By JESSE McKINLEY
Published: May 5, 2011
JAKE SHEARS, the blue-eyed frontman of the disco-loving band Scissor Sisters, says he still vividly remembers first encountering “Tales of the City,” Armistead Maupin’s freewheeling novel about a group of searchers, swingers and eccentrics at play in 1976 San Francisco.
He was 13. “I hadn’t necessarily figured out I was gay yet, and these two guys in my hometown who were lovers befriended me,” said Mr. Shears, now 32. “And I remember one of them one day passed me the book and said, ‘I think you’ll really like this.’”
Sure enough, he did. And so it was that when Jeff Whitty, the Tony-winning writer of the book for “Avenue Q,” approached Mr. Shears in 2006 about a possible musical version of that first novel and one of its many sequels, Mr. Shears signed up immediately, pulling in John Garden, a Scissor Sisters’ collaborator and touring keyboardist, as well. They wrote their first song — “Plus One,” an ode to an unexpected pregnancy — that day in a Chicago arena where the band was playing. (It’s still in the show.)
All of which quickly convinced Mr. Whitty that Mr. Shears’s talents extended beyond boogie-inspiring beats.
“With pop composers there can be questions: Can they write for character? Can they write for situation?” said Mr. Whitty, who knew Mr. Shears from the “downtown social scene” in New York. “But he just immediately leapt on the project.”
The result of that five-year collaboration will make its debut in — where else? — San Francisco this month as a $2.5 million production that includes a company of 21 actors, nearly four dozen characters, at least two pairs of knee-high patent-leather go-go boots and more than 200 other costumes. (And God knows how much polyester.)
It’s the most expensive show ever produced by the American Conservatory Theater, whose schedule usually mixes classical revivals with more experimental pieces. Single-handedly producing new musicals isn’t typically part of its programming, but Carey Perloff, the theater’s artistic director, said that “Tales of the City” fit both the company’s mission of doing work about the Bay Area as well as providing a low-pressure environment for creators.
“It’s a nontraditional kind of piece — lots of characters, lots of story lines, lots of sex and drugs — and I think we fit what they were looking for,” said Ms. Perloff. “This isn’t a particularly ‘Broadway’ audience. This audience is very game for unusual musicals.”
For the uninitiated “Tales of the City” tells of a collection of San Franciscans trying to make their way in the city during the heady, often happy days after Nixon and before Harvey Milk’s assassination (and, even more tragically, the AIDS epidemic).
And while the “Tales” collection — including “Mary Ann in Autumn” published last year — is undoubtedly part of the gay literary canon, many of the major characters are straight, including Mary Ann Singleton, the wide-eyed 25-year-old from Cleveland whose decision to stay in San Francisco after a summer vacation kicks off the action.
“A young girl arrives in a big city and puts her suitcase down: I mean how many musicals start like that?” said the director, Jason Moore, another “Avenue Q” veteran. “And that’s how our musical starts.”
Between that opening scene and the end of the latest book, however, are thousands of pages of dialogue, characters, actions, reactions, name-checks, name-drops and, yes, sex and drugs. (In one of the story’s more memorable moments the first joint — delivered by the bohemian landlady Anna Madrigal — is taped to the door of Mary Ann’s apartment at 28 Barbary Lane, whose back stairwell is a central motif in the musical’s set.)
Complicating the task of adaptation was the decision by Mr. Whitty to use two complete novels — “Tales of the City” and “More Tales of the City” — as source material. First published as a newspaper serial, the story has an episodic, almost improvisational feel that can be easy to read but difficult to stage. “Originally I thought it would just be the first book, but there’s really important story lines that only tie up in the second book,” Mr. Whitty said. “And I wanted to make the show feel round and not just keep going around in disparate directions.”
There were other challenge, too, including a pair of untested — if notably cool — composers. Mr. Shears, who grew up outside Seattle and is known as Jason (his given name) to friends, said his only previous experience writing for the stage was a one-act musical in high school called “Wailing Betsy” about, he said, “Betsy Ross coming to modern day, time traveling, and going to an abortion rally.”
It was — needless to say — never produced professionally.
Mr. Garden, meanwhile, or “J J” to band mates, had never read “Tales of the City,” though he had seen the 1993 mini-series. (Laura Linney played Mary Ann.) And while the songs for the show came fast and furious, both men said there were dozens that never made it onstage.
“There’s an entire parallel show we cut,” Mr. Shears said. “It’s like the ‘Subterranean Tales of the City.’”
In particular the team found that there’s generally a lot more freedom in writing pop songs. In his life as a Scissor Sister “I can write some nonsense that sounds good and get by,” Mr. Shears said. “With this show you don’t have the luxury.”
Mr. Garden, who grew up in England, concurred. “When you’re writing stuff for yourself you’re the one who has to go up onstage and sing it, so it’s your comfort level of what you can get away with,” he said. “This feels more like doing a crossword, in that there’s a space and there’s a right answer.”
The first draft, in 2008, was “gargantuan,” Mr. Moore said, but useful in “auditioning story lines.” A workshop at the Eugene O’Neill National Music Theater Conference followed, as did more rewrites.
The trick, members of the creative team said, was to find a balance between the story’s charms — the singles scene, the camp, the ’70s — while keeping it interesting for a modern audience.
“To me the period was not as important as who the characters are and what they’re doing,” Mr. Shears said. “And that’s why the sound of the show is not a ’70s pastiche. Of course there’s some disco in the show and moments that point towards certain stylings of the era. But I just wanted the songs to be timeless and natural.”
At a recent rehearsal (previews start May 18 with opening night on May 31 ) the cast worked through the show’s second act curtain raiser, “Defending My Life,” in a room plastered with photographs of familiar San Francisco spots (City Lights bookstore, the Golden Gate Bridge) and familiar San Francisco characters.
The song itself is a soaring call to arms sung by a drag queen named Manita Bryant (played by Josh Walden and inspired by the antigay singer-activist Anita Bryant), who complains that “my pumps have been ground down, till they’re nothing but flats.” But Manita promises to carry on. “It’s nobody’s city,” Mr. Walden sang, “but my own.”
It’s just such a sentiment that characters repeatedly express in the “Tales” novels. And while the critics may determine whether the musical version ever makes it beyond the 415 area code, Mr. Maupin in a telephone interview said he was delighted with the progress of the show, which he said captured not only the moment of 1976 but also the city’s continued reputation as a safe haven for outcasts and oddballs from elsewhere.
“I have a 25-year-old girl trainer who tells me stories about what’s going on down at the multiorgasmic workshop,” said Mr. Maupin, 66, and still living in San Francisco with his husband, Christopher Turner. “The city doesn’t feel any different at all.”
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