THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE
Though Found and Fortress of Solitude are both very different musicals, they represent a similar genre. It’s a genre that has existed for several decades, but that I think has recently acquired an unprecedented prolificity, owing to the generation fostering it—a generation bred on the technological communications boom and social networking—a generation that can develop even a stage musical faster than ever before—and while I’ve never given it a name before (nor, to the best of my knowledge, has anyone else), I’ll do so now. It’s “Musical of the Moment”. Which is to say, a genre of musicals that represent some kind of inevitable, expression of youthful mindset, riffing off the contemporary cultural zeitgeist. They’re distinguished by catching the public fancy when they first appear; and undistinguished by being all-but-forgotten five years later. With a few fantastic exceptions that manage to define their generations in some definitive way (Hair, Rent, perhaps Spring Awakening), they rarely enter the repertoire—and they’re never held up as models for new writers to emulate (though of course new writers see them and discuss them vigorously, and why wouldn’t they?; they’re written by writers just a little bit less new)…yet in the moment, something about them is necessary.
And I think that’s because they have something in common that demands an outlet:
Restlessness. In particular, the restlessness of the generation in which they’re conceived.
They’re about breaking free of societal restraints, perhaps even battling “the system” (while redefining the system?) and the reason why they catch fire is because they’re produced while they’re relevant—with a speed that generally used to be unavailable to developing musicals—and the reason why they vanish is in part because relevancy fades; and in part because the craftsmanship of the storytelling and songwriting simply isn’t secure or solid enough for the repertoire standard. Though I will say that the craft gap has become increasingly narrow, which is all to the good. (That, I think, has to do with communications boom too. With everything readily available to everyone, including live videos, via fair means and shady, there's less excuse for even writers without formal training not to be conversant with the principles. And of course there are more training programs, watering holes and musical theatre development networks than ever before. As times change, so do generalizations.)
Found is about the founder (pun intended) of the magazine (and subsequent books) from which the show got its name, Davy Rothbart. It chronicles his being fired from a “civilian” job and encountering a run of bad luck, until by accident someone leaves an unsigned note on his car, clearly meant for someone else, and he starts to become fascinated with all manner of anonymous notes—real notes, written and abandoned by real people, discovered in and endless variety of locations—and finds that his interest is shared by thousands. With the help of friends, he launches a magazine. It garners such success, that he finds himself approached by television producers wanting to option Found for a reality TV series—and suddenly right back in the corporate environment from which Found was his salvation and refuge. Storywise the show (book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree) walks its hero down a fairly predictable path (however historically accurate it may be), the novelty being that these real, found notes, a great many set to music—not lyricized, just set in their native form—are used as a running Greek chorus. (The music, attractive and utilizing familiar contemporary pop tropes of the day, is by Eli Bolin, who also wrote the original lyrics not drawn from the notes). Assembled and edited from source material as much as dramatized, Found is not only a musical of the moment, but one with its roots in pop culture novelty. But it made its audiences very happy in NYC and is likely to do the same eldsewhere, at least in urban venues hip to the sensibility.
Fortress of Solitude, based on the semi-autobiographical and stylistically experimental novel by Jonathan Lethem, conceived by director Daniel Aukin, is a musical memory play (book by Itmar Moses) about Dylan, a nerdy white kid whose family goes from affluence to relative poverty and thus from a fairly nice neighborhood to a rougher one in 1970s Brooklyn. There he is eventually befriended by a somewhat like-minded black kid, Barrett, and their bond is virtually formed in the crucible of pop culture, including ingredients like comic books—and most consequentially, LPs of popular music, such as those collected by the white kid’s super-liberal and now absent mom. (The music and lyrics by Michael Friedman are more ecxlectic than usual for a Musical of the Moment, because the span of decades allows him a variety of pop culture tropes, some used in the service of “source songs”, i.e. the songs from that cherished collection of vinyl.) And as it happens, the black kid’s father is a fallen singing star of the 60s and early 70s. But “fallen” is the key word: There are money problems and drugs causing turmoil and trouble and this leads to an enormous tragedy. That’s Act One. Act Two starts with Dylan now an adult, two decades later, a successful music journalist still harboring guilt over what happened, wanting somehow to redress an imbalance of justice (more than this I dare not say: spoilers); and Act Two is where Fortress of Solitude most founders, because it’s not as much about the completion of a quest as it is about the abstractions of internal angst, and subsequently, though it ends, it doesn’t quite conclude. Thus leaving it with a portrait of disaffected youths who then become part of the system they resisted and find their nobler selves lost to it—which is as Musical of the Moment as it gets. Fascinating, though, and like the novel, experimental, with a truly split personality.
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