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THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE: From Book to Stage (posted 02-12-2014)

Composer and lyricist Michael Friedman, director Daniel Aukin and book writer Itamar Moses (all pictured above, from left) talk about bringing Jonathan Lethem's novel to the stage at DTC.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves, and how the three of you came to work together on The Fortress of Solitude

DANIEL AUKIN (DA): I read the Jonathan Lethem novel and its effect on me was profound.  At some point I got the notion that there was a universe in which adapting this incredible work into a stage musical made extraordinary sense and I started to be convinced I might be living in that universe. 

MICHAEL FRIEDMAN (MF): Daniel and I met years ago when I wrote music for a show at Soho Rep (he was artistic director). We then worked on two plays together at Soho Rep. In 2004, he called me out of the blue and told me to read Fortress. We approached Jonathan Lethem, who was intrigued...

DA: ... and, in a shockingly wonderful show of faith and generosity, he granted permission to give this idea a go.  

MF: We then decided to approach Itamar, whose work we both admired. But this is the first time Itamar and I have worked together.

DA:  And so began this journey. 

What drew each of you to the project?

ITAMAR MOSES (IM): I’d read the book when it came out, and loved it. I didn’t immediately see how it could be a musical, but I loved it. And I knew Michael and Daniel, and their work, and really wanted to work with them. So it was all those things, the chance to work on this story with these characters and themes, and to do it with two artists I liked and respected. I wasn’t sure what it was going to turn into, but I had a feeling we’d bring interesting things out of each other.

MF: For me it was the musical aspect of the novel. It’s always tricky to find material that really wants to be musicalized. Jonathan’s novel is full of music, both imagined and remembered. 

DA: When I finished reading the novel I put the book down. The book had other plans for me. Like a handful of great works of art, it left me feeling altered, somehow permanently unsettled. The notion of adapting this into a musical was terrifying and thrilling and finally, inescapable.

How did you approach bringing Jonathan Lethem’s semi-autobiographical novel to life on stage, and how did you determine what of the book would “make the cut?”

IM: I started by writing what was essentially a 200-page “play” where I rendered basically every major scene in the novel in script form. I knew this would bear little resemblance to the finished show, but it was something I needed to do, to get the world onto the page in a different way, and see how the story fit together. Even as I did that, many compressions and elisions and excisions became obvious, and so I made several more passes through it, combing scenes, eliminating sections. A lot of this just had to do with instinct for how a story works differently on stage than in a novel. Then, later in our process, we started doing workshops in front of audiences, and that always teaches you an enormous amount: it becomes obvious what holds people’s interest and what doesn’t. What became clear was that the spine of the show had to be Dylan and Mingus, that on some level every scene needed either to be about why they were together or why they weren’t together. That’s an oversimplification, but it became, and remains, a useful guideline whenever we talk about why something’s working or not.

MF: Itamar is a genius at figuring out how to cut down the material so that you barely notice what’s gone away. And Jonathan was incredibly generous in telling us to take as much freedom as possible with the book. In terms of the question of autobiographical aspects of fiction, we certainly read Jonathan’s wonderful nonfiction essays, which explore all of that, but for the show I think we’ve tried to treat the people and places as fictional characters and places that we are writing, and trying to make that story our priority.

DA:  The first pre-draft draft Itamar wrote of the book contained no songs and basically dramatized the entire novel.  Now there are a lot of songs and music and many deviations from the novel’s narrative. Broadly, we’re trying to tell the same story but the translation into a different form provokes different solutions to getting to a similar place.

In adapting the novel for the stage, what came first—the script or the music? And why a musical rather than a play with music?

MF: We started by writing independently, and then seeing how things fit together. Itamar basically wrote a brilliant adaptation of the novel as a play, and I wrote songs that seemed to fit with the story, though we didn’t always know where the songs would go. I had an idea for the opening--the many different voices of Dean Street singing in counterpoint, and that felt like the beginning of a musical, not a play.

IM: While I was working on the first draft, Michael was separately writing songs. So some of it came together, but on parallel tracks. Then, as we started to put our work together, the songs informed the script, and vice-versa, and so it’s always been a kind of recursive process of responding to each other, supporting each other, following each other in whatever direction feels most useful and effective.

How has the show evolved from inception to its premiere at DTC?

MF: Rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Many readings over many years. Some good ideas come quickly, and some show up much later than you might have liked. We have been very lucky to have been supported by many amazing institutions. Obviously DTC and the Public have been incredible in premiering the show. Early on we did readings with the support of Center Theatre Group, Williamstown, and New York Stage and Film. 

DA:  Its evolved to happily become a stand-alone theater experience separate from any knowledge of or familiarity with the novel. 

IM: It’s gotten a lot leaner and more focused. The story and what it’s about on every level have become much clearer to us over the years. It’s changed in too many ways to count or remember, really, we’ve been working on it six years.

Set designer Eugene Lee (Wicked, Sweeney Todd) is a legend in the world of theater, and he is also the production designer for Saturday Night Live. How did he come to join the creative team?

