Interview: Pretty Filthy Composer/Lyricist Michael Friedman

March 15, 2015
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Pretty Filthy: Photoshoot by Gregory Costanzo

Rarely do the consumers of pornography look behind the veil of the industry to see the human beings behind the cameras and cumshots. The fantasy you see is a highly engineered media, often blurring the reality of the performers, directors, writers, camera operators, and crew people. The recent comedy musical created by New York based investigative theater company The Civilians, however, explores the human side of the industry. Pretty Filthy, which just finished its run off-Broadway at the Abrons Arts Center, is a vibrant musical romp about the fine folks who produce America’s favorite media. 

What makes this show unique is that it’s derived from real interactions with porn stars and directors. Michael Friedman, who wrote the music and lyrics for Pretty Filthy, said that he and other members of The Civilians spent time in the San Fernando Valley, the “other Hollywood” as it’s put in the description of the show, gathering stories from as many performers, directors, and technical people as possible to deliver the most humanizing theatrical experience possible. 

And the results are just that. Pretty Filthy follows a young lady at the cusp of adulthood who enters the industry and learns the ropes, while managing a relationship (the boyfriend also discovers an aptitude for porn), and interacting with agents and other performers along the way. It’s a musically and aesthetically kaleidoscopic adventure into the real lives of the people of porn, and balances big laughs as well as some truly bittersweet moments. 

Unfortunately, the final curtain’s been drawn on the first run of the show, but there’s hope of future runs and a cast album, and BaDoink was able to converse at length with Friedman, who answered our questions about his experience taking tales from a little understood world and mounting them for off-Broadway audiences. Enjoy this exclusive interview with the composer and lyricist of this remarkable piece of sexy, musical fun. 

Before we get into the musical itself, tell me about your background in theater.

I’m a weirdo. I’m from Philadelphia originally, and I went to school in Boston, I went to Harvard, and I was a history and literature major there, really a guy with a classical music background, when you get down to nuts and bolts. And then, when I was at Harvard, a composer named Elizabeth Swados came and was working on a show, and I ended up music directing the show for her as an undergraduate. When I moved to New York she asked me to work on a show with her, and then sort of through that, one thing led to another, and actually the very first time I wrote a music was when Steve Cosson, who has directed Pretty Filthy, he was founding a group called The Civilians, the theater company that has produced Pretty Filthy. He was founding The Civilians in 2001, and asked me if I’d be involved, in what was going to be an investigative theater company, which means documentary theater, theater based on interviews, based on research, based on historical investigation. So the very first show we did, he asked me to write songs, and it was actually something I’d never done before. The very first musical I ever wrote was because Steve Cosson asked me to write a musical, and I think we’ve done ten shows together since then.

Where did the idea for Pretty Filthy come from?

We’ve done a lot shows. Five years ago, we worked on a show in Colorado. We started with an investigation in Colorado Springs, where we were looking at the Evangelical movement, and megachurches, things that become incredibly powerful. Like, the New Life Church, and then that church had turned out the pastor Ted Haggard, you may remember this. While we were actually going to his church and interviewing people he was sort of outed, he had been going to a male prostitute in Denver, and then he’d been doing crystal meth. There was a whole scandal there. We were at his church when that happened, just by chance, because we had chosen this interesting topic and it turned out it was more interesting than we’d expected. And I don’t want to say that it’s related to this, but one thing that was really amazing about that process was the experience of going into a community and really getting to be part of a community that we knew nothing about when we started.

We had a group of five actors and Steve, who directed, and me, and we were all going to churches, and interviewing people, and that experience of immersing ourselves in a community, we ended up doing that show in a lot of theaters around the country, and one was in Los Angeles, and they talked to us about putting on a new show. We were thinking what’s an interesting community in Los Angeles that we don’t know a lot about but that we might be interested in investigating. After thinking about it for a while we were like, well the adult film community, and specifically the adult film community as it existed at that moment a few years ago in the San Fernando Valley seemed exactly the right thing. Both a hugely influential international force and at the same time an actual community that was coherent. That’s where we started, and we started making phone calls and getting to know people and going to porn sets, and we went to the AVN Awards in Vegas, going to people’s homes, meeting their families, seeing them on set, seeing them off set, seeing them in their daily lives, and we got really interested in this very vibrant and very complicated and wonderful community in the San Fernando Valley.

