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 apartment house in the 1970s. The musical, directed by Jason Moore, with music by Jake Shears and John Garden of the alt-dance band the Scissor Sisters, begins previews May 18 and opens May 31 at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
In early February, Whitty and Maupin met at ACT’s downtown offices to discuss their collaboration. Arts reporter Chloe Veltman—a recipient of American Theatre’s Bay Area Commissioning Fund, supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation—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 almost five years ago. I was on my way to oversee auditions for the West End production of Avenue Q. On the flight, I watched a DVD of the miniseries—which begins like the books, with Mary Ann calling her mother to say, “I’m not coming back to Cleveland.” And I thought, “That’s how a musical starts.” And the series was so loyal to the books, the more I watched, the more excited I got about musicalizing the stories.
MAUPIN: That was the first time you saw the miniseries?
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 miniseries on television. But seeing Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney embody Anna Madrigal and Mary Am 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’d prepared this whole presentation that I kept going over. I didn’t know what to expect when I met you.
MAUPIN: I got you stoned on the spot, as I recall, and your presentation flew out the window.
WHITTY: (Laughing) Yes, that’s what happened.
MAUPIN: You’ve turned bright red!
WHITTY: And we went for a walk in the park and I felt immediately comfortable. I had been worried about the chutzpah of saying, “I want to adopt your beloved characters.” I knew it was a risk on your part. I intended to incorporate tons of dialogue from your books, but I knew I’d need to break away from it at times. It was intimidating asking you if this would be okay.
MAUPIN: 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 shortchanged. It was a tricky process because I didn’t want to reduce the material to the typical two-odd 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 Mis, too. I don’t like the way it’s trivialized as a bit of fluff. Years ago, I met its English-language librettist, Herbert Kretzmer, at a party and told him that the lyrics of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” had seemed especially applicable to the AIDS epidemic—survivor guilt and all that. He sent me a handwritten copy of that song, 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 have been 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. I had to make some tough choices. I learned to focus on the stories that eventually bring us back to the core 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 a high point for all of us. 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. It’s the kind of creative, low-key place where you can throw anything at the wall and see if it works. Those risks allow you to find the show 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. We don’t go to a defensive place, or if we do, we get over it quickly. We work as a team and accept each other’s criticism, because in the end 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 sent me a couple of their albums and I fell in love with them. There was this amazing amalgam in the Scissor Sisters’s 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 Michael’s coming-out letter to his mother until he set it to music and heard someone sing it. I had the same reaction when David Maddux wrote a longer choral version for the Seattle Men’s Chorus back in the ’90s. It was real to me for the first time, even though that was actually my own coming-out letter to my own parents.
WHITTY: Sometimes the actors in the workshops couldn’t get through that song without crying. Jake and John lifted the song out of the traditional rhyme scheme, which gives it this honest purity.
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? That was around April 2008, two years after we started writing. The actors read 180 pages cold, with no rehearsal. We pressed “play” on our demo tracks when the songs began. 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. Writing musicals is like sculpting in the dark—you can’t quite tell what you have. And readings and workshops turn on the light for a bit.
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 having felt a little squeamish at some of the performances at the O’Neill. You want everyone to like everything at every moment.
WHITTY: When we’re in rehearsals for the production, the work will be even more terrifying and intense. But once opening night hits and we’re done, I may just give it up to the gods and have some laughs at a nearby bar! Speaking of opening nights, 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 magical carriage to San Francisco, which seemed the only logical place in my mind from the start.
MAUPIN: Tales is the most expensive production ACT has ever mounted. They’re going to pitch a tent in Union Square on the gala opening night. The plan is for people to walk from the tent to the theatre.
WHITTY: That sounds very glamorous.
MAUPIN: Well, at least 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 tryout”—this is the town for me, and no production of Tales will ever 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 child of the regional theatre. I’ve been happiest and most comfortable in that environment. When I say to people that I’m not fretting about a Broadway run, they always look at me askance—but I want my shows to have a life, period, whether it be on Broadway or regionally or London or wherever.
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 the U.K.—the hard-cover and omnibus editions of Tales came out in Britain. These eventually led to the HarperCollins 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: And then there’s the rest of the world! I got to see Avenue Q in Sweden, Finland and Rio. It’s been done all over the place. So my dream is to sit in a theatre in Istanbul and see Mrs. Madrigal hand Mary Ann a 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 Alary 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 I called her in for that first cold read of our gigantic script. I had no idea that she had such tremendous depth, and an amazing rock voice, too. Judy Kaye as Anna Madrigal—I’m over the moon about her joining us. And 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.
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: 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!
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!