Monday, April 14, 2008

A new "Tales" movie?...well, not exactly..

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Oscar-winning "No Country For Old Men" producer Scott Rudin is bringing the high-society memoir "Oh the Glory of It All" to the screen.

Writer/producer Mike White ("Nacho Libre," "School of Rock") will write the adaptation and also produce the Miramax Films project.

Sean Wilsey's book chronicles his time growing up amid the 1980s San Francisco elite. The cast of characters who raised Wilsey seem to have jumped straight out of a John Irving novel: a drama-prone globetrotting mother who asks her son to commit suicide with her, a distant father who enjoys unnecessary helicopter rides, and a truly wicked stepmother. The book tracks his journey from the dubious role models to a tour of boarding schools and an Italian "therapeutic community."

Armistead Maupin modeled a character in his "Tales of the City" novels on Wilsey's socialite mother, who entertained movie stars and Black Panthers alike in her penthouse. "Glory" hit shelves in 1995 from Penguin Press.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Jeff Whitty’s Broadway-bound Tales of the City musical: Just how gay will it be?

Jeff Whitty’s Broadway-bound Tales of the City musical: Just how gay will it be?

Though only officially announced March 13, and not even anticipated to hit Broadway until the 2009–2010 season, Tales of the City has already been touted by Entertainment Weekly as "the gayest musical of the decade." Sure, the stage adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s queer San Francisco–based 1978 serialized novel reunites Avenue Q’s out Tony-winning playwright Jeff Whitty with out director Jason Moore—and a composing team that includes way-out Scissor Sisters front man Jake Shears—but Whitty, for one, doesn’t necessarily agree that Tales is as gay as all that. He is, however, thankful for his largely gay team, and admits to favoring gay actors for gay roles. We’d better let the self-described gay "chauvinist" tell this tale himself.

Congratulations! I hear you just had your very first reading of the Tales of the City script.
Thanks. It was just supposed to be getting friends and actors together in Jason Moore’s—the director’s—living room, but it’s been blown up into this huge thing. It was totally casual. It wasn’t official at all. The first draft was intentionally overwritten, so we needed to hear it out loud to figure out what we’re going to slenderize. It went very well. Lots of work ahead, but there was a show there! I spent the next day feeling like I returned from war; I had so much anxiety beforehand.

When did you first discover the books?
1993. I’d just moved to New York and didn’t know anybody, and those characters kind of became my temporary friends.

How long before you approached Armistead Maupin about securing the rights?
About two years ago, almost three years after Avenue Q. There was no musical idea that I found inspiring, and I didn’t want to work on anything that I wasn’t excited about. Then a lightning bolt hit me that Tales of the City was the right project. So I called Avenue Q producers, and they contacted Armistead, because I didn’t know him at the time. Then he was totally on board, and it started coming together really quite easily after that.

Did Maupin turn out to be a fan of yours also?
Yeah, he knew me, and I flew out to San Francisco, and it was like hanging out with Mrs. Madrigal. I gotta tell you, he has been the best collaborator. I basically came in and gave him some ideas, and he said, "Great. Go." He’s not been possessive, and he’s had fantastic ideas. He even came up with a couple of song titles that have been spun out into these fantastic numbers. The biggest fear going in, as would be with any project dealing with original material when the person’s still alive, is that you’re going to have to deal with a big box of crazy. But I thought, Is it possible that everyone in this project is as cool and sane as they seem? It’s rare.

One might argue that you’re too young to tackle this project, not being one of the old queens who actually lived through the period.
Gosh, I haven’t even though about that. It’s never occurred to me because it’s my favorite time period. In a way, I feel like it’s more real to me than anything I’m living through these days. I have such nostalgia for it. I wish culture was where it was back then. And I’m pretty much the same age Armistead was when he was writing then -- maybe a little older.

