Tuesday, September 26, 2023 Sep 26, 2023
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Arts & Entertainment

Does the World Need a Musical About Breast Implants?

Broadway is what dreams are made of. Especially the dreams of renowned plastic surgeon Ron Friedman.
By Alice Laussade | |Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
cleavage the musical ron friedman
Elizabeth Lavin

Everyone is chasing a dream.

My 9-year-old dreams of a better world where children control their own candy destinies, free from the prison of chores and dental hygiene. Dallas will always dream of being cooler than Austin despite constantly saying, “Who’s Austin? Never heard of her. We have a Loro, too. Whatever.” Elon Musk dreamed of being the first man to shoot a car into the sky and then leave it there, because it’s not littering if it’s outer space. 

For Ron Friedman, the dream is simple: he’s just a plastic surgeon in Dallas, writing a musical about the history of breast implants that he dreams will be the next Hamilton.

Friedman has been writing songs since he was a kid. All he’s ever known for sure is that he’s an artist. Everyone in his orbit fully supports him in this crazy endeavor, even though their eyebrows are thrown into a state of confusion and surprise whenever he talks about a new song lyric. He might ask, “Is the lyric ‘It’s déjà boob all over again’ too much—or is it not enough?” His friends shake their heads in disbelief, but they pull for him like you root for Anthony Michael Hall any time he’s on the screen. So far, Friedman has thrown $30,000 into the production of cleaVage: The Front Story, recording songs, hiring actors. It’s not just the money he has put at risk. There’s his reputation to consider. Maybe his marriage. Musical theater can be a dangerous business, and he’s going at it without any experience and without any safety ropes.

Friedman’s life is just like Free Solo. For boobs.

Friedman’s love of music started at a young age. He grew up in Fullerton, California, and began playing piano when he was 8 years old. At 10, he composed music. By 13, he had created a demo of original songs. “So, at that point, I was convinced that I was probably going to become a musician or a woodworker,” he says. Obviously. Because he was also into woodworking. But he soon realized that a career in songwriting or woodworking wouldn’t pay the bills, so, at the tender age of 17, he enrolled in a combined program for college and medical school at Northwestern University. 

Friedman says, “There are lots of starving artists, but there aren’t too many starving plastic surgeons.” And with that, he put his musical aspirations on the back burner. “I started out doing reconstruction and hand surgery. I did a fellowship on hand surgery. If you were the guy who cut off your arm or your hand or your finger, I was the guy who was going to sew it on at 2 in the morning.” By the time he turned 29, he was the youngest plastic surgeon in the United States. 

He trained at UT Southwestern, in Dallas, where he met a nurse named Jin in the ICU at Parkland. They hit it off. They had super romantic dates, like the time he was trying to hide her from his ex-girlfriend, and they “took the long way” to a party by walking through the basement of the hospital, past the morgue. Jin thought, “This is weird.” And if you imagine Ron Friedman as Steve Carell, you know what must happen next: they turn a corner at the morgue and run right into Friedman’s ex-girlfriend, who was working late. Because of course she was. Ron and Jin Friedman have been married for 29 years and work together side by side at Ronald M. Friedman, M.D., P.A., which he started in 1996.

On a scale of nerd from Your Friend Who Watched One Episode of Game of Thrones and Regularly Says, “I’m Such a Nerd” to Neil deGrasse Tyson, Friedman is solidly Dwight K. Schrute’s friendly uncle. Friedman is every Renaissance festival’s target market. At 56 years old, he should have wrinkles on his face, but he doesn’t. He is shiny. Taut. Trying to spot the differences in side-by-side photos of him from when he was 30 years old and Present Day Friedman is an exercise in futility. Writing boob musicals must be the fountain of youth.

