Monday, May 23, 2011

'Tales of the City': ACT puts on final touches

Steven Winn, Special to The Chronicle

Sunday, May 22, 2011

San Francisco audiences are about to enter a theatrical time machine with the dial spun back 35 years. Where they land, in a warmly awaited musical "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City" that opens June 1 at the American Conservatory Theater, will feel very familiar to many, including some who weren't even born in 1976.

First serialized in The Chronicle, Armistead Maupin's buoyant and bittersweet novel "Tales of the City," set in San Francisco, drew an indelible new map of the city for readers here and everywhere. With its interlaced stories of dewy-eyed newcomers and dissolute social climbers, gay coming-out stories and paisley-clad hippies, "Tales" captured the mid-'70s San Francisco of disco and drugs, fern bars and pickup night at the Marina Safeway, a fog-scrimmed age of hope, heartbreak, horniness, innocence and laughter.

The book established 28 Barbary Lane - where Russian Hill landlady Anna Madrigal offers marijuana, maternal love and wisdom to her improvised family of tenants - as one of the most beloved addresses in modern American fiction. It spawned a series of sequels and a much-loved 1993 TV miniseries that starred Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney. The novels continue to find ardent new readers.

Now, with two of Broadway's bright young names as writer and director, and two musical theater novices from the glam-rock band Scissor Sisters signed on to write the music and lyrics, "Tales of the City" is finally getting the musical treatment that's proved elusive over the years. A previous attempt ran aground a decade ago.

This time a "Tales" musical has plenty of tailwind. The ACT production, aimed at Broadway but with no up-front commercial backers or specific New York plans at the moment, is a big-budget undertaking at $2.5 million. Jeff Whitty, author of the ebullient "Avenue Q," wrote the book. Fellow "Avenue Q" alum Jason Moore ("Shrek: The Musical," an early collaboration on "The Book of Mormon") is directing. The set, which features a lofty set of stairs and landings at 28 Barbary Lane, is by Broadway vet Douglas Schmidt. The cast includes plenty of names with major theatrical street cred. They include Judy Kaye as Anna Madrigal, Betsy Wolfe as Cleveland transplant Mary Ann Singleton, Wesley Taylor as the book's gay lead Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and Mary Birdsong as bisexual Mona Ramsey.

ACT artistic director Carey Perloff committed to the project after attending an early workshop. "I loved Armistead's book so much," she said. "There are so many Mary Anns who come here from Cleveland and everywhere else and say, 'This is my story.' "

Led by an anonymous lead gift, ACT assembled a circle of individual and corporate donors to bankroll the show. "We've done big musicals before," said Perloff, "so we knew what the band would cost and what the scenic costs would be. Not that there aren't surprises." Perloff praised director Moore as a "pragmatic and flexible collaborator. If he has a great idea and we can't afford it, he comes up with something else." Perloff is hoping for a summer-long extension of a show that's had a long but steady gestation period.

Whitty, 39, had what he calls his "lightning-bolt moment" when he watched the "Tales" miniseries on a plane to London almost five years ago. "This is how a musical begins," he said of the book's opening, in which 25-year-old Mary Ann arrives in San Francisco. "You put a character into a new environment and see what happens to her." Director Moore, 40, agreed, comparing the story's musical-friendly premise to that of "My Fair Lady" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

The 1970s San Francisco that Maupin evokes with such bright, deft strokes is another intrinsic asset. "There's this idea of the city itself as a force that brings people together, pulls them apart and transforms them," said Moore, who first encountered the novel during his gay coming-out phase in college. "That became a unifying principle for us."

But if "Tales" seemed like a musical theater natural in some respects, it also posed substantial challenges. One of them has to do with the book's multiple, overlapping storylines and large cast of characters. Whitty decided that all of the musical's narrative threads would lead to 28 Barbary Lane and/or to the Halcyon family, a wealthy clan with plenty of problems that money can't solve. To make his stories play out, Whitty had to draw on the next novel in the series, "More Tales of the City."

Even with a number of characters and episodes excised, his initial draft came in at an unwieldy 180 pages. A first reading took place at Moore's apartment in 2008. Subsequent workshops at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut and at ACT helped winnow and refine the libretto. Whitty's sustaining intention was to avoid a "bell-bottom period piece" and instead capture "an amazing time of longing and a sense of people really searching, whether it was through est or smoking pot or sex."

For Moore, "Les Miserables" and "Rent" were touchstones for his staging. Both shows employ multiple story lines and are "about community." He knew he wanted to keep the set light and suggestive, "so one scene could bounce to the next. I'd be a fool to represent San Francisco literally in San Francisco," he said. "I'd rather evoke it." Costumes and the choreography, which draws on everything from the Cockettes and disco to roller-skating and drumming circles, would have to carry a lot of the period flavor.

Songwriters Jake Shears, 32, and John Garden, 36, said they jumped at the chance to write their first musical. "Especially this one," said the voluble Shears. "I read the book when I was 13, before I even knew I was gay, and loved it." He and Garden got to work right away, writing "Tales" songs between Scissor Sisters shows in London, New York, Berlin and elsewhere. The first number they wrote, "Plus One," is still in the show.

"Then when we started getting into it," said Garden, "there was so much to explore in terms of musical styles from the period."

"But we didn't want it to sound like a '70s pastiche," added Shears. "The book is timeless, even though the time when it's set in is important." Garden, who shares an enthusiasm for "The Who's Tommy" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" with Shears, said there's everything from Elton John to Debussy in the spectrum of the "Tales" score. "Not that you'll necessarily hear any of it overtly," he noted.

For a rehearsal visitor, the warm-hearted, crowd-pleasing character of the show comes across immediately. Working in a cramped space in the ACT complex, the company was polishing a big ensemble number that came right on the heels of a tenderly liberating love scene for Anna Madrigal (Kaye) and her secret suitor, Edgar Halcyon (Richard Poe).

"Is there anybody alive without paper faces?" sang Wolfe's plaintive Mary Ann, the cast fixed in a frieze around her. Soon they joined her in a rueful anthem: "This is how people survive - behind paper faces." Moore stepped in when they were finished to restage their exits from the staircase. A prop master took note of the fact that someone needed a martini glass.

Moments later, the mood shifted, first to a defiant Anna leading the way in "No Apologies" and then to a rousing, skin-baring jockey-shorts competition at a gay bar. "Defending My Life" came off as a kind of disco-beat answer to "I Am What I Am" from the Broadway hit "La Cage aux Folles." The musical "Tales" seems poised to strum a lot of heartstrings.

"I get real teary in rehearsal," Shears said. "I don't know if that's my big gay heart or what."

Freely as the feelings may flow in ACT's big season-ending musical, the show has been rigorously and sometimes ruthlessly managed along the way. Songs that Garden loved but called "too vague" or musical interludes that were "too heavy" were cut as Whitty pruned his 180-page script down to something that would seem fleet and light-footed onstage. Musical reprises, traded freely from one character to another, stitch the story lines together.

"The hardest part was getting the flow," Whitty said. "I see this as one 2 hour and 40 minute song." It remains to be seen whether "Tales of the City" will take flight as a musical.

But this much is guaranteed: A big part of the audience will come in humming the story when they take their seats. {sbox}

Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City: Previews end next Sun. Runs June 1 to July 10. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. $40-$127. (415) 749-2228.

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