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Conversations: Armistead Maupin and Jeff Whitty
AMERICAN THEATRE MAGAZINE

May 9, 2011

Their much-anticipated Tales of the City musical will debut—where else?—in San Francisco

Writers Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City) have joined forces on a new musical version of Maupin’s best-selling series of novels populated by colorful characters occupying a San Francisco boarding house in the 1970s. The musical, directed by Jason Moore, with music by Jake Shears of the alt-rock band the Scissor Sisters, begins previews on May 18 and opens on June 1 at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Whitty and Maupin discussed their collaboration in a conference room at ACT’s downtown offices in early February (at which point casting for the show was not yet complete). Arts reporter Chloe Veltman moderated their conversation and edited it for print.

ARMISTEAD MAUPIN: I guess this whole thing started when you were on a red-eye flight to London.

JEFF WHITTY: Yes. That was five or six ago. I was on my way to oversee auditions for the West End production of Avenue Q. On the flight, I decided to watch a DVD of the mini-series—it was then that I realized that Tales of the City would make a great musical.

MAUPIN: That was the first time you saw the mini-series?

WHITTY: I had read the Tales of the City books when I moved to New York in 1993. I loved the characters so much that I didn’t want to see them replaced in my head by actors, which is why I avoided watching the mini-series on television. But seeing Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney embody Anna Madrigal and Marianne so well on TV changed my mind completely.

MAUPIN: Those two actors took over my vision of the characters they played, too. But in the old days, I would hear myself in every one of the characters.

WHITTY: Every writer does that to some extent. What made you climb on board so quickly with the project when I first approached you about it?

MAUPIN: I felt a sense of kinship with you when I saw Avenue Q—I responded to its humor, compassion, bawdiness and big cast. So when you contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in a musical version of Tales, there was no hesitation.

WHITTY: I was terrified on my way to meet you in San Francisco for the first time. I had this whole presentation worked out in my head that I kept going over. I didn’t know what to expect.

MAUPIN: I got you stoned on the spot as I recall, and your presentation flew out the window.

WHITTY: Yes, that’s what happened.

MAUPIN: You’ve turned bright red!

WHITTY: We went for a walk in the park and I felt immediately comfortable. I had been worried about asking you, “Can I write dialogue for your characters?” I wasn’t sure how to tell you that I’d be incorporating tons of dialogue from your books, but that there would also be times when I would need to break away from it. It was intimidating asking you if this would be okay.

MAUPIN: That’s scary for the person on the other side of the equation, too. There’ve been times when people have tried to write dialogue for my characters that made me cringe. But I’ve never cringed over your writing. You know how to channel a pre-existing character. What did you think would be the biggest challenge adapting Tales?

WHITTY: The sheer volume of the material. I was worried that the musical would be 16 hours long and come out in 2046, if I wasn’t careful.

MAUPIN: Actually, I was hoping for a Nicholas Nickleby–style epic, but never mind.

WHITTY: My goal was to keep it under three hours. I wanted to slenderize Tales, but do so in a way that would not make fans of the books feel short-changed. It was a tricky process because I didn’t want to reduce the material to two story lines. Part of the magic of the books is the many interweaving stories. The challenge was figuring out how to keep the forward thrust of the narrative in a musical format without feeling rushed, or overwhelming the audience with too many story points. But I still wanted to create an epic feel. I love epic musicals. I’m a big fan of Les Misérables. The storytelling is so rich!

MAUPIN: I love Les Miz too. I don’t like the way in which that musical is trivialized as a bit of fluff. I met its English-language librettist, Herbert Kretzmer, at a party and told him that the lyrics spoke to me. He sent me a handwritten copy of them, which I still have hanging in my office to this day.

WHITTY: That musical makes a huge emotional impact and covers a huge amount of ground. Sometimes these epic adaptations don’t work so well, though. Rehearsals for Tales begin in two months and I’m still wrestling with the story.