Friedman prides himself on having been recognized as a Best Doctor in Dallas for 17 years. He is the foremost male nipple reduction surgeon in the country. He has even been invited to write the chapter about male nipple reduction surgery and his technique for an upcoming book on male plastic surgery. (To answer your immediate questions in order: 1) Yes, this is really a thing. 2) It’s $1,750. 3) Yes, that’s for the pair. 4) I know, right? For something you never imagined existing and never considered before this moment, it does sound like a steal. 5) I’m not sure how you know if they’re too big, but seems like if you need it, you know you need it?) Ron says, “It’s just sort of an oddball thing. It’s not exactly what I was aspiring toward, but whatever. You get what you get.”

Between nipple reduction surgeries, Friedman found time to get back into music. He released his first album, Illusions/Delusions, in 2006. “My wife let me spend my weekends in a recording studio working on that,” he says. “I had written a song about 9/11 that ended up being performed on Fox 4’s Good Day show, and then we also did it as an introduction to a speech by Rudy Giuliani—back when he was sane.” Including sales of CDs, the album generated about $10,000, all of which he donated to Smile Train, a nonprofit that provides corrective surgery for children with cleft palates. 

I found a copy of Illusions/Delusions, listed as “rare” on eBay, for $17. It seemed pricey, especially given that I had no way of playing it, but I figured I could expense it. The owner of the album couldn’t find it in his library after he’d taken my money and asked, “Do you want me to refund your money, or should I look again?” Look again, Guy. Obviously. And lo, the FedEx delivery that did result was good.

Does this album have a winged goddess on the cover? Yes. Does this album have a song about nature that includes the lyrics “The forest is crying/ Her children are dying”? Also yes. If you had to pin down a genre for Illusions/Delusions, it would be MomBops.

These days, when he’s not working on songs about boobs, Friedman writes music for his temple choir at Congregation Anshai Torah in Plano and plays keyboard in a cover band called Side Gig. “It’s mostly ’60s and ’70s stuff. It’s old people stuff,” he says. I’d call it an eclectic mix of The Doobie Brothers, Bruno Mars, and John Mayer. Do you think Dr. Ron Friedman plays the keyboard and sings “Your Body Is a Wonderland” while making full eye contact with his patients as they come out of anesthesia? If not, it’s time to start.

Like Beyoncé has Sasha Fierce, does Ron Friedman, M.D., have an alter ego for performing? Actually, no. His stage name is Ron Friedman, M.D. Which, in its way, is fire.

If you don’t want to commit to a live show (and seeing as how I got the last available copy of Illusions/Delusions), you can check out his work on TikTok. With a caveat: his posts on that platform involve his day job. 

Friedman is a self-described perfectionist at work. “I’m a control freak,” he says. “I do every Botox injection. I do every filler injection. … And I’m the same way in surgery: I can’t let someone else cut something or sew something. I’m too anal-retentive to do that.”

Which brings me to the most terrifying video in existence: Friedman completing a liposuction with “A-O-K,” by Tai Verdes playing in the background. You never forget the brain-scream that happens when you watch a person’s entire stomach get flipped open like the hood of a car juxtaposed with the lyric “When I see trouble come my way (my way)/ I be makin’ lemonade (lemonade)/ I know I’ll be A-O, A-O-K.” 

My eyes have died. But he’s right. He is a perfectionist. He slices right on the beat every time.

As Friedman grew older, he knew his chances at a pop career dwindled. He talks about this pragmatically. “I had written lots and lots of songs,” he says. “But the problem is, I’m in my 50s, and the vast majority of songs are written for people in their teens and 20s, and I might not be on the same page they’re on. So I may be destined to failure in pop radio, which was always my goal, to hear a song of mine on the radio. But it may just be too late for me.”

Then, in April 2019, a friend of the Friedmans’ took them to see Hamilton. And, like nobody who has ever seen Hamilton, Friedman thought, “I could do that.”

Hamilton is an American story,” he says. “What if I wrote an American story about breast implants? Because breast implants are the quintessentially American invention.”

