Jonathan Lethem

Brooklyn Bound

Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude, talks about Dallas Theater Center's world premiere musical based on the novel.

published Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Photo: John Lucas
Jonathan Lethem

Dallas — What can we expect to see and hear when the Dallas Theater Center’s much-anticipated new musical The Fortress of Solitude—adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s novel—opens at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Wyly Theatre this month? If the talent and enthusiasm of the show’s creative team are any clue, this premiere might just be one for the books.

“I’m really in a kind of magical zone, having my own book talk back to me, even sing to me.”

Award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem is speaking to an overflow crowd in the Dallas Museum of Art’s Horchow Auditorium. He’s part of an Arts & Letters Live event showcasing the Dallas Theater Center’s upcoming musical adaptation of his bestselling novel The Fortress of Solitude. The book is a sprawling, time-jumping epic that follows two boys, Mingus Rude and Dylan Ebdus—one black and one white—growing up on a gritty street in Brooklyn during the 1970s. It’s an urban coming of age tale: a funny, sad, and moving story about friendship and race, comic books and graffiti tagging, soul music and superheroes, absent mothers and distant fathers. It is, says Lethem, both a personal and a “collective” memory—of a changing city, of a different time, and of people he could not forget.

Lethem, winner of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant and the National Book Critics Circle Award, has spent the day watching rehearsals, and says it’s been “wildly gratifying” to watch his fictional characters come to life in words and music. Fortress was published in 2003, and talk of re-shaping it as a film or musical began within the year—so this world premiere has been a long time coming.

Judging by the number of hands in the audience clutching sky-blue paperback copies of the book, Lethem is the big draw of the night. But DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty is going all out: he’s brought cast members along to sample a bit of the music, and the creative team is here too: the show’s conceiver and director Daniel Aukin (productions for Lincoln Center, Roundabout, Signature and Soho Rep in New York, including 4000 Miles, Bad Jews); composer and lyricist Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson); and playwright—and Fortress book writer—Itamar Moses (Bach at Leipzig; Back, Back, Back; HBO’s Boardwalk Empire).

Fortress marks the DTC’s second musical co-production with the Public Theater in New York (the first was 2012’s Giant). It’s a partnership that Moriarty has enthusiastically nurtured. After the run in Dallas, Fortress will be produced in New York as part of the Public’s 2014-2015 off-Broadway season.

The cast of The Fortress of Solitude has been pulled from both the New York and the North Texas theater scenes. Among the many roles include: Emmy Award winner Andre DeShields (The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’) as Mingus’ troubled grandfather Barrett Rude Sr.; young actor Kyle Beltran (Broadway’s In the Heights) as Mingus Rude; DTC company member Alex Organ (Fly By Night, A Christmas Carol) as Dylan’s father Abraham; local musical theater star Patty Breckenridge as Rachel, Dylan’s mom; Etai Benshlomo (Broadway’s Wicked) as Arthur; Nick Christopher (Broadway’s Motown) as Robert; and Carla Duren (Broadway’s 110 in the Shade, DTC’s Give It Up!) as Lala and Abby.

Fortress also marks the return to Dallas of legendary set designer Eugene Lee, who was DTC’s resident designer from 1984-1991. Lee has been the scenic designer for Saturday Night Live since its beginning, and his designs for Broadway musicals including Candide, Sweeney Todd and Wicked have won him three Tony Awards.


In My Life…

“Everyone thinks the book is autobiographical, and they’re right,” says Lethem. “I grew up on Dean Street”—on the same Brooklyn block, in fact, that he reassembles for the novel in such detail that readers could easily find their way from Dylan and Mingus’ stretch of broken slate sidewalk to their schools and hangouts all over the borough’s Boerum Hill and Brooklyn Heights neighborhoods.

But this was a story Lethem wasn’t ready to tell for a long time. Not that the memories were bad, he insists. But they were “funny and strange and unhappy”—and above all, “incomplete.” The raw material was there, “rich and difficult”…but it wasn’t time. Lethem left Brooklyn behind for college, then moved to California. He was, he tells the crowd, putting Brooklyn “in quarantine”—and instead “acting out a script” of the writer’s life he imagined, heading west (at least metaphorically) along Route 66. He settled in Berkeley, and wrote a series of singular novels that pulled from fantasy and science fiction, film noir and westerns.

They were not about Brooklyn.

Brooklyn was where his civil rights-activist parents (Lethem says he was there in utero for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech) bought a broken-down brownstone “30 years too early” for gentrification, and sent their three children to public schools. “My parents were such idealists, they were sure we were all carrying [the movement] forward,” says Lethem.

