Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tales in the House

by Dan Rubin

Throughout the month of October, while Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet rehearsed on the sixth floor of A.C.T.’s studios at 30 Grant Avenue, two floors up the creative team of A.C.T.’s upcoming season finale, the world premiere of a new musical version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, busily worked with a remarkable cast to develop the book, music, lyrics, and choreography for what promises to be the event of the Bay Area theater season.

The production features a libretto by Tony Award–winning writer Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and music and lyrics by Jake Shears and John Garden of the glam-rock band Scissor Sisters; it is directed by Tony Award winner Jason Moore (Avenue Q and Shrek: The Musical) and is choreographed by Larry Keigwin.

Unlike rehearsals, theater workshops are not intended to culminate in a fully staged production; instead the goal is to help the creators develop a piece of writing, such as a script or score, that is still in draft form. The plan for A.C.T.’s Tales workshop was to get the libretto and music ready for next spring, so that the cast and creative team can begin rehearsals for the world premiere production—which begins performances at A.C.T. in May—with a nearly finished text and score.

The cast of the workshop of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City at A.C.T.’S San Francisco studios. Photo by Ryan Montgomery
“A new musical is one of the hardest things in the world to create,” says director Jason Moore. “Having the time to be together and to try stuff out with actors who interpret the writing is such an important process for any musical, but particularly for one that has this scope.” A.C.T. is committed to developing original large-scale, multidisciplinary productions, especially projects that are immediately relevant to San Francisco—like 2007’s After the War and last season’s dance-based The Tosca Project. “A big part of what we do here,” says A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff, “is celebrate our community. We believe that gorgeous things locally become gorgeous things globally. It is an incredible honor for us to work on this material—which was born in San Francisco—and launch it with this potent combination of artists.”

Armistead Maupin, author of the original Tales of the City newspaper series in the San Francisco Chronicle and the beloved novels it inspired, was himself in attendance for the first day of the three-week developmental workshop. “Thirty-seven years ago,” he told the assembled Tales team and A.C.T. staff, “I was working as a mail boy at Hoefer, Dieterich & Brown down on the Barbary Coast, the ad agency that became the model for Halcyon Communications in Tales. I was desperate to get out of there, and I had heard through the grapevine that there was a job opening in the promotions office of A.C.T. I was just over the moon because I thought, ‘Oh you would get to work in an office, but it’s theater. It would be perfect for me!’ I didn’t get the job, so I had to go out and write a book to find a way to bring myself back to A.C.T.”

“It is thrilling to be at this institution,” continued Maupin. “It is the perfect place for Tales of the City, because it did grow from this little, local thing that was laughed at and protested. To think that it has lasted all this time. I’m hearing from people who are coming from Paris to see the show. It’s very exciting.”

The world premiere production of Tales is scheduled for May 17–June 19, 2011. Single tickets go on sale in January 2011. To lock the best tickets and the best prices, subscribe to A.C.T.’s 2010–11 season.

Support Tales of the City by becoming a member of the Tales of the City Circle. For more information, visit act-sf.org/TalesCircle or call 415.439.2353.

For exclusive first looks, presale ticket info, and special offers, join Tale Chasers, A.C.T.’s email fan club, by visiting www.act-sf.org/TaleChasers


Preview "Mary Ann in Autumn"

The Harper Collins Website has a preview for "Mary Ann in Autumn" here


"Mary Ann in Autumn" will be released November 2, 2010!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Exclusive interview with Armistead Maupin

Tales of the City author visits Rakestraw Books November 4; event benefits Not In Our Town non-profit

Pete Crooks

Back in August Diablo and Danville’s Rakestraw Books teamed up to host a live event with bestselling author Carl Hiaasen. The evening was a huge success, selling out of tickets and raising money for the East Bay teen environmental program, EarthTeam. The event was so much fun, that Diablo and Rakestraw made a goal of doing a similar program each quarter—bring in an A-list author for a live interview with Diablo's senior editor Pete Crooks, take audience questions, and have the evening benefit an important, local non-profit.

