Steve Friedman will be at sea on cruise ships 90 days this year. And he will spend probably at least 25 more on one-day bus trips to New York. And in the remaining 250 days, pop over to any local synagogue or senior home and you’re likely to find him singing a Steven Sondheim song or revealing a little known history of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Post-retirement from his consulting business, Friedman, 66, isn’t really retired at all. He just changed course. His passion for Broadway musicals has become his new day — and sometimes night — job.
Synagogue lecturers are nothing new, but Friedman has one thing that sets him apart — his voice. He doesn’t just speak, but performs selections from the musicals he’s talking about. And he’s fully multimedia: He has a PowerPoint presentation, he lectures, he plays clips of songs and he uses his iPad and portable speaker as backing accompaniment when he sings.
“I pinch myself all the time,” he says after one of his monthly Monday morning classes at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life and I’ve loved everything I’ve done. But this is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Did you know that “Oklahoma!” was the first original Broadway cast recording? It proved so popular that every musical since has put one out. “West Side Story” was originally going to be “East Side Story,” with Jews and Italians fighting over the Lower East Side. And beloved musicals like “Les Miserables” and “Camelot” were not much loved by critics in their first runs.
In fact, “‘Camelot’ is the most famous mediocre musical ever made,” Friedman says.
These are the kind of fun facts Friedman likes to traffic in. It’s all about “mixing the familiar with the unfamiliar,” he says. Many of those attending his events grew up with these musicals. But while they may sing along, he gets to dispel preconceived notions or impart history. His lecture on the great Broadway divas — like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin — is one of his favorites for this reason.
“People think they know what they know,” he says. “But then they hear all the stories and are just blown away.” For instance, there are rumors that Martin and her second husband, Richard Halliday, were both gay and in a marriage of convenience.
And these talks have a side benefit he never anticipated of meeting people involved, even tangentially, in the business he loves. He met the longtime personal assistant of Angela Lansbury, who happens to be Friedman’s favorite Mama Rose from “Gypsy” (one of his favorite shows). He had coffee with Rosalind Russell’s niece after she came up to him after a talk on a cruise. He was also approached by Patti LuPone’s English teacher on a different cruise. And after a local talk, he met a woman who had been next door neighbors with Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein) and friends with his daughter, Mary.
“I have stuff like this all the time,” he says. “I never would have imagined it.”
And he still has his personal favorites, like Lansbury as Mama Rose. Bernadette Peters is his Broadway diva of choice. Friedman is pretty sure he’s seen her in every Broadway show she’s done. “Sweeney Todd” and “Gypsy” are his go-to shows. But he also thinks we’re in another golden age of American musicals, starting with “The Producers” in 2001 and subsequent productions like “Avenue Q,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Book of Mormon” and, of course, “Hamilton.” (Friedman has led a few day trips to New York to see “Hamilton.” And yes, he’s surprised he got tickets too.)
Friedman was inspired to take up this work by a less-than-inspiring cruise ship speaker about six years ago. How does someone become a cruise ship speaker? Friedman wondered. If this guy can do it, why can’t I?
Turns out it’s not quite so easy. You have to log a certain number of hours speaking on your area of expertise and need several references from places you’ve lectured. And so Friedman started by volunteering on the senior home circuit with six lectures — musicals by decade, starting with the 1930s.
Now, Friedman has 75 lecture topics and a large three ring binder full of 200-odd pieces of music. He has devotees who come to nearly all his events and an email list of about 1,000.
But the most memorable and rewarding experience is the positive reactions, Friedman says. He was at the Landow House, a senior living facility in Rockville, in front of a group with memory impairment and other cognitive disabilities. As he sang “On the Street Where You Live” from “My Fair Lady” he heard a woman join in — as can happen at his events.
But the staff was astounded. That was the first sound the woman had uttered in six months.
“It really feels good,” he says. “Because maybe someday I’ll be in someplace like that and I hope someone will come and do something like this.”
But until then, for Friedman, the show will go on.