Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City
Music and lyrics by Jake Shears and John Garden, book by Jeff Whitty
American Conservatory Theater
When potential Broadway backers recently passed on the new musical version of writer Armistead Maupin’s much-loved Tales of the City, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater snapped it up. And why not? The city that Tales tells of is, after all, San Francisco, which has over the last decade become a new New Haven, the West Coast tryout town for shows like Wicked that need retooling before hitting the Great White Way.
Armistead Maupin’s stories about the inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane, which debuted in 1976 as a serial in the Chronicle, teemed with enough wacky characters, dropped names, thinly veiled glitterati, and ingeniously overlapping plotlines to spawn the original novel and seven more in the series.
Although later books would explore deeper issues like AIDS, aging, and addiction, director Jason Moore and librettist Jeff Whitty, both from the Tony-winning Avenue Q, have wisely limited their scope to the first two novels, set in the giddy San Francisco of the late seventies. But even that may have been too much for one show to take on.
The first book alone, after all, provided enough material for a six-hour miniseries in 1993. Produced by the U.K.’s Channel 4 and aired on PBS stateside, that Tales garnered record ratings and boasted a spectacular cast, notably Olympia Dukakis as Barbary Lane’s eccentric den mother Anna Madrigal and a relatively unknown Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton, the loveable Midwestern naïf whose wide-eyed acceptance of her adopted city’s sybarites provided a powerful touchstone for mainstream audiences.
If a likeable cast and great shots of San Francisco were keys to the 1993 Tales’ success, so was timing. An earlier attempt by HBO had to be shelved in 1982 when the first wave of AIDS dampened the appeal of a prospective series about San Francisco in the throes of the sexual revolution.
Thirty years on, partly as a result of AIDS education, Americans are better acquainted with sex in all its forms—including the trans, bi, and homo varieties—than ever before. In 2011, sex is no longer “too much” for audiences, especially for theatergoers. In fact, it’s no longer enough.
And without shock value to keep audiences in their seats, much less on the edge of them, ACT’s Tales will need some serious retooling if it wants to hit Broadway.
Whoever is cast as Mrs. Madrigal, the moral and dramatic heart of the play, needs to dazzle with star wattage, and although Judy Kaye commands each dramatic scene and solo ballad, her lower register all but disappears in ensemble numbers. One wonders what Betty Buckley, who participated in early workshops for the show, might bring to the role.
Even more problematic are the songs, which suffer from plodding melodic repetition and lack of modulation. “Paper Faces” may be the most memorable ballad in the show, but, like the clever lament “Seeds and Stems,” its witty hook can’t hide the fact that the lyrics don’t effectively advance the plot. Worse still, the up-tempo numbers are uniformly forgettable despite songwriter Jake Shears’ penchant for penning infectious disco/alt-pop hybrids for the Scissor Sisters.
Perhaps most startling of all, the city itself, so important to the story that it’s part of the title, is given an oddly minimalist treatment in the ACT production. No matter if characters are carousing in Pacific Heights, Barbary Lane, or Land’s End beach, the stage remains the same, save for a shag rug here or piped-in fog there.
Intending to evoke the homey Victorian staircases and landings of Barbary Lane, set designer Douglas W. Schmidt instead gives us a labyrinth of stark white fire escapes, so that watching Tales becomes eerily like watching Rent, only with wainscoting and wood where bold messages and signature songs should be.
Out-of-town tryouts have done wonders for countless flagging shows that eventually became Broadway hits, most famously for Hello, Dolly!, thanks to drastic last-minute changes by composer Jerry Herman and the inimitable charisma of Carol Channing. So who knows what the future holds for Tales of the City? In the world of the theater, the right star and a few great songs can turn even the weakest invalid into something truly fabulous.
Brent Calderwood is a San Francisco-based journalist and poet. Log on to his Web site at www.brentcalderwood.com.