Our next event is a beauty—legendary San Francisco author Armistead Maupin has agreed to make a rare East Bay appearance to discuss his beloved Tales of the City series on November 4. The program will begin at 7 p.m., and tickets are $40 per person and $45 per couple—each ticket includes a copy of Maupin's newest Tales of the City novel, Mary Ann in Autumn. Sales benefit Not In Our Town, an Oakland-based organization dedicated to promoting tolerance and inclusiveness in communities. Tickets are available at Rakestraw Books, 522 Hartz Ave., Danville, or by calling (925) 837-7337, rakestrawbooks.com.

Crooks and Maupin had a chance to meet recently by phone, and talk about Maupin's wonderful body of work.

Armistead, great to speak with you. You’ll be out here in Danville on November 4. You’re so well known as a San Francisco resident, do you ever come out here to the East Bay?  
Oh, yes, I was just out there. My last visit was very pleasant—a dear friend’s mother turned 60 and we went to her birthday party in Danville. It was deliciously warm and sunny, it felt like a different country. That’s not to say I don’t love the fog here in San Francisco—I’m one of those odd people who loves fog. It inspires my work.

How does fog inspire your writing?
  There’s an element of mystery and comfort to fog. I like the way it comes in and erases the skyline.

Tales of the City began as a serial in a Marin newspaper. If you could put yourself back in the perspective you had when you were just starting to develop these characters, did you have any idea that they would still be as accessible and popular, 40 years down the road?  
I saw myself as one lucky bastard who was going to get to tell a story, but I had no idea that it would be the vehicle that it has been.

But, I was certain that I had some fresh subject matter. In terms of the gay material, those stories were not being told at all. When I started writing Tales, I had just come out of the closet, and fresh full of oats. And at that time everybody—even in San Francisco and New York—was still taking a beard to big public events. Younger generations are amazed when I tell them how much has changed in the past few decades.

I have read that you aren’t a fan of bookstores that have a special Gay and Lesbian section.
  To be clear, a Gay and Lesbian section serves an important informational purpose, but it is absurd for writers to be aggregated into the back corner of a book store because they are writing about gay characters.

My whole point was to move the discussion of gay life into the mainstream. Tales of the City was about pretty much everybody, and that’s what made it radical.

There was a big gap between 1989 and 2007—the fifth Tales book Sure of You and the sixth, Michael Tolliver Lives. What was happening during that period?
  Well, my mind had been forced to back up a little bit. I was very much focused on the Tales television adaptations on PBS and Showtime.

I definitely meant to ask about the TV series. Over the past few years, we have gotten used to some really outstanding series television—shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, Dexter, Six Feet Under, True Blood are all over cable. Certainly, England has always produced high quality television, but it seems like Tales of the City set the bar for today’s slate of well-written, adult-oriented television series here in the United States.
  Well, first of all, I agree with you. I think the quality of writing and production on television is higher than it’s ever been, and that’s wonderful.
And, even in our case, the credit goes almost entirely to the British, who developed that first miniseries. We had a Scottish director. Our casting director, John Lyons, went on to produce for the Coen Brothers.

That first Tales of the City miniseries was just one of those miracles—a landmark and the beginning of honest television for adults. But, it also that provoked a bomb threat at a PBS station in the south and it was condemned by three different conservative groups, including the American Family Association.

Tales of the City
won a Peabody award. It did a lot of things that had not been done before. The gay male, straight woman relationship in Will and Grace, we did that first. The domestic lesbians on Ellen, same thing.

How does it feel to be the one who knocked those walls down?
This year, we had a popular film called The Kids Are All Right, featuring a lesbian couple. What was unique about that movie was the fact it didn’t make a big deal about the novelty of having gay lead characters.
  It gives me a huge amount of satisfaction to have been a part of Tales of the City, but the success of The Kids Are All Right speaks for itself—I loved that movie. And, I don’t want to sound like I’m taking credit of all these wonderful films that have happened.

Speaking of great movies, one of the most under-rated modern noir movies of recent memory is The Night Listener, based on your novel. The performances by Robin Williams and Toni Collette are possibly career bests for both—and those are powerhouse actors.
I agree, Robin and Toni did some of their finest work in The Night Listener. I’m disappointed that that movie did not find a bigger audience, so I am glad that you saw it. We made a very simple, dark little thriller, that raises more questions than it answers. I like movies like that.

People who read the novel complained that the movie lacked the book’s complexity, but I was very pleased with the film. The frustration for me was that the real story was so much more complex and dark than anything that could have been shown in a movie.