Friedman says, “When people find out what I do for a living, they don’t ask me about skin grafts. They don’t ask me about nose jobs. They ask me about breast implants. ‘Are silicone implants OK still? What do they feel like? How do you do the surgery?’ People are fascinated by breast implants. And I’m not talking just about men. I’m talking about women as well.”

In a period of 10 months, Friedman wrote 25 songs about breasts. That’s got to be a record for a dude over the age of 12.

Here’s how Friedman’s promotional website describes cleaVage: “The ‘real’ story behind fake breasts, cleaVage is an unbelievable-but-mostly-true hilarious musical inspired by the trailblazing surgeons and brave patients who shaped the spectacular rise, equally spectacular fall, and rise again of silicone gel breast implants.” 

The first silicone breast implants were, in fact, created in Houston in 1962 by Dr. Thomas Cronin and Dr. Frank Gerow. (But you knew that. You’ve seen 1997’s Breast Men, featuring that hot piece of nerd ass David Schwimmer.) They tested a set of biscuit-size implants in a female dog named Esmeralda, who kept the implants in for a few weeks—until she chewed them out. 

They called this a success. 

After Esmeralda chomped down her implants like an after-walk treat, the doctors tested a set of silicone implants in a human woman. Timmie Jean Lindsey walked into a charity hospital intending to get rid of a rose tattoo on her chest. The 29-year-old single mother of six walked out with a set of C-cups free of charge from the Baylor College of Medicine. Now, if that isn’t the perfect start to the best historical musical you’ve never seen, what is?

Over the past three years, Friedman has spent over 1,000 hours and the aforementioned dough making this history rhyme. “By the time I finish scoring this thing out, I’ll probably be at $40,000, $50,000. Which is not huge money. But this is what it costs to do this,” Friedman says. “Other guys would spend $100,000 on a car. My car is a 2003. It’s not that I can’t afford a nicer car; it’s that I don’t care. This is what I care about.” 

He says he has mostly spent the money on producing demos. He is also working with a co-writer. “I wrote some cool songs, but I was not very good at stringing them together,” he says. “To a large degree, that’s Laura’s doing. I’m a good songwriter, and I’m good with puns, but I’m not necessarily good with writing dialogue. That’s where she was extremely helpful.”

Laura Goodenow is the producer of Year by the Sea, a dramedy based on the New York Times bestselling memoir by Joan Anderson, and the founder of Real Women Make Waves, an entertainment company dedicated to the empowerment of women through transformative storytelling. She met Friedman at an online musical theater conference. (Like you do.) During one of the chats at a session, Friedman wrote that he was looking for a female co-writer for a musical about breast implants. Without hesitation, Goodenow answered the call. 

“He had the plot. I brought the story,” she says. “It could easily become camp and superficial. And I was not interested in allowing that to happen. So I made sure that we really delve into breast reconstructive surgery and gender confirmation surgery.” (And give or take 4,000 Friedman boob jokes.)

He has some additional help, too. Rebecca Lowrey is the producing director at musicalwriters.com, but you might know her from her #DuetWithMe TikToks that encourage people to sing along with her piano accompaniment. In one such video, Lowrey answers a fan question: “Did I record a song from Shrek in the hopes that bearded baritones would duet with me? Yes. Yes, I did.” Lowrey has been a music director, vocal coach, and accompanist in North Texas, New York City, and “everywhere in between.” Her recent credits include the production of the rock musical Lizzie at Imprint Theatreworks in Dallas and Gutenberg! The Musical! at Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth. 

Ron Friedman surgery
Surgical Theater: The blue and white boxes in the background contain breast implants. Friedman’s practice maintains one of the largest in-house stocks of implants in North Texas. Elizabeth Lavin

Lowrey has shepherded Friedman through the process of writing his musical. “I think Ron said in an interview that he did with us once that he just assumed that he would write this show and that it would go straight to Broadway,” she says. “He just had no idea that there are all these steps and rewrites and changes and edits.” 

