By Karen D'Souza
Posted: 05/12/2011 12:00:00 PM PDT
Updated: 05/13/2011 05:39:18 PM PDT
Welcome back to 28 Barbary Lane.
Once again, mysterious landlady Anna Madrigal will hold court over the bohemian denizens of her iconic Russian Hill boardinghouse, dispensing equal portions of wisdom and weed as she watches over her flock of dreamers, swingers and misfits, all looking for a sense of family amid the tumult of San Francisco in the '70s.
Only this time, Madrigal and the other "fantabulous" characters in Armistead Maupin's now mythic "Tales of the City" -- from wide-eyed Mary Ann Singleton to Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and hippie-granola bisexual Mona Ramsey -- will also break into song.
"What makes a story sing?" asks director Jason Moore during a rehearsal for the new "Tales of the City" musical, which makes its world premiere at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater on Wednesday. "Love or loss or emotions so intense that you just have to break into song. In this case, it's people looking for love and trying to find themselves in the big city, trying to find their way in the world, trying to make a family for themselves."
It was lyricist Jeff Whitty of "Avenue Q" fame who first believed "Tales" -- which will continue in previews until its official opening May 31 -- was dying to be reborn as a musical.
The Tony-winner enlisted a top-notch creative team, including Moore ("Shrek the Musical," "Avenue Q") and Jake Shears and John Garden of the glam-rock band Scissor Sisters. In an email to Shears, to pique his interest in the project, Whitty described the musical this way: "From a storytelling perspective, it's 'Les Misérables' in scale, but with polyamory, drugs, joy and death."
Obviously the pitch worked, and now "Tales" is on the verge of coming home to the city of its birth, a prospect that thrills and scares the librettist.
"It's terribly intimidating to be in San Francisco but also wonderful at the same time," says Whitty, who has been working on this project intermittently since 2006. "No production will ever be as cool as this one. This is the home of the books."
Maupin, for one, instinctively felt that this valentine to the city, which began as a serial in the Chronicle in 1976, belonged at ACT, where the $2.5 million production ranks as the most expensive show in the company's history. "I have always had a lot of respect for ACT," Maupin says, "and I felt that the musical should be homegrown, just as the original serial was."
"Tales" came to define not only the zeitgeist of 1970s San Francisco as a freewheeling mecca of disco balls and sexual liberation, but also the enduring spirit of the city as a place where fabulousness is a state of mind and eccentricity trumps conformity every time. Maupin's episodic soap opera fueled the lore of the city as an oasis where quirkiness never goes out of style.
—‰'Tales' is very close to our collective hearts, and it has been a joy to watch the characters we all know and love come to life," says Carey Perloff, artistic director of ACT. "I guess you could say it's ACT's gift to our city, and to Armistead, who has given all of us so much pleasure and recognition."
Indeed, though the stories always had a pop-culture impact, they have grown in critical estimation over time. As one reviewer put it: —‰'Tales' contains the universe, if not in a grain of sand, then in one apartment house."
Maupin, 66, is quick to play down his accomplishment, even though the wildly successful "Tales" franchise now includes eight books (the first published in 1978), three hit TV miniseries starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis and now the ACT musical.
"I have been tremendously happy to create a mythology that has been so personal for so many people," he says. "I always wanted to create a fictional address that took on a sort of geographical reality for people, like Tara in 'Gone with the Wind.' "
(For the record, Maupin once tried to find Tara, unsuccessfully, just as many tourists try to make a pilgrimage to Barbary Lane, to no avail.)
Sitting in on rehearsals, the author says he has gotten a real kick out of watching ACT's cadre of young bucks transport his characters into the world of musical theater. He has become close pals with Whitty, and trusts him to channel the essence of his work.
"They are honoring the characters completely," Maupin says. "There's something very flattering about watching a new generation interpreting your work."
Indeed, as he ages, he finds himself identifying with the older characters in the tales, instead of the young ones.
"When I first wrote them I was young; now I know what it is like to be in your 60s and be in love," says the novelist. "I have been all of these characters at one time or another over the last 35 years."
Whitty has tried hard to remain true to the spirit, tone and scope of the book and its characters.
"There's such a love of humanity in Armistead's work," Whitty says. "That's what I want to capture. The storytelling is so rich. I think for all of us in the creative team, this has been a real labor of love."
Encompassing a campy daisy chain of nearly four dozen characters, the jampacked plot distills the action of the first book, as well as some aspects of the sequel.
"The musical really knows what it wants to be," Whitty says. "There's nothing I have cut that shouldn't be cut. All of the story lines always have to lead us back to Barbary Lane."
Some songs come straight out of the books, such as the "Dear Mama" number, which is based on the words in Mouse's coming-out letter to his family. Other songs that Whitty loved, but that didn't drive the action, had to be cut.
"I am slicing it and slicing it and slicing it," he says, "but with a scalpel, not a hatchet."
Whitty also hopes to use audience reactions to help shape the adaptation. "When I was working on 'Avenue Q,' I had no idea what I was doing, so I learned to listen to the audience and think on my feet," he says.
The Bay Area audience, in particular, comes with high stakes, since devotees of the material are likely to be out in full force. As Whitty puts it: "How do you keep things fresh and surprising for an audience that knows the story inside out?"
"There's a lot of goodwill here, but there are also very high expectations," Maupin says, "But from what I have seen, they are going to be met. I know theater folk have this superstition about talking about how well something is going, but the mood is reservedly optimistic."
"Tales" is the latest high-profile musical with Broadway buzz to be born in the Bay Area, following on the heels of such hits as "Memphis," "American Idiot" and "Wicked."
However, Maupin is not overly concerned about Broadway after the musical's ACT debut.
"Personally, I'd be more interested to see it go to the West End" in London, the author says. "I have a higher profile with the British than I do here, for some reason."
Right now, Whitty and his collaborators say all they want is to give San Francisco the "Tales" it deserves.
"We want to do justice to Armistead's creation," Whitty says. "In all honestly, even the simplest musical is impossible. They are hard to pull off. But if they can do 'Les Miz,' then we can do 'Tales!' "
Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Check out her theater reviews, features and blog at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza.
'Armistead Maupin's Tales
of the City'
music and lyrics by Jake Shears and John Garden, based on the novels by Armistead Maupin
When: Wednesday through July 10
Where: American Conservatory Theater,
415 Geary St.,
Frances McDormand & Cynthia Nixon read Tales Of The City!
"Tours of the Tales" Walking Tour
Aimee Mann - Charmer
My Tales of the City
Armistead Maupin Store