Your newest book, Mary Ann in Autumn, brings back Mary Ann Singleton, one of the original Tales
characters. Has she been in your mind, evolving, growing, and aging for all these years?
Well, all my characters are really just me. There isn’t anything I want to say that I can’t say through the vehicle of these characters. All I really did to write this was do what I’ve always done—just dig into the mechanics of my own life, having a happy late in life marriage.

And of course, one of the great aides I had in writing Mary Ann was my long and deep friendship is my long friendship with Laura Linney(the actress who played Mary Ann on the Tales tv series). When I hear Mary Ann’s voice now, I hear Laura’s voice.

So, I am excited to bring Mary Ann back. Readers tell me that these recent books feel like a reunion with old friends. They feel as if they know these people. They know the frailties of these people.

Another exciting revelation is the news that American Conservatory Theatre is producing a musical version of Tales of the City, debut in May 2011. What can you tell us about that project?
I got casting details this morning, which I am not allowed to share, but they have me dancing. The muical is incorporating the first novel, and the whorehouse plotline of the second novel. Its been so cleverly done that I wish I had thought of this structure myself.

The musical has a score and lyrics by Jake Shears and John Garden of the rock band Scissor Sisters. Jake gave me shout out at the stage the other night when the Scissor Sisters played the Fox Theatre in Oakland. It is beyond exciting to have these talented and out of the closet young people taking on this material.

Finally, I want to ask about something that Mark Twain’s new autobiography made me think of. This November, UC Berkeley Press is publishing Twain’s autobiography, which he insisted not come out until a full 100 years after his death. It makes me wonder what you think people will think of your body of work 100 years from now. Or, if aliens landed and wanted to know what San Francisco was like in from 1973-2010, what do you think they would get from reading Tales of the City?  Well, lets hope the aliens have Kindles (laughs). You know, Twain and Dickens and all these great writers we love so much—mostly the reason we love them, is that they wrote stories about people. We cared about the people they wrote about, it really did not matter what year the story was taking place.

That’s all I have ever tried to do. To tap into my own joys and weaknesses, and to write about it. And I always ask myself and important question, “How have I embarrassed myself lately?” The great thing about that is that when you confess what you’ve done to embarrass yourself, people line up and say, “Me too.” 

This article appears in the November 2010 issue of Diablo Magazine


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Buckley workshops Mrs. Madrigal for ACT

by Richard Dodds
The Bay Area Reporter Online

American Conservatory Theater wants you to know that it is conducting a three-week workshop in October of the highly anticipated musical based on Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. It also wants you to know the names of the high-tone cast of the workshop run, including Tony Award-winning actress Betty Buckley as Barbary Lane landlady Anna Madrigal. But it regrets to inform you that you're not invited.

Even so, the closed-to-the-public workshop with its "star-studded cast" (ACT's term) suggests who may populate the musical when it begins regular performances on May 17. Of course, performers' availabilities and desires may change, and the creative team's assessments of the performances during the workshop may dictate different casting. But it's a pretty good bet that many names will remain the same, and with nothing to back up the following statement but gut instinct, I predict Betty Buckley will carry on as Mrs. Madrigal. She'll be following in Olympia Dukakis' footsteps, which themselves have trod many times across the ACT floorboards.

Betsy Wolfe, recently seen on Broadway in Everyday Rapture, will play SF newcomer Mary Ann Singleton, who learns a lot as one of Mrs. Madrigal's tenants. Wolfe also played Mary Ann in a developmental production last year at the O'Neill Theatre Center. (A bit of trivia: At the O'Neill, Mrs. Madrigal was played by Candy Buckley, who was once married to Betty Buckley's brother.) Mary Birdsong, as bisexual flower child Mona Ramsey, is another holdover from the O'Neill.

Tony nominee Stephen Borgardus, who played the AIDS-stricken Whizzer in Falsettos on Broadway, will play businessman Edgar Halcyon, who develops a special relationship with Mrs. Madrigal. Veteran New York actress Patti Allison has been cast as brothel madam Mother Mucca. Another Tony nominee, Manoel Felciano, has the role of sinister neighbor Norman Neal Williams.

Felciano is a member of ACT's core acting company, and ACT has tapped two graduates of its MFA program for important roles: Nick Gabriel as the happily gay Michael Tolliver, and Morgan Spector as the heterosexual lothario Brian Hawkes. A mix of local and national talent fills out the cast.

