Jonathan Lethem’s best-selling, award-winning novel, The Fortress of Solitude, premiers this week as a musical at the Dallas Theater Center. The musical follows two boys, one white, one black, growing up in the ‘70s in a Brooklyn full of graffiti, music, drugs – and superheroes. KERA’s Jerome Weeks sat down with the novelist before his appearance at Arts & Letters Live at the Dallas Museum of Art last month.
Weeks: Well, Jonathan Lethem, welcome.
Lethem: Thanks for having me.
Weeks: Ten years ago, when director Daniel Aukin first approached you about doing a musical adaptation of Fortress of Solitude, you’d never had a novel adapted to the stage. Or to the screen. So this was new. But what was your own background, your personal experience specifically with Broadway musicals?
Lethem: This is a great question. I’m really a neophyte. I grew up in New York City. I happened to see a few, catch some great ones. But compared to my personal engagement with a lot of the other arts, musical theater is alien to me. I mean, I really don’t know how it works. So I had to be educated. And I’m still learning.
Weeks: Fortress of Solitude, in one way, is a natural for a musical. You immerse the two boys, Dylan and Mingus, in the music of the ‘70s and ‘80s: hip-hop, punk, funk and especially R&B -- because, it turns out, Mingus' father is a Marvin Gaye-like soul singer-producer, now washed-up and reclusive, living on cocaine and the rare royalty check. But the novel also presents some serious staging problems for any musical – the biggest one that the two boys accidentally acquire superpowers, the kinds of superpowers these fan boys have been avidly reading about in comic books. So what were your concerns with all this going in?
Lethem: Well, first of all, I didn’t have to solve those problems myself, and I’m very grateful. But I think that most any novel presents problems because it’s really enacted on the level of language and interior monologue. But Daniel had exciting ideas about how the stage was a kind of metaphorical space where, in this case, the most provocative thing about the book is also the most difficult, the fact that there are kind of real magic powers in an otherwise realistic story. And rather than get into a realm of special effects and Peter Pan on a wire, Daniel from the very beginning was focused on the idea that we would work with a kind of collaborative visualization with the audience where they would be asked to believe that maybe these things were happening or maybe not. Or maybe they were metaphorical expressions of the characters -- which is actually how they function in the novel. So we knew from the start that Daniel was going to focus on the characters, the emotions and the music and making the story come alive in the songs.
Weeks: Well, speaking of the songs -- the composer-lyricist, Michael Friedman, had an impressive success with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. But this is a big challenge – with all of these different styles, and many of us know and love R & B music. So we'll be listening carefully. Is that too much Motown polish or too much Memphis grit? Is that the right, period James Brown sound I'm hearing?
Lethem (above, foreground, with glasses, at Arts & Letters Live): Of course! And then the idea that my characters are talking about songs that were meant to be hit songs. They have the kind of hooks that get them to the top of the R & B chart. Yet they’re also imaginary, so that’s a terrible challenge, having that kind of import, instantly on stage. You know, there’s a special authority that pop music has when it is the song of the summer and you never get it out of your head and it’s coming out of every car radio. But I think Michael has touched pop magic a couple of times in this show, and I’m really excited.
Weeks: And then there’s the sheer scope of your novel. It's not some slice of life. It covers a whole era, a whole neighborhood. It’s about the two boys growing up, it’s about graffiti and comic books from the period, it's about racial tensions and the gentrification of Brooklyn. How do the show’s creators handle all that?
Lethem: With very brief gestures. It’s like they’ve just invited you to reflect on certain moments and certain themes by just folding them in a kind of tapestry. The theater performers are functioning like a narrative voice. They’re saying, 'OK, come with us now.' And because you lean forward helping the performers kind of enact this transformation, you become their partner.
Weeks: Well, any time a person reads a novel, he also becomes a partner -- of the writer. You mentally fill in a lot of the details yourself.
Lethem: That’s right. That's why I’ve been led to this conclusion that I never would have imagined without this experience: That theater of a certain kind is closer to the art that I practice than film, for instance, which is so literal and demanding. If you have a scene in a jail, you have to do it, you have to show the jail, a convincing set, whereas, here, we don't have to. We can let people imagine.
Weeks: Well, Jonathen Lethem, thanks very much.
Lethem: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.