At that moment, it was going through an enormous amount of economic stress, because so much in porn was changing, and has changed since then, and in many ways I would say the community in the San Fernando Valley that we knew has, I wouldn’t say fallen apart, but it’s a much smaller thing than when we were there, because of recent legislation, changes in laws, specifically in California, and changes in the economy, so we always joked we were there for the last great days of the porn industry as it existed in the San Fernando Valley, which makes a lot of the interviews we did in retrospect kind of sad, because we really liked these people. It was such an amazing, interesting, and vibrant community.

So tell me about the community, and the experiences you had, as really this isn’t something people in the mainstream really get to hear.

People ask how we got access and the joke is that if you know where the address of a porn set is, the door is usually open. I remember my first set was, I think, on the shoot of a series of films called Girlvert, and it was a wedding theme, and I drove up, and there were all these big cars parked out front, on Mulholland Drive, in a house that, with the economy, someone was clearly trying to sell and for the time being rented out for porn shoots. I pulled up and knocked on the door lightly and finally just walked in, and there was no one in the living room, and I look around the corner, and they’re filming a scene. After an hour some people noticed me and they were like, oh what are you here from? And I was like, I’m the theater company, you had called and said, and they were like, yeah yeah yeah. So it was sort of funny how for us the access was the easiest part. People were incredibly lovely about letting us come in. There were some shoots and certainly some of the bigger studios and the contract girls, those shoots can be closed. You can’t get access to a Wicked shoot, it’s pretty hard. Or in gay porn, to like a Sean Cody, for various reasons, but so many shoots we were able to be right there. We were at some terrific, really interesting parody shoots. The biggest directors in porn were really open and let us see stuff, and gave us access.

It’s funny, I always thought that it would be really hard to get access. And for me the surprising part was always how boring it is, because it takes forever. There’s just so many things you never knew. The joke we had was about cetaphil, which is used as fake cum, because it’s better for the skin. And then there was the great joke that no pharmacy in the San Fernando Valley would carry cetaphil anymore, because they knew porn people were using it, even though that’s one of the biggest industries in the San Fernando Valley. That’s some of the amazing stuff, the hypocrisy of the other industries, trying to interact with the porn industry.


So, about the show itself, what’s the core of the musical’s story?

What Bess Wohl; author of the show’s book] and I got really interested in was in the women we were meeting. I’d say the core of the story was a change that happened in porn. We interviewed probably three of the most important porn agents at that moment, and all of them agreed that the biggest change happening in porn is that where, the joke was at least, 18 year olds, and younger people, used to fall into porn after not making it in Hollywood, and now they aspire to it, these kids come out there and aspire to be in porn. They show up to be in porn. And that was the shift. So following the very young, very new people that we met, and finding out what had brought them there and what they were interested in, and finding out what happened to them, how quickly it is to get chewed up and spit out in that industry, and also what you have to do now to make a career in that industry. Is it possible to make a career in that industry. So I’d say that was the storyline.

Our show certainly focuses on a young man and a young woman who come out to the Valley, and what happens to them over the course of the year. And then secondarily what really became interesting to us in straight porn was the women. You’ll meet women who have children, women who have marriages inside or outside of porn, and who are incredibly articulate and interesting about how that works. What is it to be a porn star with children, how do you talk to your children about what you do. Female sexuality is a hard thing to talk about, what with campus rape, and I think about how every time it seems like things are moving forward we also get more repressive, with reproductive rights, and then Patricia Arquette making that thing about equal pay at the Oscars the other night. I think female sexuality is confusing, still, to many Americans, men and women, and it was amazing to hear these women talk so intelligently and complicatedly and knowingly about their sexuality and what that meant in America.

