If the mark of success for a writer is in being both prolific and versatile, then Itamar Moses finds himself in a uniquely auspicious moment in his career. Balancing work between playwriting and television writing (most recently on “Boardwalk Empire”), Itamar now ventures into musicals and will soon present the New York premiere of Nobody Loves You (a musical comedy about reality dating shows) and the world premiere of The Fortress of Solitude (a musical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel about boyhood friends in Brooklyn).
I sat down with Itamar to discuss what he likes about musicals, how he works with composers, and why the best song lyrics are speakable sentences.
By now in your career, you’ve written several full-length plays and have written for two television shows. Did musicals feel like a natural next step for you as a writer?
I don’t see it as a linear progression. I would say it’s more like an expansion. I’m interested in a lot of forms, and once I’ve worked in a particular form for a long time – playwriting being the one I’ve worked in the longest – you start to chafe against the inherent formal constraints of what you’re doing. I think there’s an excitement in trying things that you’re newer at. It seems to be a way of recapturing that feeling you had when you were first getting into it.
The two musicals I’ve been working on recently came about very specifically. Nobody Loves You happened because Gaby Alter, the composer, is an old friend of mine. Like literally we grew up together and had Passover together. So when he ended up in New York, it was like, “Here we are living in Brooklyn, we should do something together.” And The Fortress of Solitude happened because Daniel Aukin managed to get the rights from Jonathan Lethem and approached Michael Friedman about doing the music, and the two of them called me. I thought I definitely want to work with these two guys and I had read the novel and loved it. So it was like, this adaptation is probably impossible, but I want to be involved in this failed experiment.
When people talk about great book writers, like James Lapine for Stephen Sondheim, what do you think people are referring to? What qualities make a great book writer?
You need to be well-attuned to the underlying story structure. Like if you could see through the surface of a play and see the numbers going by like it’s the Matrix. It’s a supporting role in a very literal sense – you’re building the foundation and scaffolding for the building. And hopefully by the time the building is done, the foundations are invisible and the scaffolding is gone, but because you did it right the building looks great. It has to be ego-less in a way that I think playwrights aren’t used to but which I think is healthy in a way. It’s like being a staff writer on a TV show. If I do my job perfectly, someone else is going to get an enormous amount of credit. I remember this quote, supposedly when he read the script for “Training Day”, Ethan Hawke said, “If I do my job perfectly, Denzel Washington will win an Oscar.” I think book writing is similar to that.
Do you have a favorite composer-lyricist combination?
I think Gaby is really good. His collaboration with me has been fruitful because early on I had a tendency to do stuff that was extremely clever, and Gaby brought me around to the point of view that there’s nothing more satisfying than a speakable English sentence that the character would say in that moment that also scans and rhymes. Someone I think is good at that is Joe Iconis who writes his own lyrics. Michael Friedman is a great lyricist too in a deceptive way. Michael’s lyrics are super smart because somehow the balance between the intelligence and emotion is exactly right so you never feel how smart his lyrics are or that they call attention to themselves.
But other than the people I personally know…
Rodgers and Hart, or Rodgers and Hammerstein?
Rodgers and Hammerstein. You know who’s amazing is the John Kander/Fred Ebb combination. When we were doing Nobody Loves You at the Globe in San Diego, The Scottsboro Boys was there on the main stage. So we went to see it and I remember Gaby said something like, “Those two guys may have written songs that don’t work, but they didn’t put any of them in their musicals.” And it’s true – every song those guys did together, you can hear the bat hit the ball and just watch home run after home run. And Sondheim obviously. I did read his book, “Finishing the Hat”, which is not really a book you read. You dip into it.
And display it prominently in your home.
Exactly. Next to Ulysses.
I’m sure Nobody Loves You gave you an education in reality dating shows. Was the idea of having a philosophy student who mocks reality shows always central to the story?
Yes. From our earliest conversations about the show, what Gaby and I were really wary of was setting up a straw man to knock down. Like, reality TV is ridiculous, so you could do a sketch about it where you’re just shooting at the target. But to do a full-length story where the audience cares about the characters, where they feel something as well as being entertained, you can’t do that. So that character, Jeff, the philosophy student, we were very cognizant that it was just as important to indict ourselves as it was to indict reality TV. And if what the show could actually do was demonstrate that the character who is the most “us” is guilty of exactly the same things that he’s accusing reality television of being.
Which is artifice?
Yeah. That the pose of, “I’m above this, and no one can see through this as well as I can” is just as much a performance as what’s happening on the shows. Or it’s a defensive reaction to not being as adored as you want to be. So that was our approach, to put our thesis right up front. There’s a rant that the protagonist has in scene two that says everything terrible we want to say about reality TV, so the point is to establish that up front and have him realize he might as well have been talking about himself.