MAUPIN: I understand the challenges. When I first started writing Tales as a newspaper column in 1974, Christopher Isherwood—who was a fan, and eventually became a friend and mentor—said that Tales of the City and its sequel, More Tales of the City, should be one big novel. There’s a story that joins both books together—Anna reuniting with Mother Mucca. You’ve brought that link to the musical. So you’ve actually found the story in its purest and most effective form, and I’m very grateful to you for that.

WHITTY: There are plotlines that I would have loved to include but couldn’t, though, like the subplot where Mary Ann works at the suicide hotline. I had to make some tough choices. I’ve focused on the stories that eventually bring us back to a sense of family.

MAUPIN: And you’ve enabled us to have a big whorehouse number, which no great musical can do without!

WHITTY: Yes, that’s been one of the most fun parts of the development process so far. You enjoyed the workshop process at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, right?

MAUPIN: It was like summer camp. You had two weeks to hammer the show out with the actors. I was jealous. Everyone had formed their friendships by the time I arrived.

WHITTY: That was the golden period of the development process. I had previously workshopped Avenue Q at the O’Neill Center. Because it’s a nonprofit theatre, it’s the kind of place where you can throw anything at wall and see if it works. The ability to take those risks allows you to find your goal in a way that would be much more difficult in a commercial situation, where there are investors hanging around.

MAUPIN: I am impressed at how you and the guys in the creative team have such little vanity about what’s precious to you. You work like a team, and you’re not afraid to throw things out.

WHITTY: I had a preexisting relationship with Jason Moore—he directed Avenue Q, so we didn’t have to deal with the “how dare you criticize me” thing. I didn’t have to go to a defensive place. We work as a team and accept each other’s criticism, because there’s nothing worse than seeing a new musical thud in front of an audience.

MAUPIN: Two of the biggest challenges we faced when we first sat down to talk about how the musical would take shape was choosing a composer and figuring out what form the music would take. Would it be a traditional Broadway musical? If so, would the material fit with the old form, or would the old form make the material look tired? I remember when you asked me if I knew who the Scissor Sisters were, and I, being the hopelessly unhip person that I am, remembered only one song—“Filthy / Gorgeous.” You lent me a couple of their albums and I fell in love with them. There was this amazing amalgam in the Scissor Sisters’ music of the sexual and the sentimental. I walk that line myself in my own work as a writer, and it made sense that the guys in the band would know what to do with Tales. I read an interview yesterday in which Jake Shears [lead singer of the Scissor Sisters] and Rufus Wainwright were conversing about their musical ventures. Jake said that he didn’t realize the power of Tales until he set it to music and heard someone singing his songs. I’m embarrassed to acknowledge the same feeling.

WHITTY: Sometimes the actors in the workshops we’ve done for Tales can’t get through some of the songs because they’re crying. I think some of the purity and simplicity stems from the fact that Jake lifts the songs out of the rhyming scheme.

MAUPIN: Do you remember when we heard the script for the first time?

WHITTY: When we had that first reading at Jason Moore’s place? I think it was in 2005 or 2006. The actors read 180 pages with no rehearsal. We played demo tracks in the places where we thought the music would go. It was terrifying to hear the text for the first time.

MAUPIN: Well, I felt like a pig in shit seeing all these talented people doing amazing things with my material!

WHITTY: I came out of it feeling exhilarated about what still needed to be done. When you’re sculpting in the dark, you can’t see what you’re doing.

MAUPIN: Are you a mess at your opening nights?

WHITTY: I skip them half the time and go out to have a drink.

MAUPIN: I confess to doing the same thing at some of the performances at the O’Neill.

WHITTY: While we’re in development on Tales, we have to sit here and keep working. But when we open this summer and I realize we can’t do any more work on it, I’ll just give it up to the gods and have a laugh over a drink at a nearby bar. Tell me, how did your relationship with ACT develop?

