UNKNOWN SOLDIER – A new musical, opened at Playwrights Horizons on March 9, 2020 and abruptly closed three days later along with every other professional production running at the time in New York City, cultural casualties in the fight against COVID-19. The score was by the late Michael Friedman, the book by Danny Goldstein. The production was directed – nurtured and shepherded by Trip Cullman. It featured an estimable cast of brilliant and fearless actors: Margo Seibert, Erik Lochtefeld, Kersten Anderson, Perry Sherman, Zoe Glick, Emilie  Kouatchou, Jay MacKenzie, James Crichton, Jessica Naimy, myself, and the legendary Estelle Parsons.

Lots of circles closed with this one.
I first met Michael near the start of his career in 1998, working on NYSF’s CYMBELINE and we are figuratively reunited on this, the last work of his brilliant career, unfinished at the time of his passing. A year after we met, he was at Williamstown Theatre Festival, where he met and became the closest of friends with Danny and Trip, who would become his collaborators on UNKNOWN SOLDIER. 

Coincidentally, the summer before this show finally went into production at Playwrights Horizons, 2019, I had made my own debut at WTF: Ibsen’s GHOSTS was my last credit prior to beginning my own work in this elegiac work. 

GHOSTS played on the Main Stage at WTF; next door on the Nikos Stage, a new play by Adam Bock – BEFORE THE MEETING – was being rehearsed; and it was being directed by Trip Cullman, whom I’d admired for quite some time (actually, I first encountered Trip at a roundtable discussion about diversity in the theatre quite some time before actually seeing his work – and it was his concise and eloquent, forthright and self-critical observations about the issue which sparked my regard for him) but whom I’d never met.

A few years before all of this, I met Danny doing a small workshop for the Prospect Theatre Company, of gorgeous, meditative new work by Marisa Michaelson called TAMAR OF THE RIVER, directed by Danny, and which featured a young actress named Margo Seibert. Like all workshops, it was fast and furious, but Danny and I shared common ground in many ways, from the way we worked to an appreciation of the same sorts of theatre, to an irreverent sense of humor, and – bonus – to a connection to Western Massachusetts: relatives of Danny’s operated a small independent gallery in Northampton where my wife actually worked not long after graduating from Smith College, and where we still visit whenever we’re in the Pioneer Valley. When TAMAR OF THE RIVER was fully produced Off-Broadway a couple of years later, Erik Lochtefeld (brilliantly) played the role I assayed in the workshop. Since then, my path has crossed with Erik’s multiple times and when I found out he was in UNKOWN SOLDIER, I couldn’t have been more excited to be working with someone I’d so admired and heard so many wonderful personal things about.

UNKNOWN SOLDIER also offered a reunion for me and Estelle – we’d met and worked together in 1988, in a revival of Steve Tesich’s play BABA GOYA, which played a short run at Second Stage, when that theater was on the Upper West Side. It was my second off-Broadway show, early in my New York career. I confess to being awkwardly green at the time and far too awestruck to have ever had a full conversation with Estelle. And although it could be argued that since then I’ve been around the block enough times to feel comfortable to have any number of lovely conversations with Estelle, I’m still awestruck at the truthfulness of her work, her endless curiosity and mastery of the text, and the brilliant simplicity and seemingly effortless quality of her presence in every single moment onstage. There were moments when she was so good, I just couldn’t think of anything coherent to say.

Michael Friedman.

Danny Goldstein.

Margo Seibert.

Estelle Parsons.

All of these roads converged, were brought together – I think – by Michael himself, somewhere in the ether, for some reason I still have the privilege of figuring out in quite moments of reflection or meditation, that channel of curiosity that’s a gift to any creative person. Yes, the theater is a small thing, the community of actors at a certain level is like a little town – a place where you’re always going to run into someone you know, sometimes for a moment, sometimes at length. But some reunions are far more potent than you have any right to realize or even imagine. But you never imagine so many happening at one single point where – to make a coherent story, to all sing the same song – not only our bodies but our minds and our spirits have to converge as well.  Following the leads of Trip and Danny, we all worked tirelessly as one, not only to bring the show to life, but also to remind ourselves and each other  that Michael, too, was in the room every day in some ineffable way, even if it was by his absence. 

What a beautiful and singular experience this was. I suppose it’s no irony that this show, about casualty, about love and loss, existence and memory, itself fell victim on March 12, 2020 to a different sort of struggle, a casualty (along with every other professional theater in New York) in the fight against COVID19. Like Michael, the story of the production and of the play is mythic, and not unlike a thing of dreams.

(c) Thomas Sesma 2020 – All rights reserved