Lethem made friends but was always a target, frequently of a kid-to-kid mugging he calls “yoking”—pulled in under the arm of a bigger guy (who talks like he’s a friend) while pockets are searched for lunch money, bus pass, and other treasures that should have been left at home. In any school hallway, he remembers, “I was the last white kid standing.” And, he adds with a laugh, “I cannot tell you what a piece of bad luck it was that the number one song on the charts the year I went into sixth grade was ‘Play That Funky Music, White Boy.’ ”

When Lethem decided to pull those memories, good and bad, out of the “container” he’d put them in, he knew his experience wasn’t enough to tell the story. He went back to the old neighborhood in Brookyn, and started talking to people: to family members, to old classmates and childhood friends, to guys from the neighborhood who’d gone to prison, and others with careers in Manhattan.

This “multiplicity of voices,” Lethem says, is what he loves most about The Fortress of Solitude—that it not just about his growing-up years, but “about everything we all went through together.”



Photo: Karen Almond
The team behind The Fortress of Solitude: Michael Friedman, Daniel Aukin and Itamar Moses


Song Sung Blue…

To see Fortress morph into a musical couldn’t have been a surprise for the book’s fans. The great soul songs of the 1970s are the soundtrack of Lethem’s novel, which also chronicles the fictional career of Mingus’ almost-famous father, the soul singer Barrett Rude Jr.—and Dylan’s and Mingus’ lifelong obsession with the music.

At Arts & Letters Live, Lethem watches as cast members bring to life what he calls his “shadow pantheon” of great soul singers who didn’t quite make it. Barrett Rude’s fictional ‘70s group the “Subtle Distinctions” slides into smoky numbers from the show—“If I Had Known Then, What I Know Now”, “Who’s Calling Me?” and “Bothered Blue”—with Rude’s lead vocals sung by singer/actor Kevin Mambo (Broadway’s Fela! and In the Heights). Narrating the story of the singer’s rise and fall is actor Adam Chanler-Berat (Peter in Broadway’s Peter and the Starcatcher) in the role of Dylan: “Three voices blended, and another rising above….What’s left behind is the music.”

Composer and lyricist Michael Friedman wrote these newly-minted soul “classics.” He jokes that Fortress really is a kind of jukebox musical (à la Jersey Boys, reviving songs from back in the day)—but “it’s a jukebox full of songs that never existed before.” Creating songs that sound like ones we’ve been hearing for 40 years is a trick—and Lethem tells Friedman he’s delighted with the results. “I made a big claim [for Rude’s music], and you made it OK.”

Director Daniel Aukin remembers that when he read Fortress in 2003, he knew immediately there was “something very theatrical” about the work. Though “terrified” by the challenge, he approached Lethem about an adaptation within months of the book’s publication. Songwriter Friedman says he was “haunted” by the story and characters—but once Aukin asked him to think about a stage adaptation, “knew within 24 hours how we’d do it.” Playwright Itamar Moses, last of the creative team to come on board, grew up in Berkeley knowing of “this cool guy” in town who was writing wildly inventive, fantastical novels. Also a Fortress fan, Moses puzzled about which of the book’s “big, wonderful literary metaphors” would work onstage—and how to fit favorite details into the script. “In two and one-half hours, you can’t give an audience everything,” Moses says. But you can, he adds, “provide an intensity from moment to moment” that will carry the book’s themes and emotions onto the stage.

TheaterJones caught up with Jonathan Lethem in Germany (by phone, alas) a few days later—he’s on sabbatical from Pomona College in California—to ask some follow-up questions.


TheaterJones: What is it about Brooklyn? It’s become the focus of so much literary imagination for you and many other writers.

Jonathan Lethem: I don’t really feel as though I’m in an enclave with any group of Brooklyn-based writers, though many do work I like and are friends. I have what I think is an older, more conflicted view of the place, so maybe you could say I’m a holdover—a transitional or watershed guy. The old Brooklyn, the one I knew growing up, was the immigrant Brooklyn, a scrappy place that was pretty dynamic and intense but also traditionally a place people tried to get the hell away from. People graduated to Manhattan in that traditional Saturday Night Fever “across the bridge” aspirational way—getting out into the real world and away from these ethnic enclaves. I guess I’m just old enough that I’m the last of that generation. The Brooklyn writers I identified with growing up wrote about that Brooklyn, or they didn’t. For some, like Norman Mailer, it was the last thing they’d ever think to write about.

The Fortress of Solitude is a pivot from that old Brooklyn identity—the first half of the book is a kind of Tree Grows in Brooklyn story about transcending the place [where you’re growing up]—to something new. The second half of the book is about Dylan’s discovery, which was true for me as well, the disconcerting discovery that the place we were trying to put in the rear-view mirror was—just after we left—becoming a brand name, something fashionable. The motley beginning of gentrification we’d witnessed had really hit big, with real estate values going through the roof, and a whole lifestyle associated with Brooklyn. So when people ask me about Brooklyn writing now, they mean the younger writers, who mostly aren’t from Brooklyn and don’t write about it in that integral or native sense. But they chose a great place to live, an upscale Bohemian home!


Do you still live in Brooklyn for any part of the year?

