Armistead Maupin and Jeff Whitty: Their Much-Anticipated Tales of the City Musical Will Debut-Where Else?-In San Francisco Moderated

By Veltman, Chloe | American Theatre, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview

Armistead Maupin and Jeff Whitty: Their Much-Anticipated Tales of the City Musical Will Debut-Where Else?-In San Francisco Moderated


Veltman, Chloe, American Theatre


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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

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