Tales Spinning: Tony Award-Winner Jeff Whitty Tackles the Musical Adaptation of a Modern Gay Classic with Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City

By Lamphier, Jason | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), June-July 2011 | Go to article overview

Tales Spinning: Tony Award-Winner Jeff Whitty Tackles the Musical Adaptation of a Modern Gay Classic with Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City


Lamphier, Jason, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"I'M SCARED SHITLESS about this show," says playwright Jeff Whitty. On May 18 he was scheduled to unveil this season's riskiest, most ambitious, gayest stage production not starring a web-slinging superhero: his long-awaited musical version of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. With opening night looming and Tales fans champing at the bit, Whitty, who's been working on its libretto for four years, isn't in the mood to mince words about his anxiety. "I'm not going into this with any sort of bravado," he says. "We're not going to know what we have until we put it in front of people. That's what's exciting and terrifying about it."

Sitting in front of a plate of eggs and toast in the back corner of a cafe in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, Whitty is a safe distance from the critical daggers he fears he'll have to dodge after the show premieres at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. His jitters seemingly in check, Whitty, 39, is detailing his vision for the project and holding forth on the legacy of Maupin's popular novels as only a true Tales lover can. "I want to write for a new audience and give them a big, crunchy epic musical," he says. "At the same time, I think of a classic like Les Miserables, which is a triumph of structure. It's so engaging on a very primal storytelling level. If they were able to pull that off, then we can pull this off. That is my hope for Tales."

Amused by the effusive, drama-geek grandeur of this declaration, Whitty does an about-face and clarifies: "I want to make sure it doesn't come off like I'm saying we're going to redefine musical theater." He chuckles before offering a comical, catty analogy: "You know, Bono said this thing about Spider-Man where he's like"--Whitty shifts his voice into an exaggerated, pretentious accent--" 'It hearkens to Walt Whitman and all these deep thinkers and ama-a-azing musicians.' I was just like, 'Oh, honey.' "

Given the precious, expansive source material, a Tales adaptation would be a daunting venture for any playwright. But if someone can translate Maupin's complex characters and interlacing plotlines to the stage, why not Whitty? This is the writer who, in 2004, won the Tony award for Best Book of a Musical for the peppy Sesame Street-inspired puppet spectacle Avenue Q, arguably the most inventive, unexpected, and relatable Broadway production of the last decade (it also netted Tonys for Best Score and Best Musical, stunning many theatergoers when it beat out that year's front-runner, Wicked). Conceived by composers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Avenue Q, like Tales, featured disenchanted post-collegiates sharing a building, their dreams, and their angst against a hip, urban, pansexual backdrop. Also like Tales, Q tapped into the uncertainty and headiness of the 20and 30-something generations but still managed to go down real easy thanks to its uplift and humor.

Whitty first discovered Tales of the City in 1993, three years after the Coos Bay, Ore., native came out to his family. He'd just graduated from the University of Oregon and decamped to New York City, where at 22 he moved into a tiny studio apartment on the Lower East Side. He hadn't yet begun his studies in New York University's graduate acting program and was waiting tables at the popular theater district restaurant Joe Allen. Alone but starry-eyed, he found solace in Maupin's novels. "Those characters became my temporary friends because I didn't know anyone here," Whitty recalls. "I wasn't in school yet. I didn't have any way of meeting people, so Mary Ann and Mouse and all those folks became my buddies when I tore through those six books."

He devoured the collection in a month, but when the first novel was made into a television miniseries--produced by Channel 4 in the U.K. that same year, then picked up by PBS in the U.S. in 1994--he refused to watch it, not wanting to taint his own mental picture of 28 Barbary Lane. …

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