Building the Fortress

Writer Itamar Moses and composer Michael Friedman discuss The Fortress of Solitude, having its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center.

published Sunday, March 9, 2014

Photo: Robert Hart
Michael Friedman and Itamar Moses on the Wyly Theatre stage, where The Fortress of Solitude will have its world premiere

Dallas — Playwright Itamar Moses (Bach at Leipzig, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) sat down at the Wyly Theatre recently to talk with TheaterJones about their work on the Dallas Theater Center’s upcoming original musical The Fortress of Solitude. While the winter slush was piling up around their Brooklyn homes, Moses and Friedman turned “snowbirds” and flew south to Dallas for weeks of cuts, tweaks and rewrites.

Based on Jonathan Lethem’s novel, the musical—conceived and directed by Daniel Aukin—uses everything from soul music to street graffiti to tell the story of two young boys, one black and one white, growing up in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood during the 1970s and after. Fortress is DTC’s third co-production (and second musical) with the Public Theater in New York, and will run as part of the Public’s 2014-2015 season.

Inside the Wyly, a sneak peek at designer Eugene Lee’s stage set—which will be duplicated exactly at the Public—reveals brick walls that say “Brooklyn”, with a bi-level overlay of gleaming metal scaffolding and stairs. Previews of The Fortress of Solitude are in progress, with opening night set for March 14.


TheaterJones: Itamar, I loved your Bach at Leipzig but missed Back Back Back when it was produced here.

Itamar Moses: Well, maybe you wouldn’t have liked it as much as the other, so that could be good.


TJ: And Michael, my daughters made me listen to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. It was terrific—really great, politically edgy song lyrics.

Michael Friedman: That’s funny, since [Jackson] originally got produced because someone’s daughter said, ‘I love this song!’ and her father said ‘I don’t’—but then in a while he called back and said ‘I guess I have to produce this show.’


TJ: I know Daniel [Aukin, the director] started chasing this white whale 10 years ago, but when did you two sign on?

Friedman: Daniel and I had worked together at Soho Rep, where he was artistic director, and had looked for a project to do together. [In 2004] he said ‘Would you read this [book]? I feel like it might be something.’ We were ready to approach Jonathan [Lethem], but wanted to go to him with someone in mind as book writer. We’d just seen Bach at Leipzig and loved it, and knew Itamar’s background was Brooklyn and Berkeley [like the author and his main character Dylan Ebdus]. Having seen his work, we knew his sense of structure was very strong; Daniel and I needed that. And happily, Itamar had read the book.

Moses: They called me in late 2006, I think, and we started meeting. Although it seemed like a daunting project, it was one I obviously should say yes to. I loved the novel and really wanted to work with Michael and Daniel.


TJ: So it’s taken a very long time from the first meetings to this opening night?

Friedman [to Moses]: But your other musical [Nobody Loves You] took about this long. And Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was a five-year process. I would say four or five years is the norm from conception to first production, so anything less than a decade isn’t [that bad].

Moses: Whenever someone asks you to work on a musical, the first things they say is ‘We know musicals always take a long time, but we’ll fast-track this one and be done in two years.’

It’s never true.


TJ: You’ve been here in Dallas for weeks, working hard. What have you been up to?

Moses: We’ve been here for the whole process—making some block cuts, refining a line here, a line there. This is the first full production, so there’s been a lot of work for Daniel and our choreographer [Camille A. Brown]; having it completely staged has helped us see how much of the story can be told visually or with movement—and where we might need to remove things that now don’t need to be said or sung. Some of the biggest rewrites came in just this week: fine tuning, but important stuff.


TJ: I like that phrase “came in”—so passive, the rewrites simply turning up like the morning paper—not that anyone sweated blood over every line.

Moses: Yes, that’s right, they ‘came in.’ The muse just crawled out of our wall, and there they were.

Friedman: But it is true that sometimes you need to be passive, just taking it all in, to finally realize what’s wrong with something you’ve been watching for two years, or how you could do something in a different way.

Seeing it staged is amazing, even for us who’ve done a lot of shows. An actor stands downstage looking out, and a whole song that was “I am lonely and sad” can go away—because the audience sees him looking lonely and sad. Or he looks at another character, and you find that the look says it all.

Moses: We’re lucky too because about half our cast has already been in one or more of the workshops we’ve done.

Friedman: A long process means lots of workshops, but then you have actors you really know, who’ve been involved for a while. Having both new people and old people [in the cast] makes the process less terrifying and more organic—though it’s always a little terrifying.


TJ: You’re writing a script for two boys who aren’t necessarily very articulate about what they’re feeling. How do you deal with that?