Were you the first to request the rights for a musical adaptation?
I think there had been nibbles in years past, but maybe people would get daunted by the volume of material. The minute I got the idea, I was already shaping it in my head. Someone that read the books a year ago will think, Oh, it’s all there, but there are definitely secondary story lines that we won’t be able to include. And my goal is to never contradict the material; even though there may be a plotline that’s not in the musical, it could just be happening onstage. But it is daunting, I’ll say that. It’s taken a lot of thought and structure, which is ultimately the book writer’s job.

When you’re futzing with such beloved source material, disappointing fans seems inevitable
Absolutely, and I’m ready for that. But I think people will be delighted by the amount that we have in the show. And that was why the structure took so long for me -- figuring out how to keep the flavor of Armistead’s storytelling in the musical. A lot of the flavor comes from those intertwining relationships and accidental meetings. It’s a vital aspect of Tales of the City, and I don’t want to simplify it too much.

Is Broadway ready for a serious gay musical?
Oh, my God. It’s funny, because I never think about it as being a "gay" musical, really. So many of its characters are straight or bisexual, but I think the reason people always think of Tales that way is because it’s one of the first things that actually treated gay people as human, flawed, and like everybody else. I think the shock of that is what gives the books this gay reputation. No doubt that Michael "Mouse" Tolliver is a major character, but so is Mary Ann.

Do you fear any of your producers eventually attempting to tone down the gayness?
Absolutely not. We have the best producers -- the Avenue Q producers -- and it’s going to be that great stew of sexuality that we have in the book. There’s something for everybody.

If you had to compare, which musical will Tales be most like?
It’s really going to be tonally completely unusual. But I will tell you what musicals I study like a hawk. This is going to sound crazy, but Les Miserables, just because it’s this ginormous novel that I think they really successfully condensed to three hours -- but, you know, ours has sex, drugs, and occasional nudity. And Rent, to some degree, the way the music works and the way it has multiple story lines running. I was inspired by Billy Elliot too. Pretty much every musical I see I’m pulling some idea from.

The soundtrack to the 1993 Tales of the City miniseries was pretty terrific. Did you ever consider going the jukebox route a la Xanadu?
[Laughs] No. The idea to use Scissor Sisters really came about organically, because I brought in a CD of music that was sort of a soundscape for the show before we ever picked a composer. It was Sylvester, Rose Royce -- all these ’70s artists, except for the Scissor Sisters, who were on there too. Again, it was sort of another really easy lightning bolt. I just thought, Well, I should just write Jake Shears, who I’ve known for years and years. So I shot him an e-mail.

How did you and Jake Shears -- also known as Jason Sellards -- meet?
Just out and about in that sort of 2000, 2001 East Village scene. We were both still at the beginning of our careers, to say the least. I love living in New York; I’ve learned you can’t ever discount anyone’s project, because it could just blow up into something huge. Like Hedwig, back in the day, was in clubs like Squeezebox, and watching that thing grow into a wonderful organism was really fun.

As much as you downplay the musical’s gayness, is this a project that only a gay team should be behind?
Oh, absolutely. [Laughs] Because I don’t want to shrink from it at all. I want to be as up-front about it as Armistead was back then. I guess I’m a bit of a chauvinist that way, but I want Michael "Mouse" to be as wonderful and flawed as he is in the novels. A lot of the time gay characters become one-dimensional, and these days they’re maybe heroic, but so often they’re just not that interesting. Armistead’s characters are so fascinating. Oh, but [Scissor Sisters tour keyboardist] John [JJ] Garden, one of our two composers, is a straight boy -- so straight he’s gay, but straight.

Do you already have a dream cast in mind -- particularly for landlady Anna Madrigal?
I play what I call the Madrigal game, where I just go around and around thinking of all kinds of actresses from the rock world, the theater world, the film world…she’s got to be really special. I kind of have a "Madrigal of the week" that I get obsessed by. But I’m nervous about talking about casting because then it gets back to the actors and they freak out.

OK, but what qualities are you looking for in central gay character Michael "Mouse" Tolliver?
Cute, obviously -- he’s got to win a Jockey shorts competition at the top of Act 2 -- great dancer, and a really good actor. The thing about Tales is that singing and dancing won’t cut it; we’ve got to have such good actors too -- people you identify with immediately.