And after having this experience and writing the musical, what do you think needs to change about how we view sexuality, and do you instill your own opinions about it in the show?

I think what we found was we wanted to let the story speak for itself, we wanted to let the industry speak for itself, as much as it’s possible. Obviously, we have our feelings about the subject and our ideas, but I think we didn’t want it to be about how Bess and Steve and Michael feel about porn. Steve and I are gay, and Bess is a married woman with a daughter, and those are things that play into how you view things. So Steve and I are not great consumers of straight porn, I would say, and Bess as a woman has a different perspective, so all three of us have a perspective on porn that is our own. That’s actually one of the interesting things; we really wanted to make the show on the side of people who make porn, and not get involved in a very complicated question about consumption of porn and what does that do, and the positives and negatives of consuming porn. And that I think could be it’s own interesting show too.

When you went there, are there things you found that could work to dispel how people see porn, or take apart some of the misunderstood aspects?

I’m not sure if we have a response to this ourselves, but certainly these characters are responding to this in the show, people we interviewed, to exploitation. A female director we got to interview, in the show she’s known as Carrie, has a really intelligent response to this. It’s almost, I wouldn’t say, a Marxist response, but basically what she says is do we exploit porno workers in the Capitalist sense? Yes, we exploit them because they are people who work with their bodies and we pay them and we probably don’t pay them enough, and that is exploitation, that’s the historical definition. Exploiting the worker, the same way that someone who works at Walmart or Costco is exploited because they work with their bodies, or someone who works on an assembly line. Then she says do we exploit the sexually? And she says no because that’s what consent is for, and I think she really thinks of that as the triumph of the California porn industry. Some really brave people have worked extremely hard to really define consent and to legalize questions of age and oversight and those things. I think one of the tragedies of the California porn industry collapsing as it is to a certain extent right now is that some of that oversight, the aim, the adult industry medical program, that I think did some really terrific work, but that they’ve worked really hard to make sure that America really doesn’t produce underage pornography, that people are consenting, that women are not exploited on set, that women and men are not doing things they really don’t want to do on set. It’s not that every porn set is terrific and it’s not that everything in porn is hippy skippy, but I would say, I was amazed at how conscious people were and how proud people were of some of the ways porn’s really revolutionized the way we think about consent.

So tell me about the show itself, how was the process of taking the research and putting it onstage.

I would say the first thing that Bess and I did was just find the interviews that spoke to us the most. I’d like to think the show’s really a comedy, but with a pretty serious underpinning. We found the people where the joke was with them, rather than on them, because so many people I interviewed got the joke, got how ridiculous some things in porn can be, and those are the people I love, the people who really get it, and so I think we found things that were really funny, where the people came through as humans. And then as we started building a story around a few characters, this young man and young woman who start in the industry, and then an older female performer who works with them, and then this agent character and a few other characters who come back a few times in the show. What material would bolster those stories and keep them going throughout the ninety minutes. That said, once in a while there was a monologue that was just too good to resist that we just had to use. There’s a song about halfway through the show called “Squirting 101,” which is based on the creation of that series of videos, the “Squirting 101” videos, and that is a seven minute aria on squirter porn. So there are things we couldn’t resist.

What have the reactions been so far?

I think some people thought it would be harder core than it is. There’s some states of unclothedness in the show but no one gets naked, and we don’t simulate sex onstage. Some people were surprised at how interested we were in the humans behind the industry. I think that’s what The Civilians does best, is try to humanize things, so people can look at an industry like this in a different light. I don’t think we took a hard stance one way or another about porn, and certainly I don’t think we were interested in a take down of the industry or heavy hitting, about the dark underbelly, I think that’s all too easy. What’s more interesting is to figure out what is porn to America, and what is America to porn, at this point. The reactions have been mostly really positive, and they really got the show in some ways, and that’s been really great. It’s always nice when it seems that people get what you’re doing.

