Once again, a not-so-well known — or well-regarded — Brooklyn neighborhood has found itself as the backdrop of a new theatrical offering. Following on the heels of The Labyrinth Theatre's 2013 production of Dominique Morisseau's Sunset Baby (set in the East New York neighborhood), and Lincoln Center Theatre's recently opened Kimber Lee's brownsville song (b-side for tray) — set in the rough-and-tumble Brownsville neighborhood — The Fortress of Solitude has finally made its way to The Public Theater after a near-decade-long journey.
Based on Jonathan Lethem's 2003 best-selling, semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the musical is set on Dean Street in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn and spans two decades in the lives of two teenage boys, portrayed by Adam Chanler-Berat and Kyle Beltran, respectively. Award-winning playwright Itamar Moses, whose last show Nobody Loves You was produced by Second Stage Theatre in 2013, was tasked to craft the book for a musical from the dense 500-plus page literary opus.
"Daniel Aukin, who is the director of the piece, had read it when it first came out and thought that it could make a pretty spectacular stage musical," Moses explained of the show's origin. "He had approached Michael Friedman to do music and lyrics and then the two of them approached me to be the book writer and those meetings started in back in 2007, 2006 even, but the early work on the show was 2007. So we took that same story and tried to figure out theatrical vocabulary and a dramatic arc.
"I had already read it when they got in touch with me about the adaptation so I definitely loved the book," he continued. "When I first read it, I thought it was a fantastic story and extremely well told. It's very moving and very complicated, and it had a lot of huge themes but it didn't for a moment occur to me that you could put it on stage. So when Daniel and Michael got in touch with me to try to do that, I was intrigued because it seemed like a really, really unique challenge." Moses has taught at Yale and New York University, respectively, and wrote for episodes of the popular HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." He told Playbill.com that working on Fortress throughout the years was "sort of like reinventing the wheel.
"We were making something while also making up the rules in how it needed to work."
Beltran, who plays Mingus Rude in The Fortress of Solitude, was last seen in Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy in 2013. The Carnegie Mellon University alum has been attached to the project since its very first reading five years ago. "I was doing a play at Second Stage and my agent sent me the script for Fortress and I read it backstage," he shared. "It was like this three act, million-page opus but I knew right away that there was something very special and very unique about it.
"I was like, 'What is this weird awesome monster of a script?' and I was fortunate enough to book it and have gone on this really long unbelievable journey, which is the first of its kind in my life and career," Beltran continued. "It's the first thing that I have been with really since the ground zero level and I've watched it change and we've taken it from music stage to labs to back to music stage to Dallas." Fortress premiered at Dallas Theatre Center March 13, 2014.
"It's been such a unique and unbelievable experience," Beltran added. "It has become such a labor of love in my life."
Chanler-Berat, who plays protagonist Dylan Ebdus, shared similar sentiments — he's also been with the show since its early beginnings. But in the interim, the New Rochelle, NY native was keeping busy with major gigs including the Broadway shows Next to Normal and Peter and the Starcatcher, the New World Stages revival of Rent and appearing in movies and TV shows such as "Delivery Man," "The Good Wife," "Veep" and the web series "It Could Be Worse." Revisiting Fortress was full circle for the Marymount Manhattan College alum.
"I'm happy to be back," he shared. "It felt like it came back at the right time. It came back when I was ready for it and felt like I could do it. Sometimes you get your hand on a role and you're like, 'I know I'll be good at this in five years' or 'I know I'll understand this more in five years.' And I really feel that with this project, I feel like my experience and age has only helped me sort of fit into the part."
Chanler-Berat, 28, said he read the book a few times, referring to it as "an amazing epic of a book."
"Now I sort of reference it," he revealed. "It's sort of an amazing detailed character journal that you didn't have to write for yourself. There are a lot of differences in the book and we take liberties. The adaptation is adaptation and it's not fact for fact, but the book is almost written with almost a documentarian's eye so it has some really incredible specific details that are really nice to remind yourself of."
Currently residing in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, Chanler-Berat went the extra mile and sought to research Fortress on his own — scouting out actual locations and reading materials. "I visited Dean Street, which is where most of the play takes place, which is the block where the boys grew up on. And another great landmark of research that has been really great with research is a movie called 'Style Wars' about graffiti artists in the 1980s in New York," he added. "It just paints the picture of what the city was like then and that sort of subculture was. And graffiti artists are very present in the story that we tell and the culture that surrounds it."
As far as aging 20 years within two-act play, Chanler-Berat doesn't attribute the tasks to any special make-up effects or fancy production trickery — underscoring, however, that it's all in the writing. "I think honestly it's a testament to the Itamar Moses, a testament of his talents that it feels as effortless as it does to us.
"I really think a lot of the work and the heavy lifting in that way is really done in the text," he added. "You don't have to do all that much actually. A lot of the work is done in the way that the characters learn how to communicate, the way that they acquire new modes of revealing and hiding themselves." Moses, a Berkley, California native, has written an array of plays — even having some performed in multiple cities during the same seasons. And his playwriting prose isn't one-note either: he chronicled the emotions of professional baseball players dealing with a steroid controversy with Back Back Back, exposed the thoughts of northern California high school students on race, class and politics with Yellowjackets and revealed the awkward romance of two science geeks in Completeness, which was produced at Playwrights Horizons in 2011. Of all of his dozen-plus plays, Fortress isn't the first time Moses adapted a work from another source but it does mark the first time he's adapted for a musical.
"I think adapting fiction to theatre is always complicated because a novel, especially a dense literary novel like Fortress of Solitude, can have a tapestry-like flow. Its time just flows and all of these threads weave together, and in order to make the story work on stage, you have to distill it down and make it into a series of discreet events that link up into some kind of chain of cause and effect," he shared.
"It's sort of like translating from one language to another, and on top of that we were making it into a musical. And Michael was writing this sort of extraordinary score that, as the story moves forward in time, the musical style of the show changes to sort of reflect how music was changing in Brooklyn and America into the '70s into the '80s. And then the second act takes place in the late '90s."
Of the final product, which has been extended to run through Nov. 16, Moses concluded: "I hope that [the audience] is initially engaged by the story and in the end are very moved by the story and then maybe leave still thinking about the story. I think in the journey between these two boys and their friendship, we're, I hope, able to raise some really important questions abut America's potential as an idea and where it still falls short of really reaching that potential."