Playwriting is inherently solitary before rehearsals begin whereas musicals are collaborative, especially when you’re co-lyricists. Do you think that having a friendship with Gaby was necessary for your first musical writing experience?
Not necessarily. I think with Gaby the thing we had to overcome was being too nice to each other. If your sensibilities are too similar that’s risky. There was that New Yorker article a while ago that had a Q rating for collaboration. It was like, if the people don’t know each other at all, that’s bad, and if the people know each other too well, that’s bad. There’s some peak in the middle where you need just enough conflict. So our challenge was to lower our Q by bringing in a director whom we hadn’t known as long.
Also I imagine there’s the risk of going too easily toward your inside jokes and common references.
That’s true, although neither of us are big into pop-culture references.
And yet this is your subject matter.
Right, but it’s a fictional show. There’s almost no references to specific celebrities, that’s not the way either of us writes. I would say the insideriness of our voice has more to do with a shared Northern California, Bay Area-ish sensibility. But because there are so many artists who come from there, it’s a recognizable voice.
Do you ever watch “Burning Love”? That’s a pure spoof of reality dating shows.
I’ve seen it. I’ve been nervous to watch too much of it because it looks really funny and I don’t want to feel like it’s eating our lunch! But you’re right, it’s just a straight-up satire whereas ours widens the lens a couple more degrees. We pull it back to show the behind-the-scenes workings of the show and the audience watching the show, so there are a couple angles.
Changing focus to The Fortress of Solitude, I read that you were very into sci-fi growing up. Did that interest tap into your willingness to take this project on? Sci-fi is certainly a thread in the book.
Yeah, there’s the thread in the book and in Lethem’s work generally of the person who throws himself into these fantasy worlds. Maybe that had to do with why I liked the book when I read it. But it also touches on a lot of the stuff I tend to write about: the core of it is a friendship between two boys.
I had met [Jonathan] Lethem over the years. We had a sort of inverse parallel path where he grew up here and then spent his formative artistic years in Berkeley, and I went the opposite way. When I was in high school he worked at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue, and a good friend of mine had dated his sister. He had published two novels and his third novel was coming out, so I remember being aware of this guy. He was in my personal and artistic firmament. I just felt connected to him and his work.
The language of the play is so rooted in time and place. How did you begin your adaptation of the work?
It’s just getting the music of how they talk into your head. I didn’t consciously think, “Alright, so how did people talk in the 70’s in Brooklyn?” I had the novel, and I had Lethem’s dialogue. In the early drafts, there was a lot of dialogue directly from the book and some of it’s still in there. That was the seed and everything grew from there.
When you get the rights to a novel, how does lifting quotes out of the text work? What’s permitted?
I think basically anything. But it wouldn’t behoove me to use every scene, lengthwise, first of all. Also storytelling works differently in a novel, especially this novel which has a tapestry-like flow. So how do you achieve that while also feeling like we’re experiencing discreet moments in time. I suppose I could have someone read the whole novel onstage, but what kind of theater company would do that? (laughs)
Where is the script in its development now?
We were developing it for a few years with CTG in Los Angeles. Then there was a dormant period where it didn’t seem like anyone was going to produce the show. It was sort of a wandering in the wilderness time for the piece. And then last summer we did a workshop at New York Stage and Film, and after that things came together very quickly with this partnership between Dallas Theater Center and the Public. It’s getting closer and closer but there are things we still haven’t solved. The next thing is we’re doing a PublicLab at the Public in September, and the Dallas Theater Center is going to do the world premiere next March, and then theoretically it comes back to the Public in fall ’14. So we have time, but we’re gonna use all of it.
Why a musical as opposed to a play with music?
Music is such a big element in the novel. The whole thing takes place against this backdrop of the changing musical styles coming out of Brooklyn during that time. We had to figure out what the rules were and how music operates in the show. The effect Michael is going for is how music actually operates in people’s lives. It’s linked to these moments, and the nostalgia of a particular moment is bound up with a song that was playing at the time.
The challenge for [Michael] was, how do we write music that’s identifiably of a particular era without just making us miss the real songs. Like, without making people say, “I wish he had just licensed a bunch of actual songs.” What he’s done, miraculously I feel like, is written music that feels like it existed but you forgot about it.
Jonathan Lethem has said that in order to write books that were quintessentially Brooklyn, he had to leave it. That he had this enhanced perspective by being away from it.
Right, because there’s too much. When you’re in the middle of something you want to write about, be it a place or experience, you feel this pressure to use everything. There’s an optimum distance, I think, where just the things that are necessary to something you’re trying to make are shining brightly enough at you to see them.