Monday, May 16, 2011

What Armistead Maupin Gave San Francisco in Tales of the City

By Oscar Raymundo, Fri., May 13 2011 @ 12:00PM

Armistead Maupin got teary-eyed Thursday night.

It was right before stepping into the Swedish American Hall, where he'd be the extra special guest at his own literary tribute, Thoroughly Modern Maupin, happening less than a week before the premiere of the musical adaptation of his groundbreaking saga Tales of the City.

"I get such terrible allergies around this time of year," said Maupin, who turns 67 today.

San Francisco's cool uncle is endearing but never sappy.

The event was sponsored by the American Conservatory Theater and Litquake to rally excitement (and sell some last-minute tickets) for the original musical based on Maupin's novels premiering May 18. The event brought together some of the city's most eccentric authors and performers - emerging icons in their own right - in honor of the man who has without doubt influenced them all.

Emcee Marga Gomez recalled reading the original Tales columns in the San Francisco Chronicle and then years later rediscovering them in book form, "because I was so high the first time around." Author K.M. Soehnlein read an original story about a friendship between two gay men who are separated by the so-called "fly-over" states. "Acid Christmas" depicts getting high not only as an urban trip inside a spaceship as it's swallowed by a snake, but also as a bonding experience: the crossing point of two trajectories whose travelers once thought they'd be forever parallel.

Jeff Whitty came to San Francisco in 2006 on a two-pronged mission: to convince Maupin that his novels would splash extraordinarily on the stage and that Whitty and the Scissor Sisters were the team to do it. At first, Whitty seemed like a natural fit. His book for Avenue Q, the irreverent puppet show often noted for doing to Broadway what Tales did to the Dickens serial, won a Tony in 2004. But this wasn't the first time Maupin's books had been eyed for the stage, so gaining the author's trust was a must. "Do you get high?" Whitty, in denim overalls, snuck out of last-minute rehearsals Thursday to share the question that bonded him to Maupin when they first met. Seeing them interact five years later, giddy-anxious like two fathers outside a delivery room, it's safe to assume Whitty's answer.

But all those drug references were highly metaphorical in comparison to one bloodshot-eyed Andrew Sean Greer, whose performance involved a ukulele rendition of "You're the One That I Want" from Grease. The author stripped off his plaid shirt to reveal a black pleather vest with a tacked-on broken heart as he sweetly talked about the time he found a love note written by an ex-boyfriend in the pages of his Tales.

Maupin's saga is about more than getting high - it's also about getting fucked. Poet Kevin Simmons mixed pleasure with poignancy as he read from his forthcoming collection Mad for Meat, highly erotic and raw at the core. Simmons mocked discontent Thursday night at having to cut his Honolulu vacation short for this 10-minute tribute, but just like Maupin and everyone else in that room, it's hard to imagine being anywhere but in San Francisco.

Noting Potrero Hill prophets and sexually inclusive mayoral candidates, Bay Citizen columnist Scott James engaged the audience with a quick game of fact or fiction, Fog City-edition. Somewhat of a fact/fiction hybrid herself, Michelle Tea appeared in a summer hat. "I feel like I should be holding a basket with jars of jam," the author said. Instead, Tea held a MacBook (she reported printer issues) as she read from an upcoming novel about lesbians in the 1990s, "but the world is about to end, like we all thought it would in the '90s," she clarified to distinguish the work as
fiction. Tea's own literary love letter to San Francisco, Valencia, is undergoing the film adaptation process with 21 directors, each taking a stab at one chapter.

Keeping Maupin's appearance a surprise was a bit of lost cause. The man whose face graced the pages of the Chronicle on a weekly basis only to jump right to the back cover of 10 books gets recognized walking his dog at Duboce Park, and cab drivers all seem to know exactly the block he lives on. The man who passionately pleaded to gay people around the world that the most significant political and social act of their lives would be to come out, that man is just so goddamn inadaptable to the times.

"It's great to be part of a night where the city's literary greats are forced into vaudeville showtunes," was Maupin's way of saying thanks.

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