MAUPIN: My personal relationship with ACT goes back a long way. When I got here in the early ’70s and was working as a mail boy at the agency that would eventually become the model for Halcyon Communications in Tales, I thought that my big break would be a job working in the promotions department at ACT. It was an illuminating moment for me when I realized that I could work in the theatre and not be an actor. But I couldn’t get my foot in the door. Still, I felt lucky to live in a town that had such a serious theatre organization. Since Tales, I’ve developed a more direct relationship with the company. Carey Perloff [artistic director of ACT] has been whispering in my ears about making this happen for years. She saw a stage production of Tales as something that could grow out of this town in a natural way. When she realized that there was this work-in-progress, she hopped on it. It was a natural marriage.

WHITTY: After the O’Neill workshop, we spent about five seconds wondering where to take the project next, and then the phone rang and it was Carey—she whisked us off in her carriage to San Francisco.

MAUPIN: Tales is the most expensive production ACT has ever mounted. They’re going to pitch a tent in Union Square on opening night. The plan is for people to walk from the tent to the theatre.

WHITTY: That sounds very glamorous.

MAUPIN: It sounds very San Francisco, which is what I like best about it.

WHITTY: There’s really no other town where this project could happen. And to be able to do it in an amazing nonprofit theatre here is so important. This is not an “out-of-town run”—this is the town, and no production of Tales will be as cool as this one.

MAUPIN: The assumption people make is that a musical theatre team’s greatest desire is to get their work seen on Broadway.

WHITTY: Launching the show at ACT makes it possible to insulate ourselves from that kind of talk. I am a kid of the regional theatre. I’ve been happiest and most comfortable in that environment. When you say to people that you haven’t thought about a Broadway run, they always look at you askance.

MAUPIN: To be honest, I’m fantasizing about a West End run for Tales more than a Broadway run right now. The fact is that I was ignored as a writer for many years over here until I had cultivated an audience in England—the hard-cover and omnibus editions of Tales came out of England. These eventually led to the Harper Collins editions here in the U.S. The Tales of the City miniseries was even created over there—by Channel 4 and Working Title productions.

WHITTY: There’s a whole world out there! There have been some great productions of Avenue Q in Israel, Spain and Turkey. My dream is to sit in a theatre in Istanbul and see Mrs. Madrigal hand Lucy her joint.

MAUPIN: It’ll be a hookah.

WHITTY: The cast we’ve started to assemble should be enough to bring people in droves. Betsy Wolfe, who’s playing Mary Ann, is a perfect actress and singer as well as a brilliant comedienne. And another actor I instantly fell in love with is Mary Birdsong—she owns Mona. I had liked her take on Judy Garland in a show I’d seen and called her in for a cold read of our gigantic script. I had no idea that she had such a tremendous depth, and an amazing rock voice, too. I’m also thrilled about Wesley Taylor playing Mouse.

MAUPIN: Where did you find him?

WHITTY: In auditions. We had been looking for a long time for Mouses.

MAUPIN: Mice.

WHITTY: We saw a lot of great actors, but Mouse has a specific quality about him—a combination of a sort of wryness, darkness and irony mixed with a wide-eyed openness about the world—and it proved very difficult to find the actor who could embody all of this. Then Wesley walked into the room and did one bit of business that I always imagined myself doing if I were 15 years younger and auditioning for Mouse.

MAUPIN: Or me, 35 years younger. One more question: In addition to working on Tales, you’ve been busy with your cheerleading musical, Bring It On. How have you managed to juggle the two projects?

WHITTY: I just opened Bring It On in Atlanta, and so now I’ve been able to dig back into the Tales script and sew up some loose ends.

MAUPIN: It’s probably been helpful to throw yourself into multiple projects at once.

WHITTY: But it can be confusing. Bring It On is still bouncing around in my head, but we don’t want to end up with a full-scale cheerleading routine for Mrs. Madrigal!

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