Lowrey’s role with new musicals is to “make the table reads happen, the stage readings happen so that writers can see and hear what their shows sound like.” She believes Friedman’s musical could be successful. “I think that it’s very likely because I think that it is a subject that really is universal,” Lowrey says. “Everybody loves boobs. I don’t know how more succinctly to put it.” She laughs. “Everyone does: men, women, gay men, gay women. Everybody enjoys that subject. It’s one of the few things we can still joke about and nobody gets offended.”

Is a musical about the history of breast implants an idea that’s truly that far out there? When you boil down the concept of every single successful Broadway musical, they all sound like ideas that should never make it:

“It’s about cats, I guess? Very, very sad cats.”

“So, imagine a bunch of nuns and Nazis. What if they were singing about being 16 going on 17 and begging to smash, though?”

“It’s about AIDS, but like, hilarious AIDS. Unrelated: did you know there are 525,600 minutes in a year? Wrote a song about it.”

“One word: orphans!”

Evidently, for a musical to hit it big on Broadway, it needs to sound like a terrible idea in concept. See: Mamma Mia! This show features every song your aunt knows by ABBA (which is every song they’ve ever recorded, plus B-sides) plus a wedding. That sucker didn’t just make it to Broadway; they made it into a movie. They even got Meryl Freaking Streep. And a sequel. I saw this musical when it came to Dallas when I was a teenager, and it’s the only musical I’ve ever attended that had people standing up and dance-singing at their seats during the show. It was like a sea of those inflatable dancing tube guys that they put outside of used car dealerships, only it was a bunch of middle-aged moms LiveLaughLove-ing. 

To succeed, musicals must have these ingredients: 

1) Cheesy songs. Don’t try to write a musical without a cheesy song or 12. If you’re not here to write cheesy songs, you’re writing a play. Gross. 

2) A love story that shows up immediately. Don’t Shakespeare me and make me figure out if it’s going to work out or not in the end. This love story needs to be obvious as hell. It’s OK if there are star-crossed lovers somewhere in the mix, but we’re going to need two characters making out during the reprise of your cheesiest song at the end, or we’re not sitting here for two hours. We bought tickets to a show where people sing their lines. By design, it’s not that deep. 

3) WTF. The WTF could be a supporting character who always gets a laugh (see: Rizzo, King George III, the Cowardly Lion), or it could be the larger concept of the show itself (see: The Book of Mormon, Hair, Little Shop of Horrors). But without WTF, you’re wasting your time composing all those harmonies.

If you do the math, and the equation is Cheesy Songs + Love Story + 2(WTF) = Success, then Ron Friedman is the next big thing in musicals. His musical has everything. It’s full of cheesy, punny songs; there’s a love story; and he’s WTF-ing all over the place. From the giant nipples in the logo of the musical to the dog on stage that’s rocking a pair of silicone implants, Friedman has the WTF handled.

“Everyone loves boobs. I don’t know how to more succinctly to put it.”

But Lowrey from musicalwriters.com is clear-eyed about the whole thing. She says, “I think their—I don’t like to use the term ‘roadblock’ because it sounds so negative, but ‘consideration’ is the word I’ll use—I think that it is a very Texan story. It very much appeals to Texans. I think that is going to be one of the considerations when you’re looking at all the way to New York and all the way to Broadway.”

Another potential roadblock—erm, consideration—for Friedman: a quick google will tell you that his cleaVage musical isn’t the only cleavage musical ever written. The other one was written by Buddy Sheffield, the head writer from In Living Color. The show was about the search for relationships and was subtitled “A new musical … close to where the heart is.”

Written in 1982, (the original) Cleavage played successfully in New Orleans and then went on to become one of the shortest-running shows ever to hit Broadway, with exactly one performance. Sheffield’s Cleavage is not about breast implants but instead takes its name from the biblical explanation of marriage: “A man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his spouse.”