Would you prefer to have gay actors play the gay roles?
I’m getting into dicey territory, but I’ll be completely honest: Yeah. I do think it’s important. I think gay people play gay people better than straight people do. But straight people won’t be excluded from the audition process! If there’s a straight actor who can play Michael "Mouse" wonderfully, then I don’t have a problem, but I do have my chauvinist side.

I immediately thought about your infamous 2006 letter to Jay Leno the other night when he asked Ryan Phillippe to make his "gayest look" on The Tonight Show.
Honey, you’ve got to go to my Web page []! I have a little smackdown on Jay that I just posted. I’m over him now. Would you ask a guest to give their blackest look or their Jewiest look? At a certain point it’s like, Man, this is a serious civil rights struggle, Jay. Gay people are funny, and some of the stereotypes are true for some people, but they’re not true for everybody. And all you’re doing is minimizing us into this corner where we can be attacked and treated as less than human. I wrote this paragraph that’s just endless links to gay bashings -- recent ones. I really tried to keep the tone of the letter different from the first one. But who cares? He’s off the air soon anyway. Good riddance.

So you two didn’t remain phone pals after your first conversation?
To say the least, no. And there are a couple funny-ass things in our phone conversation that I never talked about that I now feel free to bring up after the Ryan Phillippe thing. Like, I was saying how gay history is important for people to understand, and how no ones gets that there is a gay history. And he said, [in squeaky Leno voice] "Jeff, I know about gay history. I know about the Stonehill rebellion." [Laughs] And the other thing he said -- and I’m paraphrasing, obviously -- was something along the lines of, "You know, Jeff, it seems like things have gotten a lot better for gay people. There used to be a time when a straight guy would never go to a gay guy to know how to look good, and that’s all changed now." Everything I said was completely over his head, and I think there are people like him who are just never going to get it.

I dread his jokes if he interviews Sean Penn for Milk.
Yeah. And you know, after everything I just said about gay actors, good for Sean Penn. And good for Ryan Phillippe. I guess I’m contradicting myself, but Walt Whitman said that was OK. I traffic in ambivalence most of the time.

Some criticized you after your first letter for not having a sense of humor. Prove them wrong by sharing your favorite dirty gay joke.
I have no capacity to remember jokes at all. Isn’t there an old chestnut about barstools turned upside down? I can’t remember how it goes. I laughed and then it flew out of my brain. But I love pretty much all of Lady Bunny’s filthy, musty old gags.

Much like when Sally Field’s diva Celeste goes to the mall in Soapdish, do you ever lurk around the Avenue Q theater hoping to get recognized on nights you’re feeling low?
No, and what I love about Avenue Q is that I’m utterly anonymous. No one has any idea who I am, and I get to sit in the audience and get people’s unvarnished opinions. That’s what’s fun about being a writer versus an actor. At Tales of the City, I’ll be standing at the urinal with my ears craned, listening to what everyone’s saying at intermission. That’s when you get the really honest feedback.

Whatever happened to your screenplay for Zora, which was commissioned by Jennifer Aniston?
That went into turnaround because she decided she was too old to play the character; the character sort of necessarily has to be 25. That was my first experience in the Hollywood spin cycle, shall we say. It’s fine. I’ve moved on. It’s a great story that someone should tell and could probably tell better than I did.

I also thought of you after the recent American Idol scandal surrounding contestant David Hernandez’s stint as a stripper. When practically every article written about Avenue Q mentioned that you’d been a go-go boy at New York gay clubs, did you regret that career decision?
But he wasn’t out of the closet, was he? Being out, I don’t care. Yeah, there was a point when Avenue Q first started on Broadway and I was paying off the advance that I’d received two years before where I had a show on Broadway and was actually making my living dancing on a bar. It was a really fun, wild time. I have no regrets about it. And my parents love it.

What would it take to get you back up on a bar?
Oh, about 50,000 sit-ups and a Master Cleanse.

Armistead Maupin: The City and the Writer


If there is one modern gay writer who is intimately interwoven with his hometown, it's Armistead Maupin with San Francisco.