Friedman: Itamar’s kind of a whiz at writing inarticulate boy dialogue; somehow he can make them articulate in their inarticulateness. I joke that our show is very similar to Wicked, the story of two kids who meet and become best friends and sort of enemies, and who also might have super-powers—but with boys. And that makes the difference: girls articulate their feelings constantly, and boys refuse to: they look at comic books and don’t talk about things, while the girls say ‘I hate you, I hate you!’

In our last rewrite of the part where [Dylan and friend Mingus Rude] go through high school, we were calibrating the level at which the two boys actually weren’t talking to each other anymore. There’s a song that tries to layer everything: what they totally aren’t saying, what they are saying, and what they wish they were saying. It’s a fun sequence.

Moses: And the discovery was almost accidental. There was a place where they were speaking directly to the audience during a song, but we wanted to feel more connection between them. So before we added dialogue, Michael suggested ‘Why don’t they turn toward each other and say it?’ We tried it, and then went ‘Oh!’ because it suddenly read as everything they wished they could say to each other. So again, a long process lets you make lots of discoveries.


TJ:  You seem to have arrived at a really collaborative way to work together—script and songs not standing in their separate corners, but a lot of back and forth.

Friedman: We’ve developed a shorthand with each other, a sense of how music and dialogue and story work. Itamar will say ‘I think this line could be in a song lyric here’ and then I’ll say ‘But what if they could say this to each other before the song’ and we go from there.


TJ: So if someone dangled a great big novel in front of the two of you again…?

Moses: It would take a lot—there aren’t that many books this good, or that are this much about music.

Friedman: The one easy part of this show is you never have to question why it’s a musical—because it’s about people whose lives are so, so full of music. I can’t think of any other novel that’s like that, other than maybe High Fidelity. But we’ve been joking at our house—the three of us have been sharing a house in Dallas—about what our next project [together] might be. No ideas yet.


TJ: You’ve said Fortress is a “jukebox full of songs that never existed”—at least until now. Talk about the music and how it developed.

Friedman:  The musical era of the show is from about 1970 to the end of the century. [A major plot line centers on the fictional—and ultimately failed—career of Mingus’ father, the soul singer Barrett Rude Jr.] I threw my arms around all that stuff, listened to a huge amount of it, and then kind of put it in a box and tried to write the songs as they would have been written at different points in Barrett Rude Jr.’s career. I don’t think of it as much as writing in a particular style, but rather trying to inhabit that character at a certain time and moment and emotion.

When the boys sing in Act One, it’s almost as if their music exists on top of the music they’re hearing; they’ll be listening to Mingus’ father’s songs, for instance, and that’s what makes them sing. Then in Act Two, each of them has their own song, but that’s in a different world.


TJ: Michael, I saw you in a short video trying to define what “emo” music covered. Is vintage soul in any way a kind of “emo”—that ‘My heart’s so full I have to break out in song” thing?

Friedman: I think vintage soul music is the opposite of emo. Emo is like ‘I can’t express myself but I’m going to express myself anyway.’ Emo is so ridiculously expressive, even though it often tries hard to sound inarticulate, that it can be almost comical. Whereas there’s a nakedness in soul music that always catches you by surprise. And soul almost never is funny—it’s not a funny genre, because they’re singing their pain. Soul is a raw nerve; no matter what they’re singing, you feel you are, truly, hearing right through into their souls.


TJ: Itamar, there are so many huge American themes running around in the story, and you’ve talked about trying to figure out which of the book’s “big metaphors” could work theatrically.

Moses: I don’t know that you could ever do this book as a play—because one of the advantages music and lyrics give you is that something that would feel like a baldly stated American theme in dialogue, you can get away with poetically and musically. Theater is good with symbols anyway, but musicals are even better, with people being able to exist as both characters and symbols. You have Dylan’s mother Rachel, who disappears early in the story—but in a musical you can have her hang around as a presence, in memory and in song.

And the most potent objects the book provides aren’t political or sociological symbols. They’re the totemic objects of boy childhood, right? The obvious one is this ring the two boys share, that obviously has some sort of power—either it represents their friendship, or it has magic powers, or both.

Then there are comic books, and records, and graffiti tagging—three niche subcultures that Mingus initiates Dylan into. None of those things seem heavy with symbolism, but of course they are. Comic books are an outsider art form in which certain things can be said that aren’t in mainstream art; so is graffiti tagging.  So they take on overtones, but also still seem like things two boys would really bond over.

Friedman: And the funny thing is, that ring never stops adding overtones. What’s the greatest boy fantasy literature of all times? The Lord of the Rings. What’s the biggest blockbuster musical theater piece of all time? The ‘Ring’ cycle. And then there are unexpected meanings. In Act Two, [the adult] Dylan’s girlfriend Abby is thinking ‘Why are you obsessing about that ring and not giving it to me?’ I hadn’t thought about it being an engagement ring, so these symbolic objects evolve over time.