MF: I’d always admired his work. Daniel had worked with him–

DA:  ... I had worked with Eugene twice before on two wonderful and strange new plays in NYC. When approached, he responded immediately and passionately to the material.

IM: Eugene came to see a workshop and really seemed to get, and respond to, the show. I take his very involvement as a vote of confidence.

How did you know when you had found Dylan Ebdus (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Mingus Rude (Kyle Beltran)? Did you have a specific vision of what you were looking for in casting these two roles?

DA:  Casting is regularly a great mystery. I feel very very very very lucky to get to work with Adam and Kyle as Dylan and Mingus. What can I say? It’s a gut-check. You know it when you see it...

IM: Interestingly, both of them were in our very first full workshop, years ago. Kyle was right out of Carnegie Melon and the moment he auditioned for us for the first time I think we all said: that’s Mingus. We’d thought the right actor for that part might be hard to find because it’s relatively specific: you need a great actor, great singer, able to play the child and the adult, who also is mixed race. We were prepared not to find the right guy right away. But then Kyle walked into our audition, sang, read the scenes, and we all were like: there he is. Adam, at the time, was already in his first Broadway show, Next to Normal, and so we knew how terrific his work was from that, and what a great fit he’d be. (He even looks not unlike a young Jonathan Lethem.)

MF: While the characters have changed since Adam and Kyle did the first reading of the show, we couldn’t have been luckier to find them and keep them. They both have an ability to do extremely difficult things and make them look easy, and to anchor the show with confidence and grace. Not to mention the singing.

There’s a great deal of the unknown to tackle in launching any world premiere, let alone a musical. What has been the trickiest to navigate in developing this show?

IM: Musicals are hard because they seem to exist one level above the level of complexity one can comfortably hold in one’s brain at one time. It’s like looking at an object too big to see all of. Or the blind men grabbing different parts of an elephant. So the hardest thing, as with any musical, is that it’s tricky to figure out what you even have on your hands at any given time. And this musical is also a little weird, with its own weird storytelling rules, so that was an added challenge, figured out those.

MF: It’s a big show, and I think just making sure we tell the story we want to tell is the biggest job. Keeping the big picture and the intimate picture in focus. 

DA:  Yes, while also being able to imagine the experience of someone completely new to the show seeing it for the first time.

And a funny story from along the way?

IM: When Kevin Moriarty agreed to produce this insane show... Just kidding. There’s a lyrical refrain in the show near the end of Act One that goes: I’M BUSY NOW SO DON’T BOTHER ME. The three of us were sitting around, talking about some new lyrics for that section, and Michael said, “I’m just not sure what they should sing there.” And at that moment, an assistant came up and tried to ask Daniel something and he turned to her and said (very kindly), “I’m busy now. Don’t bother me.” And Michael said, “Perfect!” 

MF: Daniel was also a brilliant Arthur Lomb in one reading.

The term “Fortress of Solitude” is a comic book reference to Superman’s secret headquarters, and in this story it is a metaphor for the block where Dylan and Mingus lived and became friends when they were young. What does this term mean to each of you?

IM: I guess where it hits me most personally is that I, maybe a little like Dylan, am the kind of person who instinctively becomes an observer. I like to hold myself slightly apart from situations, think about them, figure them out. The problem with this is that it tends to cut you off from life. Even as it protects you from the pain and messiness of things, you’re not really living. So, for me, it’s a story about the difficulty but necessity of connection. Underneath all its other things, that’s what the title is about for me.

MF: Hmmm. For me it’s another Middle Space, those magical and fragile cultural moments that Dylan describes in his liner notes.

During the workshop performances in October last year, more than a few sobs could be heard in the audience … What moment in the show breaks your heart a little?  What moment in the show do you most connect with/do you relate to the most, and why?

MF: Robert Woolfolk is the character I hope we do the most justice to. 

IM: I don’t want to spoil plot points, but the whole second act basically breaks my heart. 

Has working on Fortress changed you as an artist, or changed how you think about the world?

IM: Yes. It’s made me believe in the potential of a big project to transcend the sum of its parts. That I, as an artist, can do things I’ve never done before and maybe don’t think I can do. And it’s made me engage more directly with some of the stickiest questions, about race, class, personal responsibility, that our country faces and that we don’t like to think about. I think working on this show has made me braver, as an artist and a person.

MF: Not sure I can answer that. It’s certainly changed how I think about what I do.

DA:  Getting to work with two such exceptional artists as Michael and Itamar and getting to be part of shaping the evolution of the material has been and continues to be one of the most uniquely rewarding, sometimes harrowing and regularly deeply fun experiences of my waking life. 

Are there plans to release a cast recording of the show?

MF: I hope so; but nothing is set.

IM: God I hope so. I love Michael’s score.

What’s next for each of you?

MF: The next Civilians show, The Great Immensity, will be at the Public in April. After that, many projects in development. 

IM: I’m writing a movie for HBO about two rival paleontologists. No, really, I am.

DA:  A nap, for sure ...


January 2020