Friday, March 18, 2011

Telling 'Tales' for the Musical Stage


Thirty-five years after Mary Ann Singleton moved west to San Francisco, one of the city's most beloved fictional residents has a new home: the musical theater.

In May, San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater will stage an original musical based on Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" series about Ms. Singleton and her community of colorful outcasts. The show features heavyweight talent including writing and direction from the duo behind Tony-winning "Avenue Q" and music by members of the electro-pop band Scissor Sisters. Producers say they hope the $2.2 million production could eventually travel to other cities or even Broadway, but don't have any current plans.

As the artistic team makes final tweaks in advance of rehearsals set for April, the show faces a number of creative challenges. It is difficult to predict how audiences will respond to having well-known nonmusical material transformed into a musical stage production. Also, the two books upon which the musical is based contain many characters and intertwined plot lines, making the adaptation complicated. And the show's creators need to be able to capture the carefree mood of a story set in the 1970s without oversentimentalizing the era.

"Nostalgia is always a danger in a period piece," said director Jason Moore, who directed "Avenue Q" and "Shrek the Musical" on Broadway. The question is, "how do you make the period feel relevant" today?"

Mr. Maupin's original "Tales" paints an eccentric portrait of San Francisco involving Ms. Singleton's mysterious marijuana-growing landlady, Anna Madrigal, who exposed her new tenant to a city built on tolerance and filled with disco dancing and drug use.
The musical version will contain all of those elements, along with polyester clothes and big hair. But the show will focus on what it felt like to be in that time and place, rather than what might be "archaeologically accurate," Mr. Moore said.

For example, Mr. Moore said that he and his lighting designer decided to ditch disco lights authentic to the period. "By today's standards, that lighting might seem really banal," he said. "But the experience of people going to [a disco] was amazing, trance-inducing and exciting."

While gently poking fun at how much has changed in nearly four decades, the play's script also highlights issues that remain controversial, such as the battle over gay rights. The story line features anti-gay rights crusader Anita Bryant, and a key song in which one character writes a letter to his parents to come out of the closet.

Getting the historical balance right has bedeviled many musicals. "Having a specific era, time and setting for a musical can be actually be very helpful because it leads you to what the music itself should sound like," said Joe DiPietro, who wrote the book and lyrics for the Tony-winning "Memphis," about a 1950s radio DJ from that city. Yet "it's always important to remember that you're not trying to make a documentary, you're trying to artistically explore the time period," he said. For example, "Memphis" used chord progressions that weren't common in the original era, but helped to update the sound of the era for modern ears.

Musically, the stage version of "Tales" steers clear of the "jukebox" approach used by recent hits such as "Priscilla: Queen of the Desert" and "Mamma Mia," which featured well-known pop songs for their score. Instead, "Tales" has an original, disco-inspired score written by the Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears and John "JJ" Garden, with references to Elton John and the Bee Gees.

To be commercially successful, the musical likely will have to find a way to appeal to more than just theatergoers who lived through the era or are fans of the "Tales" books and television miniseries based on them. So far, ACT says a little more than half of the available tickets have sold for the San Francisco run that stretches from May 18 through July 10.

Carey Perloff, the artistic director of ACT who brought the production to her theater after seeing a reading of an early script three years ago, said she would like to see it run for a long time in San Francisco—and then possibly tour Broadway and elsewhere.

"Tales," which has been underwritten by ACT's donors, is one of the largest and most expensive original productions that the nonprofit ACT has undertaken.

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at

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