(Totally unrelated but fascinating tangent: Sheffield sued Disney over a project he pitched in 2001 that they passed on. It was a show about a junior high kid with a widowed parent who is a regular kid by day and a rock star by night. He called it Rock and Roland. Disney showed great interest at first but eventually passed on the idea. Then Disney rolled out a show with exactly the same concept that they called Hannah Montana. This lawsuit was quietly settled out of court. Gotta hope he doesn’t come for Friedman next.) 

So, the first Cleavage musical doesn’t feel like a consideration that can’t be overcome. And the second consideration? If Oklahoma—land of a thousand nothingburgers—can have a musical named after it, surely we can have one about Texas-sizing boobs that hits the big-time, too. Every single one of Friedman’s songs trounces “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” Don’t @ me.

And, anyway, it all depends on your definition of success. Lowrey says, “Personally, when I work with writers, I do everything in my power to decentralize Broadway. I think it’s irresponsible to assume that for every musical, the path is all the way to New York. That’s like telling every high school football player that they’re going to be in the NFL.” 

She tells me Hamilton took seven years from start to finish. And that was with a writer who already had multiple Broadway successes. 

“You’d have to have a local or regional theater pick it up, then you’d have an out-of-town tryout, which is the last step before Broadway. That would be in Chicago or Denver or Atlanta—or even Dallas—where you see if you can get enough buzz to make it to Broadway. And then, after that, it’s a real-
estate game. You’ve gotta have an open theater, and you’ve gotta have the money to convince those theater owners that your show is going to make them money.”

Friedman is plodding along full of positive energy. “Broadway is a close-knit group,” he says. “You basically wait for somebody to die to get in. Which coincidentally just happened. I was very glad when they told me Dear Evan Hansen is going off-Broadway and Phantom of the Opera is closing after 34 years on Broadway. I’m like, well, that’s really nice of them to free up space.” 

He says he’s willing to spend six figures to make this happen. But not seven. You have to draw the line somewhere, right? 

ron and jin friendman
Perfect Harmony: Ron and Jin Friedman have been married for 29 years and have worked together since 1996. Elizabeth Lavin

The morning of the table read, I receive a reminder text from Friedman about the event: “We’ll have mountains of material to cover (two to be exact).” The event was previously scheduled to take place at someone’s house, but at the last minute, Friedman lets me know that the venue has been upgraded to take place at DHD Films in Dallas. Unfortunately, the air conditioning isn’t working at DHD Films on a late afternoon in mid-September, so there is a certain uncomfortable sheen about the entire audience of tens of people. Actors fan themselves with their scripts. Worst of all? People aren’t eating the snacks. This greatly bothers Jin, who sounds just like my own mother reminding guests, “Don’t forget, there are still lots of snacks!” “Before the show starts, get a snack!” “Do you have your snacks?” She has the loving intensity of someone who just spent a lot of money on snacks.

Meanwhile, Friedman is having the time of his life. The forecast is 55 degrees with 100 percent chance of badass in Friedmanland. After years of writing, edits, cuts, and changes, cleaVage: The Front Story is finally presented to an audience. Someone interviews him on a small handheld camera; he hired the crew for what I can only presume is an investment in Friedman’s movie The Making of cleaVage: The Front Story. There are eight actors preparing to read the script, humming and stretching out their necks. 

You can’t help but wonder how much this is costing Friedman. But who cares? How much is living your best life worth? Maybe it’s not the road to your dream to host a table read for a musical about the history of breast implants with pastries and wine, but it’s Friedman’s. And he’s so happy that you can’t help but be happy along with him. Dude is gleaming, and that’s not just the fillers and Botox talking.