By Matthew Link

The author of the beloved Tales of the City novels (the first appeared in 1978) moved to the City by the Bay at the age of 27 and has never left. Maupin recently presented the world with "Michael Tolliver Lives" (HarperCollins, 2007), featuring for the first time in years characters who appeared in his original books. Matthew Link (who lived for years in the same Cole Valley neighborhood Maupin now resides in) recently spoke with the author about his personal relationship with the city.

It's interesting to see how Michael Tolliver has grown old with the city. Does he reflect your own history with San Francisco?
Yes. It's quite an unavoidable situation as I get older. It would be kind of foolish if I kept trying to write about my characters' youth. I'm deliberately introducing some younger characters so that it's not just one great big circus of geezers, but, yeah, I like the sensation that the characters, like myself, have had this long history in the city. Sometimes I don't even note my own aging until I look at my characters and think, Oh, my God, Brian is 63 years old! Which happens to be my age, but somehow it's far more shocking in one of my characters than it is in me.

For me, living in San Francisco in my 20s was a great way to find myself. It seems like people are drawn to the city to do soul-searching.
They are still and always have been. The city is less involved with your outsides than with your insides, if you follow me. It's not a place that's big on ambition or appearances or money, although all of those things help, God knows. It's a place where you are free to make a fool of yourself and thereby discover yourself. I certainly took that opportunity and worked it to the fullest!

Nearly all of your books are set in San Francisco, and your persona is so linked to the city now. Do you think you would have become the author you are if you lived elsewhere?
I honestly don't know. The whole package was so seamless. My creativity and my personal life and everything else came together during the process of my coming out in San Francisco… For the most part I find the city fulfilling in the same ways I always have. It's so physically dazzling; it has a small-town vibe with cosmopolitan attitudes. And nowadays it's quite simply my home. And something I am so heavily identified with I probably would feel weird living anywhere else.

Do you think in this age of "Will & Grace" that San Francisco still serves the vital function it has in decades past as a gay refuge or gay mecca?
I think we created a prototype of how to function as gay people that has been copied elsewhere in the world -- there's no question about that. Every time I'm in a European country and I see that rainbow flag flying at the end of an alleyway, I remind myself that it was created here by a guy I used to chat with on the street. Apparently it still is [a gay mecca] for a lot of younger people, because they tell me they read my books and then moved to San Francisco because of them. I wish I could actually collect royalties on that! It makes me feel good because it lets me know that my love for the place was apparent in the work.

When I was 19, I saw the movie "Vertigo" and it haunted me and impelled me to move to San Francisco. Somehow, it sums up the beautiful sadness that seems to hang over San Francisco and the city's dreamlike quality.
Like no other movie, it really captures the bittersweet quality of the place and the physical texture as well. Hitchcock used a fog filter, and I think that helped in conveying the notion of what the place is all about. It's kind of soft around the edges -- the waking dream. It's heavily shaped my own work, actually. There are a number of people who fall from high places in "Tales of the City." The movie, for me, is a bit of an obsession. I find something new in it every time I watch it, and that's saying something, because I've watched it many, many times.

Alfred Hitchcock called San Fran the Paris of America --
Let me stop you right there, if you don't mind. [The famous San Francisco columnist] Herb Caen used to cringe over the years at the term "Frisco," but the only one that really bothers me is "San Fran." [Laughs] It's the term that visiting flight attendants use. It's not really a term of affection for locals. It's increased in popularity in recent years, but I cringe when I hear "San Fran." It's just a bug up my ass. We're so protective of the place, the people who live here.

It's true, people really have a deep personal relationship with San Francisco in a way they don't with many other large cities.
I think that's true. That causes other people to refer to us as smug, but it simply reflects a genuine affection for the place. But God knows it's not easy to live here. It's way too expensive; you know traffic is awful; there's a lot of drawbacks to living here. But you're so heavily rewarded by your surroundings in terms of both people and scenery -- and people who are scenery!

Every time I go to visit San Francisco, I nearly cry when I'm leaving.
I'm sure I would too if I were yanked away from it.