By FRANK RIZZO The Hartford Couran
July 3, 2009
WATERFORD - The last time librettist Jeff Whitty and director Jason Moore were at the O'Neill Theater Center's National Music Theater Conference, they were working on a little musical with puppets called "Avenue Q," a show that eventually went on to Broadway, where it won a Tony Award for best musical and will end its 6-year-plus run in September.
Their new project is making a musical from Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," the collective name for the series of books based on the era of the colorful, comic and culturally significant San Francisco life in the 1970s and beyond.
"Avenue Q" producers Kevin McCollum, Robyn Goodman and Jeffrey Seller are positioned to take the show to the next step after the O'Neill staged readings Saturday, July 4, Sunday, July 5, Wednesday, July 8, and Saturday, July 11, in Waterford.
Moore says "Tales" translates well to the musical stage because "most musicals are essentially about two things: people searching for love and community."
That's certainly the case with "Tales of the City," which concerns the socio-sexual climate of the era as seen through the friends and lovers who live on Barbary Lane.
But what makes "Tales of the City" sing?
Whitty says he was inspired to turn the material into a musical while watching the 1994 TV mini-series on a plane trip to London three years ago. He says the '70s are "such an incredible decade for music and that music is such an essential part of the stories themselves. It just seemed natural. The first thing [leading character] Mary Ann does is tell her mother that she is not going back to Ohio and that she is staying in San Francisco. I thought, 'Oh, that's how musicals start.'"
When he got off the plane he contacted one of the "Avenue Q" producers, inquired about the rights, and when he found they were available, "snapped them up."
He then turned to an East Village pal, Jason Sellards, also known as "Jake Shears" from the band Scissor Sisters, which draws on disco, glam rock and pop.
"I always wanted to do a musical," says Sellards. "Then Jeff wrote me another e-mail and said it was 'Tales of the City' and when I read that my heart started racing. For so many teenagers the books are a right of passage, and I so identify the 'Tales' with my youth. I immediately wrote back: 'Absolutely!'"
He asked bandmate John Garden to join him in the project.
"Jason just came up to me one day," says Garden, "and said, 'Grab a keyboard. ... We're writing a musical.' ... And that was my introduction to the project."
Director Moore says the Scissor Sisters musicians were a great match.
"There's a theatricality to their music,' says Moore, "and the lyrics are quite funny and smart, and some of their songs have characters and tell stories. There's also a theatrical awareness to their shows as well. They are showmen."
Garden wrote the music to the show; Sellards is the lyricist. Sellards is inspired by the rock musicals he grew up on.
"Since I was a kid I was obsessed with 'Rocky Horror,' 'Tommy' and 'Hair.' They've really been a part of why Scissor music sounds the way it does and has that kind of story-telling function."
All About Story
Storytelling is the challenge for Whitty, who has color-coded and tab-indexed his dog-eared edition of "Tales of the City" and its sequel, "More Tales of the City."
The question, is how do you include the characters and stories into a 2-hour-and-40 minute musical?
"A big inspiration, weirdly enough, is 'Les Miz' and the way [its creators] were able to take that huge book and condense the material. One of things that I love about that show, which I think is terrific, is that it feels so pulpy and rich in storytelling, and in a way, it's the musical version of the page-turner. That's what my goal is," says Whitty.
"I've sort of restructured it. For a musical we need to have a clear ending. Armistead is totally on board and has been delightful to work with. He is just really happy with how much we've been able to keep in."
Whitty and Moore are happy to be at the O'Neill.
"The band tours a lot and all of us are in different cities so for us to be focused for two weeks is great," says Whitty. "The show won't be perfect when we end here, though. 'Avenue Q' sure wasn't. We made so many changes after the O'Neill, but you learn so much."
And the future track for the show?
"I am working toward this Saturday," says Whitty. "If I think about it any further I will freeze up. If someone told me last time we were here that the show would go on to Broadway and run for six years we would have never been able to finish it. The pressure would have been too great."
But there are no puppets in "Tales of the City" — right?
"Well," says Whitty, laughing. "Mrs. Madrigal..." .
TALES OF THE CITY will perform as a staged reading Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m., Wednesday at 8 p.m. and July 11 at 8 p.m. at the Rose Barn theater at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck, Waterford. Tickets are $20. Tickets and information: 860-443-5378 and www.theoneill.org.
Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant
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