No, I live in Los Angeles and in a farmhouse in Maine. I miss Brooklyn. But I seem to thrive on this kind of push and pull, one that the book and musical both encapsulate: I enjoy being there, but I like to run away from it too. I don’t seem to want always to be suffused in those memories and experiences. I’ve spent a lot of my life writing about it from a distance.


You talked about Fortress being a “collective” memory of that time and place. When you started working on the story, a lot of the experiences of family and friends went into it too, yes?

Yes, certainly, all of us kids of various racial identities, and all part of the story: my old friends Karl and Dionne [a cousin of Temptations’ lead singer David Ruffin], my brother and some of his gang; above all, there’s my brother’s personal testimony. My brother [Blake] never left New York; he was even more rooted there than I was. One of the sleights of hand with that character Dylan, who is so easily taken for me, is that it’s really just as much my brother’s life and my friend Karl’s life too folded into this one character. I seem to do well with that in my work, if I make single characters contain a bundle of different accounts and experiences.

So there probably wasn’t one “Mingus” in your life?

Not exactly, no. A couple of different guys could rightly claim that Mingus was based on them, and I would never argue that they were in the mix, and on those front lines with me. But it doesn’t simply resolve into a one-to-one matchup or relationship.


You told the Dallas audience you thought you were a “less thwarted” person than your character Dylan. What did you mean?

Well, it may seem merciless, but I think one of the ways you can get at pain or vulnerability is by writing a character who is disadvantaged. Dylan has fewer lifelines out of his psyche, fewer ways to get out of his situation than I did. His home is lonelier than mine ever was; I was always blessed with plenty of encouragement. Dylan makes very little use of school, sits in the back of the class and tries to be invisible. I was the opposite of that; I drew a lot of attention from teachers, and at times that was a real lifeline for me. Fundamentally, the gifts my parents let me discover and explore as an expressive artist, first as a painter and then doing writing, gave me more tools than Dylan has. He’s very divided from his own introspection; he projects his feelings outward into these cultural artifacts [of comic books, LP records, graffiti]. I do that to some extent, but I think my writing and emotional temperament is a lot more connected than his.


Without telling too much, what can you say about the super-natural or “magical” overlay that is part of the story? What does it say about what these two boys want, or need, or dream?

Just even saying those words ‘want’ and ‘need’ and ‘dream’ says some of it. The ring, and the desire for superpowers in the book, is really very raw. It’s about the desire for transcendence—which is simultaneously a dream of empowerment, of being impressive and extraordinary on your own terms, but also a dream of escape, of being something other than what you are. Maybe it’s about doing an end run around your life’s circumstances. So I think the paradox of that wish is very strong, very emblematic of the confusion of coming of age, of loving and hating your life at the same time.


What’s been your role as the musical has taken shape over the past several years? How hands-on have you been, or did you “let go” of this story a long time ago?

By the time Daniel [Aukin] was in touch with me, I had already developed an outlook or strategy on adaptations, because I’d had several things picked up for movie adaptations. I always thought the healthy response for me was to say, ‘Great, now it’s your thing—you run with it,’ trying not to look over people’s shoulders and be protective of my work. There’s nothing to protect; the book is what it is, and it’s still on the shelf [for people to read].

I felt that especially with this project [a musical Fortress], because while I’m a great student of film and have a lot of opinions I feel fairly confident about, I knew that with something like this, I had no expertise that would make me credible as a collaborator. So it was simple. I said: ‘I’m your cheerleader; good luck, and if you have questions, if there’s anything that puzzles you, ask.” Otherwise, I’d said what I wanted to say on the page, and they’re the ones with the theater vision.


You had the chance to see rehearsals here in Dallas—any comments?

I’d seen a couple of workshop versions in New York—presentations for producers—but here in Dallas I had a window right into the laboratory. This was a true rehearsal, with [the creative team] working out problems, working on particular scenes over and over again. I felt very privileged to see it.

And also, I felt a real warmth and kinship with the cast. There’s something uncanny about seeing your characters embodied this way, and I think it meant a lot to them that I cared about the project. Afterwards, Daniel and Michael and Itamar said the cast was given crucial energy at a critical moment; they’re really bearing down to try and perfect it all, doing very hard work, and in a race to the finish line. So, I’m honored to think I gave them a little energy just by being there.


You seem very happy with what Michael Friedman has done with the music—bringing that vintage soul sound to life.

I think he’s done something incredible. I’m a fan of Michael’s work and so I’m very much a partisan, but I think he’s reached a completely new level with this stuff. And it isn’t just the great songs, it’s a whole series of musical motifs that work their way through the entirety. It builds to an amazing body of work—one that’s really symphonic, in its own way.

I can’t wait for people to hear it.


» Read Jan Farrington's interview with Michael Friedman and Itamar Moses hereThanks For Reading

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Brooklyn Bound
Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude, talks about Dallas Theater Center's world premiere musical based on the novel.
by Jan Farrington

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