Before the table read starts, Friedman is called to the front of the room to say a few words. His short-sleeved button-down a bit wrinkled, distressed jeans, and sneakers say, “I’m casual and totally cool.” But his eyes betray him. His delivery is stiff, rehearsed. He adjusts his glasses, and he doesn’t know where to put his hands. He presents the concept of the musical with a comforting bedside manner and very little eye contact. Then he says, “I want a chance to show you our cleaVage,” and then he waits a beat before he smiles. He barely resists the urge to say, “Get it?” And the room gives him a laugh. He walks to his seat, head held high, knowing he just killed.

The audience is friends and family who are already smiling ear to ear. This group could easily be here to watch a boob musical train wreck happen. They could be here to snicker behind his back and make fun of it. But they’re so clearly not. 

His friends are showing up for him in this moment like parents waiting to see their kid tap dance. Phones are charged. Smiles full-tilt. 

Table reads for musicals can be strange because the songs aren’t yet fully produced or practiced. So, you’re hearing actors read the entire script and lyrics. But rather than singing the songs, they’re chanting the lyrics. The idea here is that it’s a chance to test the plot and lyrics before you fully produce everything. When the title song is “Everybody Loves Cleavage,” and the word “cleavage” is repeated more times than the word “thunder” is said in the Imagine Dragons song of the same title, things get real weird real fast. 

One actor echoes the word “cleavage” over and over during this song in a voice that can only be described as wildly horny Gollum. Later, Friedman assures me that this is not the way the song will be performed in the final version. Which is kind of a shame because it was iconic.

Everyone in the room desperately wants this to be good. It’s that moment in Braveheart when Mel Gibson is like, “HOOOOLD.” They’re all prepping a laugh, ready to deploy it loudly at the slightest joke that even halfway lands. 

Every actor is giving The Most. They dance in their seats, they mouth the words to parts that aren’t theirs, they crack up at the jokes. They’re begging the audience to enjoy this. And for eight actors who are reading this work cold, with little to no rehearsal, they’re selling the hell out of it. 

“This implant is French-made and who can resist a French maid?” Audible full-audience cringe. 

There’s a thumbs-up from a friend in the front row when two main characters find love. The audience taps their feet to a song about breast implant removal. “My melons are gone, and I feel so melancholy.” Friends howl. “Classic Ron!” someone says. Everyone agrees. Ron Friedman is a pun factory. He loves a good boob joke and absolutely adores a bad one. 

He is willing to spend six figures but not seven.

Overall, though, it’s impossible to tell how his show is landing. Is that guy in the second row wincing after the lyric “If you can pay it, we’ll fillet it” in a bad way or a good way? Maybe it’s one of those musical winces. (If you’ve seen a musical, you know that’s a Broadway requirement.) Are people more than a little uncomfortable when two grown men standing at a urinal participate in a swordfight where baguettes stand in for the swords and where “swordfight” is a euphemism? You hold your breath for Friedman for an hour and a half. And then the show ends.

A silent beat.

The room erupts with claps and howls. They loved it? Or they love Friedman? Maybe it’s both?

Everyone in the room gushes about the show. It’s a room full of end zone chest bumps and high-fives. Based on the super rough-draft nature of the whole thing, I would have expected people to say the show was “great” like it’s “great” to see an ex-boyfriend at a high school reunion. But this group is giving “great” like “Holy hell, Dr. Ron! You just got the gold medal in the first-ever Musical Olympics!” Friedman clearly has real friends and family who support him. You love to see it. Makes you walk out of there happy for the guy and only moderately skeezed. 

The musical in its current form is wildly strange. So, it’s right on track to put Dallas on the “It’s the next Hamilton!” musical map. Or it’s not. Either way, Friedman will be out there reducing male nipples, building his liposuction TikTok library, and missing no opportunity to pun the hell out of you when you see him. If you ever get the chance to see cleaVage: The Front Story onstage, do not hesitate to buy a ticket. This is either going to be the best or the worst musical you’ve ever seen. Either way, it’s Ron Friedman’s dream. 

This story originally appeared in the January issue of D Magazine with the headline, “Cleavage!” Write to [email protected]

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