I do collaborate a lot — like I have five musicals in the hopper right now, and those I have collaborated on. The songs I'm most well-known for I did write myself. It's not that unusual, but it's fairly unusual.
Often with creative people, what they think of as career highlights aren't necessarily the most popular or lucrative things they've done. What are some highlights of your career from your perspective?
David Friedman: When we did the movie Beauty and the Beast, my first big film for Disney, I conducted the song with the New York Philharmonic. Well, when we were done they all went home and Angela Lansbury and I sat in a little booth and she sang the song to me! What you're hearing in the movie is Angela singing to me.
There are also the songs I wrote for Nancy Lamott, one of greatest cabaret singers in 20th century. I produced all her CDs. She died at the age of 43. Songs like "Help is on the Way, "We Live on Borrowed Time" — songs that hopefully move people to connect. Songs that really mean something to me. The songs that have made me the most money aren't necessarily those.
Speaking of "Help is On the Way," one time I got a letter from somebody saying they were about to kill themselves, and listened to that song and didn't kill themselves. I was then in a period where I was very interested in being famous. So I was very annoyed. I was like, "Fine. They didn't kill themselves, but did I get a Grammy for that song?" (laughs)
And a spiritual teacher of mine told me, obviously you were raised to equate money with success. He said, "What I want you to do is every time you get a letter or call like that, when someone says your song has changed their life, write down $10,000." And I was shortly a millionaire! That made me reevaluate the value of song. I was so grateful to have written songs for people in need that will hopefully change the way they perceive that need.
Other than your performance Sunday, what other things are you doing at the Savannah Voice Festival?
David Friedman: Well, the thing is, opera has the most ridiculous plots. You wonder why it's so popular. But what I realized in looking at it is, in opera people live on the outside what your emotional life is on the inside. Sort of like a fairy tale. In real life your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you and you might say "Oh my God I'm gonna die." Well. in opera, you do! You say, my sister, I hate her, I could just kill her. So in opera, you kill her!
Opera enacts all these deep emotional things, and that's why it's so moving. However an actor has to actually be in those circumstances. An actor has to find a way to make it real for them. Most of us wouldn't kill ourselves over someone leaving us.
Also in theatre, the reason the belt voice is used in theatre is the belt voice is the speaking voice. And people speak for real. In opera the beauty of the voice and the placement are what we listen to, but they come between the reality of the situation and the audience.
So Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves, the founders of the Festival, want me to come down and work with the young opera singers on truthful acting, using their voice in service of the pieces.
Some pieces will be opera, some not necessarily opera, but always to get people to have those techniques so their acting can be more real. And they can sing what they hear.