From Memoir to Musical: 5 tips from Jonathan Lethem and Alison Bechdel



Last week, I went to NYC’s Public Theatre to see novelist Jonathan Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude) and memoirist/graphic novelist Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) discuss the experience of having their books turned into musicals.

I was excited to attend because my friend, the extraordinarily talented composer Peter Michael von der Nahmer, recently asked me to write a chapter of my memoir, Sally’s Circle, as a play scene—and then he will write music for it. How amazing is that?

Of course, the only challenge is, um, WRITING A PLAY. Translating the actual dialogue was easy enough, but what about the internal dialogue? Without that, how do you get across the most intimate thoughts of a character? I attended the event in hopes to find out.

After two gorgeous performances of songs from Fun Home (the funny and poignant “I’m Changing My Major to Joan”) and The Fortress of Solitude (the passionate “Painting”), Lethem and Bechdel launched into a casual, off-the-cuff, riveting conversation. No moderator necessary, so it felt more like eavesdropping on them in a coffee shop.

Here’s what the pros had to say:

1. A body on stage is different than a character on the page.

This was especially true for Lethem, who was surprised to find that even his story’s most hated bully is redeemed in the musical adaptation of The Fortress of Solitude.

But, watching the play for the first time last week (it’s currently running at the Public), he understood. The person up there on stage is a human. And just that simple fact makes him demand our empathy.

He noted that this was even more apparent during a song. “When a character opens his mouth to sing, you’re connecting to their insides.”

So, if any family/friends/ex-boyfriends are offended by my memoir, maybe they’ll be pleased with the musical version J

2. A play is an economic choice: all you have are words + music. 

Poking fun at his length novel, Lethem remarked on the musical writer’s dilemma of translating a 700-page novel into a 2-hour play. “There are no 7-hour plays,” he joked.

But he and Bechdel were equally impressed by how much mileage you get out of a song.

“A song comments on the action or spins out from something in the scene,” Lethem said. “It’s a metaphor breaking through the skin of the story.”

When working on my play scene, I found that writing a song (yes, I wrote the lyrics and even came up with a melody!) was the only way to convey my character’s innermost feelings. I was thankful for the reassurance that I am on the right track.

3. Unlike movies, bad musicals evaporate.

You’d think having a movie based on your book would be the ultimate sign that you’d made it. (Hello, Wild.)

But Bechdel made a wise point (and let me note that just about every point she made was wise, eloquent, and bashful—a combo that left me in pure adoration). She said that rather than film, she preferred a musical, noting that “the bad ones would evaporate.”

Their worst fear was an awful movie that could be watched on Netflix for eternity.

So maybe I take back my wish to see my life as a movie, as I noted after watching Boyhood. I always had trouble picking a curly-haired celebrity to play me anyway. Broadway, here we come!  

4. A musical succeeds or fails within its own terms beyond the book.

Especially for audience members who haven’t even read the book, the play is all they have.

This sounds terrifying, but it also opens a world of freedom. If evil characters can find redemption, some characters can be cut altogether, and entire passages can be stripped out, as Lethem noted of The Fortress of Solitude, anything is possible.

This struck me because when writing my own play scene, I kept feeling that I could fall back on the book. But in truth, you can’t. Whatever you strike from the book vanishes. Poof. The material left must stand on its own.

5. To share or not to share with family? Maybe not.

“I wish my mom could have seen it,” Bechdel said of the musical adaptation of Fun Home, “and I’m relieved that she couldn’t.”

Sadly, her mother passed away only a few months before the show premiered at the Public last fall.

I could relate, as I often question whether my mom would be happy with the final manuscript, particularly since she is my co-author. It is hard not to have her say. And yet I must trust that she has guided me to where I am.

Bechdel shared her mom’s frequent and skeptical comment about the play: “Well, it’ll be interesting to see the reviews.”

It’s one of those lines that’s now seen as naive, given that the play garnered such rave reviews that it will move to Broadway in April 2015. I can’t wait to see it.

Any advice on turning books into movies or plays or musicals? Please fill this novice in!

Photo of Jonathan Lethem by John Lucas/Courtesy of Doubleday; photo of Alison Bechdel by Elena Seibert.