Nothing widens the eyes of a film producer like a pitch with a superhero angle. And with so much talent emulating Disney, Universal and Paramount in striking cross-platform deals with Broadway in mind, here’s mine: Move The Fortress Of Solitude, the best new musical of the season, to 42nd Street. Then shoot it.
With a name like Fortress Of Solitude, you don’t even have to build the brand. Just billboard a giant arrow pointing from the Public Theater to Times Square and, to coin a phrase, they will come.
First, a hat-tip to actual Broadway producers. I’m thinking here of Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum and the rest of the team behind The Last Ship, which opened on Sunday and, despite the name Sting attached to its majestic score, doesn’t have a smiley-face story to propel it into the box office stratosphere. They may not be supermen, but these folks needed nerves of steel, not to mention bolas de latón, to develop this $14-million gamble the old-fashioned way, with a very expensive commercial tryout in Chicago, further development and finally opening at the Neil Simon.
You never read the name of any nonprofit theater attached to The Last Ship, despite those tax-free companies — and you know who you are — regularly playing Gunga Din to commercial producers lo these many years.
Back to Fortress of Solitude, which opened at the Public Theater last week (in a co-production with the Dallas Theater Center, where it first ran last season). It’s based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem about two motherless boys growing up in the pre-gentrified Brooklyn of the 1970s. The father of the black kid is an embittered R&B singer who just missed out on stardom and now is reduced to the occasional anonymous back-up gig. The white kid (i.e. Lethem’s stand-in) lives with his father, a struggling artist whose wife has returned to California after dragging them out East in the first place before abandoning them to a walk-up in Gowanus.
The comics-loving boys are named Dylan and Mingus, and the genius of Fortress of Solitude is in the way music is used not only as a touchstone for the period, but as a character itself, embodying the passions, dreams, heartache, exhilaration and fear the boys deal with, as they grow up and into vastly different worlds. I don’t think any show since Dreamgirls and Rent so perfectly captured so much about a generation’s coming-of-age while telling a deeply intimate story. Framing that tale is a series of performances by the father’s group, the Subtle Distinctions, spectacularly choreographed by Camille A. Brown.
The score is by Michael Friedman, a composer/lyricist with an extraordinary track record that includes Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Love’s Labour’s Lost, both Public Theater productions. The book is by Itamar Moses, whose recent play Completeness is one of my favorites (though no-one else’s, but so what?). The show is staged by Daniel Aukin, who directed Bad Jews at the Roundabout and the revival of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love this past summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (beloved of everyone but me, but so what?).
Along with Aukin and Brown, the show has an A team already in place, with set design by Eugene Lee (Wicked, Saturday Night Live) and musical direction by Kimberly Grigsby (Spring Awakening, Caroline, or Change). The characters are so compelling and the music is so good that a film adaptation seems inevitable.
So: Who’s the superhero in this story? The Public Theater. It’s been unmatched in the development of new musicals that challenge the form, challenge audiences and offer inspiring proof of a viable future. The list of shows emerging from the house that Joe Papp built (and the original home of Hair and A Chorus Line) in recent seasons is nothing short of astonishing, for which credit former artistic director George C. Wolfe and current a.d. Oskar Eustis. Especially since the 2012 launch of the Public’s Music Theater Initiative with February House, another Brooklyn-set show, whose cast of characters included the lovers singer Peter Pears and composer Benjamin Britten, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, author Carson McCullers and the poet W.H. Auden.
Add to that list the Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori groundbreaking show Caroline, or Change and Stew’s Passing Strange, then Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the hugely ambitious Giant and last season’s double punch of Here Lies Love and Fun Home. And to that list, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the most eagerly anticipated new show of the season on or off-Broadway, slated to begin performances on January 20, 2015 and already extended through March 22. Several of these shows were co-productions with other nonprofit theaters, which is exactly the way things are supposed to work.
Important musicals are springing from, among others, the Atlantic Theater Company, Second Stage and Lincoln Center Theater, too — but nothing to compare to the steady wind blowing from Lafayette Street. In the case of The Fortress Of Solitude, smart money would ensure the air flows uptown to the vicinity of Times Square. Just follow the giant arrow.