Can you elaborate more on the point of what is porn to America and what is America to porn?

Porn is so interesting because it’s this massively profitable, and massively influential industry, insofar as porn is everywhere. I mean it’s in my computer right now, and not just for research; everywhere you go there’s porn. How people dress, and do their hair, and groom their bodies is influenced by porn. It’s how people learn to have sex now, how teenagers learn to have sex is from watching porn. Compared to even 25 years ago, the influence of the industry is massive, and at the same time, it’s still sort of treated as a joke, or as a kind of funny little thing. Often, talking to theater people about the show, they were like, that’s a silly show, but it’s about a massive industry with a huge political force, a huge part of who we are right now. And you’re trying to explain how political porn is, or just how central it is. You could say it’s the most influential aspect, certainly the newest, most influential aspect in American life in the past 25 years. There’s nothing else that’s so taken over so many parts of American life. It’s huge. Everyone you know has watched porn, and has porn, and knows how to get porn. It’s an Avenue Q joke, the Internet may not be for porn, but the Internet transformed the way we think about porn. It is right there, whether you know how to utilize it or not, that is a completely different thing. When I was little, somebody’s dad might have had a VHS tape hidden under a mattress, but now any kid who has access to the Internet has access to porn. We’re not talking about that or not figuring out how to talk about it.

Do you believe your show lend itself to helping people start the discussion? If we say porn is everywhere, we admit sex is everywhere, and people are very uncomfortable about sex.

I’m glad people are coming to see the show and I’m glad people are interested in the show, I never know to what extent what people are getting out of the show, but I certainly think a discussion of sex in America, a more open, more interesting, and more nuanced discussion of sex, and sexuality, which are different things, is something we still haven’t even come close to having.


If there’s one thing you really want people to take away from the show?

I think to a certain extent, how are we talking to our kids about sex, how are we talking to each other about sex, how is this conversation about sex in America changing, and I hope getting better. That would be amazing, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

If you were to elaborate on your feelings toward porn before and after the creation of this musical?

I would say I’m just as confused in what my relationship to porn is now as I was before. I only say that insofar as the only aspect of porn I haven’t fully figured out what it means is what the consumer’s relationship to porn is, which I think is trickier. How much are we replacing actual intimacy with watching pornography, how much does pornography create a different paradigm of what sex should be, of what you should look like, of what you should be like in sex, those are really tricky things. I don’t think that’s the industry’s fault, I think that’s our fault, that we’re not able to talk about things, and therefore the way we consume porn is often really problematic. I’m not sure I’ve gotten to a better place on that personally, but that’s it’s own tricky thing.

After the run of the show, what is the future of Pretty Filthy and The Civilians?

We’re certainly hoping for some future productions, and working on that and also having a cast album to keep that aspect of the show alive for people who can’t see the show. And then The Civilians, Bess has a new play right now, she’s writing for television and theater right now, shes incredibly successful, it’s wonderful to watch. I have a new musical coming up this summer, and then The Civilians have a bunch, they’re in residence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art all year, doing a bunch of things there, and then we have a couple of new shows coming up in the next few seasons, so there’s a lot of things happening. Specifically with Pretty Filthy, we hope for a future life for the show, whatever that means. It doesn’t even necessarily mean in New York, but it does look like there’ll be future productions, which is great.

For all things Civilians, check out their website and watch for the cast album; although the show is no longer running in New York, the music itself is highly worth many a listen, for both the musical and porn enthusiast alike. And who knows, the show could be sensually springing up in your area sooner than you think, so heed Friedman’s words and don’t miss getting Pretty Filthy.


Feature image: Pretty Filthy Photoshoot, Photographer: © 2015 Gregory Costanzo

Interview: Pretty Filthy Composer/Lyricist Michael Friedman 1 vote

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