Monday, May 16, 2011

Barbary Lane’s Creator Looks Back on a Golden Age

Published: May 12, 2011

“We’ve always pined for the old days,” Armistead Maupin said of his fellow San Franciscans in a recent interview. When he moved to the city from Charleston, S.C., in 1971, he used to read Herb Caen’s columns mourning the 1930s, “and people now do it about the ’60s and ’70s. I don’t do it. I really don’t.”

Maybe he doesn’t, but for people all over the world, his best-selling and much-beloved “Tales of the City” novels epitomize those halcyon days between the blossoming of gay liberation and the advent of AIDS.

Tell people you’re from San Francisco, and chances are a dreamy look will come over their faces and they’ll rhapsodize about how much they love Mr. Maupin’s “Tales,” which originated as a serial in The San Francisco Chronicle, the same newspaper that published Caen. A fan once informed the author that her brother had asked to be buried with copies of his books.

It’s surprising, then, that it has taken this long for someone to turn “Tales of the City” into a musical. The saga of Mary Ann Singleton’s arrival in San Francisco and the adventures she shares with her fellow residents of 28 Barbary Lane under the aegis of the maternal yet enigmatic landlady Anna Madrigal seem ready-made for the stage. The story offers ample occasion for wistful ballads, smoldering torch songs and — above all — show-stopping anthems celebrating the giddy pleasure of unfettered self-expression.

The American Conservatory Theater has stepped into the breach at last, with a play featuring a book by the Tony Award winner Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) and songs by Jake Shears and John Garden of the alternative glam band the Scissor Sisters. It will open June 1.

Written for an ephemeral medium and studded with of-the-moment references (does anyone even remember who Marisa Berenson is anymore?), “Tales of the City” might seem an improbable candidate for immortality. Nevertheless, Mr. Shears, who wasn’t even born when Mr. Maupin began publishing the serial in the mid-1970s, was so excited after Mr. Whitty approached him about the project that he and Mr. Garden began writing songs the same day, Mr. Garden told Rolling Stone magazine.

Certain works of fiction are so thoroughly identified with a particular place and time — the London of Sherlock Holmes, the Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe — that they become, by some strange alchemy, simultaneously local and universal.

Although there are no detectives in “Tales of the City,” there are plenty of mysteries, most having to do with who the characters really are and what they really want. San Francisco has long attracted people seeking the opportunity to explore parts of themselves they couldn’t embrace openly in their hometowns.

Yet however eccentric or even faddish Mr. Maupin’s characters may appear, beneath the est, the Quaalude-popping and the penchant for fern bars, their desires turn out to be reassuringly familiar and eternal.

“We didn’t feel the ’70s were going on while we were in the ’70s,” Mr. Maupin, 67, said. “It was just life. I was writing a story about people going through things that people always go through: love, loss and longing — all the big L’s.”

Mr. Maupin, like any true lover, continues to pay careful attention to his beloved city’s moods and passions.

Back in the day, he set his fictional scenes in the real-life hangouts of San Franciscans, seeking out local color at the disco Dance Your Ass Off (“Thank God I never have to do that again,” he said he thought when he left) and checking out “gay night” at the Grand Arena roller rink. For the most recent “Tales” novel, “Mary Ann in Autumn” (published last fall) , he revisited his old haunts in Russian Hill and gave his heroine the same Proustian experience he had himself, thanks to a scoop of Swensen’s Swiss orange chip ice cream.

To keep up with the younger generation, Mr. Maupin also has what he calls “spies.” One is his 25-year-old physical trainer. “She alleviated my fear over whether or not I was missing the spirit of the times. She sounds so much like my friends from 30 years ago,” he said. “It’s basically still the same when you’re young and new in town and trying to beat Mona’s Law” — named for a major character in the series — “which is that you can have a hot job, a hot apartment and a hot lover but you can’t have all three at the same time. That formula still applies.”

As for the city itself, has it changed? “It’s physically more seductive than it’s ever been,” Mr. Maupin said. He and his husband, Christopher Turner, love walking their Labradoodle along the restored shoreline at Crissy Field. Still, he understands when his younger fans say they wish they could have lived in San Francisco in the ’70s.

“It was a golden era,” he conceded, “and I saw it as such when I was living it. I remember standing backstage at ‘Beach Blanket Babylon,’ where I was a scenery pusher, and feeling that I was gloriously blessed to be feeling this freedom and living in this place.”

Laura Miller is a senior writer at, which she co-founded in 1995.

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