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Theater & Dance

Hot List: Tales of the City


Though it's certainly poised to make a run at Broadway, diehard fans will have to charge San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater this summer to catch the long-awaited stage adaptation of Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin's famous serialized novels. With Tony-winning Avenue Q playwright Jeff Whitty and Avenue Q director Jason Moore onboard, and Scissor Sisters front man Jake Shears and John Garden writing the score, hopes are Golden Gate Bridge high. Fortunately, the creators have secured an impressive cast, with Wesley Taylor (left) and Josh Breckenridge (right) taking on the roles of Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and Jon Fielding, one of literature's most memorable gay couples. On a break from rehearsal, Whitty and Shears discuss how they first discovered the Tales books, the difficulty casting the show, and the musical's filthiest moment.

Jake Shears: When did you first read the Tales books?

Jeff Whitty: I read them when I moved to New York City in 1993 and didn't know anybody. My sister gave me the first three, and I tore through them in just a couple of weeks, and it felt like the characters became my temporary New York friends. It was like my dream'to fall in with a group of people like that.

Shears: When did it dawn on you to write the musical?

Whitty: I was on a plane trip back to London, watching the Tales [PBS] miniseries. This was April 2006.

Shears: I still haven't watched the miniseries.

Whitty: You haven't?

Shears: Not since I was a kid. I wanted to steer clear since we started this show.

Whitty: Yeah, watch the miniseries. My partner encouraged me to watch it. How did you first experience Tales of the City?

Shears: I was probably about 13 or 14 (it was before I was out), and these two guys, Larry and Sean, introduced me to it. I know Larry has since passed away, but I always wondered what happened to Sean. He worked at the gas station, and there was a video store there, and I would come in and yap my head off. And I think they spotted a young gay teenager. Sean gave me a copy of TOTC and told me it was fantastic and I should read it. I remember completely falling in love with it. I was so impressionable, and it was just a perfect time for me to read these books. There's a real universality to those characters even now.

Whitty: Totally. I still think it could be relevant to a small-town boy somewhere else in 2011. The characters are so distinct, and whether you know them or not they have to be played by singular actors. Josh Breckenridge (Jon) has been with us for all of the workshops since New York Theatre Center. I was surprised that Mouse was so hard to find. I thought we'd have this embarrassment of riches with actors. There are two sides of Mouse. One is very open and vulnerable and trusting. But then there's also this wonderful irony he has that's a little dark. Actor after actor would come in and not quite hit both those levels until Wesley walked in. It was one of those auditions where he left the room and I knew we'd found our Mouse.

Shears: Yeah, my inspiration for writing the songs came straight from the characters. I didn't want to make a period pastiche with the music. Yes, the books are set in the '70s, and there are constant references to things in 1976, but the story has stood the test of time.

Whitty: Yeah, it's not really comparable to anything. The only slim comparison would be Into the Woods with its interweaving story lines, but that show has the advantage that they're well-known fairy tales. When Rapunzel appears onstage you already know her backstory. The challenge has been to introduce an audience member who doesn't know TOTC to these characters and get them onboard for a story this epic.

Shears: How many scenes does the show have?

Whitty: There are 60 locations and 120 scene shifts. There are like 50-odd characters and more than 250 costumes. It's huge.

Shears: What is the gayest moment in the show?

Whitty: You pick yours, but mine is when we go from seeing the real Anita Bryant to an incredibly over-the-top drag version of Anita Bryant singing a disco song at the Jockey shorts competition.

Shears: There's also the song "Homosexual Convalescent Center."

Whitty: Oh, my God! Absolutely! I take that back!

Shears: It's the very snooty upper echelon of the San Francisco gay world singing a song about where they're planning to retire and how they see their future. It's really filthy, too. It's like "Delta Dawn" meets Blueboy magazine. One line in the third verse goes, "My saving grace/ Will be a slower pace/ And a parking space/ On the end of my face."

Whitty: I think that's the moment where the gayness is turned up to an 11 in the show. There's always a steady drumbeat, but that's when the brakes go off, and the car falls over the cliff.

Tales of the City plays May 18'July 10 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

1. "Sunshine. I'm from Florida, so summer and sunshine feel like home."
2. "I'm excited about rockin' my 'stache for the show'and scaring my friends and family with it."
3. "So You Think You Can Dance. Guilty pleasure."
4. "Nudity. Not really, but I'm a fan of wearing fewer clothes than I need to."
5. "The Dark Knight Rises. Pumped!"

1. "I'm excited to explore San Francisco and Napa and Alcatraz."
2. "The iPhone 5. It's time for me to join the rest of modern culture."
3. "Sporting my mini-afro, sideburns, and goatee around town."
4. "X-Men: First Class. I love a big blockbuster with a big Diet Coke and a big ol' bucket of popcorn!"
5. "The premiere of a new indie film I did called Finding Me: Truth, which started in the festival circuits in late spring. Can't wait to see it!"

To see the full 2011 Hot List, click here.

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