Gay composer Michael Friedman shares the path of ‘Fortress of Solitude’ from Dallas to NYC to original cast recording
The Dallas Theater Center’s commitment in recent years to cultivating new works has been a boon for local audiences, but increasingly, New York ones as well: Give It Up! made it to Broadway as Lysistrata Jones (with Dallas’ Liz Mikel in the cast), while both Fortress of Solitude and Fly By Night enjoyed off-Broadway runs. And while Fortress of Solitude didn’t play for long in the Big Apple, it has enjoyed something increasingly rare in musical theater: An original cast recording that will help the music endure for generations.
That’s the hope, at least, of Fortress’ out composer, Michael Friedman.
“We ran in New York and have the cast album, though there are currently no additional plans [to mount a production],” Friedman says. “But more and more, that’s how shows survive.”
For anyone lucky enough to see Fortress last year at the Wyly, it deserves to do more than survive — it should thrive. Revisiting the cast recording is like discovering an old friend and being reminded how delightful he made you feel once … and how much you long to experience him again.
“There were some changes [to the score] from post-Dallas — no entirely new songs, but some grew or shrank and in one case a song was cut,” Friedman says. “It was an interesting process turning the show into a cast album. We had some songs that weren’t [played in their entirety], but you hear a portion of them, so we asked ourselves, ‘Do we need to flesh it out more? How do you tell a story on its own?’ But it’s a show about pop music so you get to do a lot of fun things.”
Fun because in the musical, two inner-city boys — one a white kid adrift in the big city with an absent mom and a remote dad, the other the black son of a once-famous musician — forge an unlikely friendship based on a mutual love for rock albums and Superman comics, and enjoy fantasy lives that include the ability to fly. Pop music, comics, magical realism — it has the makings for a diverse and theatrical bit of stagecraft. In retrospect, though, the real wonder was that Fortress got made at all — Friedman turned down the chance to adapt the novel for the musical theater.
“This is the second musical [he previously composed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson] in which I am dealing with obsessions that are not mine, like rock music or comic books. That was not my childhood. The superhero part is not my experience. The mean streets were very much part of what I was growing up in. The agony of that period was palpable,” Friedman says.
Eventually, though, he realized the grittiness could be part of their story as well. The result is a beautiful and contemporary score that jumps through 30 years of music from the 1970s to the new millennium.
The process was not without its pitfalls. Friedman concedes that “the consensus in Dallas was that the show was too long,” he says. “I think there is such a thing as a perfect play, but I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect musical — there are just too many moving parts. [The hardest part is] trying to tell a story and figure out what the central line of the story was. It’s what’s exciting about doing a musical, but it can stall [dramatically].”
Because they were adapting a pre-existing text, the process was less about creating than it is “choosing what you are gonna jettison and what you are gonna hold on to. In the book, there is a sequence where the boys are caught masturbating together. As a gay man, that scene did not imply to me that they had a secret gay relationship, but when you put in onstage, it feels like a ‘gotcha’ moment — a psychological catch-all,” he explains. It was cut, but the final production still implies a deeper-than-we-really-can-know relationship between the main characters.
And because it’s a musical, there’s always the question of when to tell something, and when to sing it. “The music tended to win” while working on the structure with Moses. “He would encourage me that if there was something I needed to tell with a song, always do that over a speech,” he says.
So what song is his favorite in the show? It’s not that simple.
“There’s always the song that was hardest to write, the one that was easiest to write and the one where I threaded the needle the most. The one you’re proudest of is the one that doesn’t fail … and you feel like you got away with it.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 19, 2015.