TJ: You both live in Brooklyn, which has really come back from a rough period to become a magnet for artists, writers, families. What is it about Brookyn?

Friedman: It turns out that where there is an intact housing stock, especially of gorgeous late 19th to early 20th century buildings that stretch for a while, like you have in Philadelphia and more so in Brooklyn; and if you had an appalling system like our show talks about, where banks and governments conspired to completely destroy those neighborhoods as they changed skin color—then gentrification is always going to sweep in once the neighborhoods and the prices have been brought down low enough. So it’s both a beautiful story, if you see what’s happened in Brooklyn—and an awful story about what happened to all those people in-between.

Moses: Then the artists started moving in and writing sad shows about why they could live there–and then their rents went up [and began pushing them out]. I’ve been in Park Slope for 10 years now, but if I were deciding where to move into Brooklyn now, I might not be able to afford to live there.


TJ: What do you think audiences will respond to in this show?

Moses: Well, Michael already told you—it’s like Wicked, but with boys. [They laugh.]

Friedman: It’s a show with many musical theater pleasures, I think, and there’s a lot that happens dramatically. And the run here in Dallas will teach us so much, too—you see how people respond and connect really well to a song or scene, or you can tell where you lose them a little in another.


TJ: So to some extent Fortress is still evolving—you haven’t decided this is “The” version?

Moses: I don’t think you ever do. We want to put on a good show, of course, but we’d be foolish to close ourselves off to anything we might learn from this run. We’re about to get an influx of useful information from the preview audiences, who are here without an agenda, just wanting to enjoy the musical.

But for the most part we’ve handed the show off to Daniel, who is awesome, and to our music director Kim [Grigsby] and a lot of other great people. We’ll still hover, but unless they need us, we’ll be in the background now.


TJ: You both have very “hot” reputations with younger theater folk right now. Will ‘mature’ audiences connect to the show too?

Friedman: When you say it’s a show full of soul music—I think we keep forgetting that a lot of “older” audiences are people who grew up loving soul music. They weren’t born in the 1880s, they were kids when rock-and-roll started popping. That was what was interesting at the Dallas Museum [of Art] event—watching a pretty representative audience listen to Kevin [Mambo] and the ‘Subtle Distinctions’ sing—and the older people in the audience responding to that music because it meant something to them when they were younger. I think there’s a lot for them; more probably than I expected when I started working on the show.


TJ: Has the Public Theater kept in touch, or are they sitting back and waiting for their turn in New York?

Friedman: No, Oskar Eustis [the Public’s artistic head] has been around here a lot—it actually feels like a co-production in the real sense. And Kevin Moriarty and the DTC have been amazing.


TJ: Many years ago, there was more of a ‘farm team’ feel about regional theater—but this really has developed into a balanced partnership, it seems.

Friedman: It doesn’t feel at all like we’re “out of town” on a tryout—it feels like we’re getting to do the show more than once.

Moses: Also, the flexibility of this theater space literally has allowed us to build the Public’s Newman Theater inside the Wyly—so the set can be exactly the same for New York, which is incredibly useful.

I think the model for how to do theater is changing; there isn’t a model now. So a show can be in Dallas, then in New York, and then maybe it will go out to different places again.

Friedman: How people used to make money on theater doesn’t work today, and they have to devise new ways of making money. But what’s cool is that if no one knows anything for sure—your model, your new idea might work! People always say theater is collapsing, but it’s not.

Moses: It’s only collapsing if you think theater can’t change. It’s like television—there are a million networks, the pilot season is going away, and there’s YouTube and Netflix. All the rules are changing. In theater there are so many young, invigorated artists from diverse backgrounds making work. They’re clearly the future of theater; but right now, there seem to be growing pains trying to marry all that with institutional theater.

The thing we’re lucky about is that institutions like the Dallas Theater Center, the Public Theater and [the others] who’ve let us develop the show will take the risk and put the money behind the experiment—and support us over this long span of time as all the theater ‘systems’ are thrown topsy-turvy.

Friedman: But there’s more interest in theater today among high school and college students—and especially in musical theater—than has existed maybe in all of history. Which means there is a huge theater audience—and they’re living in the suburbs of Dallas, in every high school, everywhere. They want to write their own shows, their own musicals. What we haven’t figured out is how to connect all of that to the economics. The theater ecosystem is changing—and it’s exciting to be part of it.

As long as middle-school girls want to get up onstage and talk and dance and sing, there will be theater! Theater will be fine. Musical theater will be fine.

» Read Jan Farrington's interview with novelist Jonathan Lethem hereThanks For Reading

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Building the Fortress
Writer Itamar Moses and composer Michael Friedman discuss The Fortress of Solitude, having its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center.
by Jan Farrington

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