They'll be singing songs by Scissor Sisters members Jake Shears and John Garden, and speaking Jeff Whitty's adaptation of Maupin's novels Tales of the City and More Tales of the City. Whitty won a Tony Award for his libretto for Avenue Q, as did director Jason Moore for his staging of the grown-up Muppet-y musical.

Right now, the only way to get tickets to the official run of Tales of the City is by purchasing a subscription to ACT's 2010-11 season. If you want to stay abreast of developments, you can join the musical's email fan club at www.act-sf.org/talechasers.

Richard Dodds can be reached at BARstage@comcast.net.


Friday, October 1, 2010

Buckley, Bogardus, Wolfe, Felciano, Reinders and More Will Tell Tales of the City, the Musical, in Workshop

By Kenneth Jones
30 Sep 2010

Broadway's Betty Buckley, Stephen Bogardus, Betsy Wolfe, Manoel Felciano, Kate Reinders and Mary Birdsong are among players announced to test the new musical Tales of the City in fall workshop for American Conservatory Theater.

A.C.T. will fully produce the show in spring 2011; the coming workshop troupe does not necessarily reflect the final casting. Still, it's enough to whet the appetite of show fans and devotees of the 1970s-set Armistead Maupin novels on which the musical is based.

As previously reported by Playbill.com, Tony winner Buckley (Cats) will play pot-friendly San Francisco landlady Anna Madrigal of 28 Barbary Lane.

The world premiere musical production features a book by Tony Award–winning writer Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and music and lyrics by Jake Shears and John Garden of the glam-rock band Scissor Sisters. Tony Award nominee Jason Moore (Avenue Q and Shrek: The Musical) directs, with choreography by Larry Keigwin.

The developmental workshop takes place at A.C.T. Oct. 4-22; the workshop process does not include a public presentation. No casting has yet been confirmed for the world premiere production scheduled for May 17–June 19, 2011, at the American Conservatory Theater.

In the workshop, Tony Award–nominated actor Stephen Bogardus (Love! Valour! Compassion!, Man of La Mancha, and Falsettos on Broadway) plays Edgar Halcyon, Anna's love interest; rising star Betsy Wolfe (Broadway's Everyday Rapture) plays Mary Ann Singleton, the Midwestern transplant to San Francisco at the center of the story; and A.C.T. core acting company member and Tony Award–nominated actor Manoel Felciano (Sweeney Todd on Broadway) plays Norman Neal Williams.

They are joined by two graduates of A.C.T.'s acclaimed Master of Fine Arts program: Bay Area actor Nick Gabriel as Michael Tolliver (aka Mouse) and Morgan Spector (who most recently appeared with Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schreiber in A View from the Bridge on Broadway) as Brian Hawkins.

According to A.C.T., "The colorful cast of characters that Mary Ann meets upon her arrival at the now-iconic 28 Barbary Lane will be brought to life" by Patti Allison (Orpheus Descending on Broadway) as Mother Mucca, Mary Birdsong ("Reno 911!" on Comedy Central; Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me and Hairspray on Broadway) as Mona Ramsey, Colin Donnell (Jersey Boys on Broadway) as Beauchamp Day, Adam Fiorentino (Mary Poppins on Broadway) as Jon Fielding, and Kate Reinders (Gypsy and Wicked on Broadway) as Dede Halcyon-Day.

The ensemble for the workshop includes A.C.T. M.F.A. Program student Marisa Duchowny alongside a mix of local and national talent, including Arwen Anderson, Keith Bearden, Alex Hsu, Bianca Leigh, Stuart Marland, Jonathan Ritter and Josh Walden.

Single tickets for Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (the show's official title) go on sale in January 2011. The only way to get tickets to the show at this time is by purchasing a subscription to A.C.T.'s 2010–11 season.

The creative team for Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City also includes scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, costume design Beaver Bauer, sound designer John Shivers, and musical director Stephen Oremus.

Development of Tales of the City was supported by the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center during a residency at the National Music Theater Conference of 2009.

For exclusive first looks, presale ticket info, and special offers, join "Tale Chasers," A.C.T.'s email fan club, by visiting www.act-sf.org/TaleChasers.