Saturday, March 15, 2008

The songs of San Francisco

Add me to the list of theater fans excited by the prospect of a musical version of Armistead Maupin's 1978 novel Tales of the City.

While I've only read the first book in the series, I really enjoyed it. And unlike some ideas for musicals that have me wondering exactly how they'll do it, I can actually picture this one. The elements just seem so inherently musical, like you could write songs about them and it wouldn't be a stretch.

First, I think the story - about Mary Ann Singleton, a naive young woman who leaves her home in Cleveland for a new life, new adventures and new friends in San Francisco - is so appealing. There's just something about journeys of self-discovery that get to me.

Plus, I've been to San Francisco twice, and it's one of my favorite cities. (Yes, I admit I could ride the cable cars all day.) While there have been movies and a television show set in the city, I don't know if it's ever been the subject of a musical. So it's about time. (Ok, I just remembered Flower Drum Song. But what else?)

I have to admit, I don't know anything about Jake Shears (Jason Sellards) of the Scissor Sisters, who's writing the music with bandmate John Garden. While I've heard of the group, I don't think I've ever heard any of their songs.

In January, Shears talked a little about the project to He said his friend Jeff Whitty, the Tony-winning book writer of Avenue Q, sent him a note a year ago asking what he thought of the Tales series. (I have to admit, I've never seen Avenue Q either).

"I'm crazy about 'Tales!' I grew up on the books," Shears enthuses. "They were a big part of my teenager-hood. They're just great, great books with amazing characters and I love the era. My heart just started racing. I got very excited about it."

Shears told Spinner that he's been working on the project for nearly a year and has written 15 numbers. "It's poppy and since there's no arrangement yet, all of our writing is just piano and my voice," he explains. "As it take shape, it's gonna even take on more of a style."

The stories first appeared in serial form in the San Francisco Chronicle. Steven Winn, the paper's arts and culture critic, writes that Whitty had been looking for a new project for three years. "I have such nostalgia for that period in San Francisco," he said, "even though I didn't live through it. It feels more real to me than the life I'm living now. I'd love to see the country get back to the place we were back then."

In the same article, Maupin said, "I had seen 'Avenue Q' and knew that they (the show's creators) had a marvelous sharp wit as a well as a real humanity. Doing 'Tales' needs both of those things." He said there's been talk of a musical for 20 years. "This is the first one that felt right."

And coproducer Jeffrey Seller says it's premature to speculate about a possible San Francisco tryout for the musical, which is supposed to arrive in New York during the 2009-10 Broadway season. But that's clearly where Whitty's heart is. "That's absolutely my plan,'' he told the Chronicle. "The only place to open is San Francisco."

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