To celebrate Pride 2021, the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) streamed its production of Tales of the City, the Musical, based upon Armistead Maupin’s literary phenomenon of the same name. I had no idea that this existed, but as a newly minted diehard fan of the novels I couldn’t wait to see how this would work, especially since the score was done by Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters and John Garden, with a libretto by Avenue Q’s Jeff Whitty. Joining them were director Jason Moore and choreographer Larry Keigwin. Originally staged in 2011 and filmed for archival purposes, Tales of the City became ACT’s highest-grossing musical. How had I never heard of it? According to ACT artistic director Pam McKinnon when announcing this tenth-anniversary online release which ran from June 21-27, “This is a show that deserved a longer life. We are grateful to have this simple but beautiful archival capture that represents the city, where we are, and who we can be.”
Reviews from 2011 offer possible answers about why the show didn’t enjoy a longer life. The Guardian notes:
As a portrait of the city at a particular time, however, Tales of the City is superficial. Douglas Schmidt’s nondescript set depicting the back of an apartment building doesn’t give us many clues about 70s San Francisco. A couple of Hari Krishna devotees floating across the stage in the middle of Mary Ann’s opening number help confirm the location, but from that moment onwards the musical piles on stereotypes. Bare-chested male performers cavort in a steamy bathhouse; a trio of trannies do an empowerment dance; characters in colourful, shapeless clothes consume illegal substances. Only Homosexual Convalescent Centre – a show-stopping number staged under pink lights about what it means to be old, gay and entitled – challenges our expectations of the city’s underground culture.
There is a lot more variety and depth to Maupin’s vision of San Francisco than this musical conveys. If it is to have anything near as wide an appeal as the books, or even the chance of a future beyond the west coast, this adaptation may need to heed its own message about change and transform its depiction of the city by the bay.
Robert Sokol of Theatermania.com agrees but cuts Schmidt some slack given how large his task was:
The biggest challenge they face is simply the enormous amount of story to tell. Maupin wrote densely plotted, multi-character stories, and librettist Jeff Whitty gamely tries to fit them all into his three-hour tour of 1970s San Francisco. To his credit, he ably balances Maupin’s intersecting plot lines with just enough insider references to please the books’ hardcore fans — which are sprinkled through dialogue that is crisp and witty enough for all.
Challenging indeed. The musical contains elements from Maupin’s first two novels. At the time this musical was performed Maupin had written eight Tales novels. Today, the series stands at nine. Central to the plot is Cleveland transplant Mary Ann Singleton and her relationships with the heterogenous residents of 28 Barbary Lane. But beyond this the series features an additional character: San Francisco. Compared to other urban centers, San Francisco’s not physically that big. But reading the books we move from Russian Hill to Nob Hill to the Castro to the Financial District to North Beach to Hillsborough through newcomer Mary Ann Singleton’s eyes, Anna Madrigal’s vastly experienced eyes, and even Maupin’s eyes (since the novels read like his love letters to the City) we experience its vast diversity. How do you bring such cultural range to a small stage? My heart shivers, since I would find this more daunting than depicting Paris for Les Misérables or Chicago for, well, Chicago.
I attempted such a task at Ternopil National Economic University, when I began my service with Peace Corps Ukraine (Teaching English as a Foreign Language Group 35: 2008 – 2010). The administration set up a presentation so I could introduce myself to students and colleagues. I included a PowerPoint with ten slides, all photos of city scenes. Upon showing them one after the other, I asked, “Which city is this?” They replied verbally while I shifted from scene to scene.
“Shanghai? Hong Kong?”
“New York? Los Angeles?”
“Mexico City? Buenos Aires?”
Of course, all were San Francisco: Chinatown, the Financial District, the Mission, and North Beach. I also shared images of the Castro, the Richmond, the Sunset, and other distinct sub-communities. Representing any diverse city is tough, but San Francisco? What a wonderful global microcosm. Yes, I’m prejudiced. I love San Francisco . . . although I live in San Jose, an enormous multicultural center itself.
Betsy Wolfe (Mary Ann Singleton) and Judy Kaye (Anna Madrigal) don’t clear the bars set by Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis, but those bars are so high we’d need the Hubble telescope to spot them. New rule despite any actor’s talents: From now on only trans women can play Anna Madrigal. So let it be done.
A personal favorite is Mary Birdsong (Mona Ramsey). One nice scenery moment involved the mural-sized Janis Joplin poster adorning her apartment wall along with her floor festooned with bean bags and the bong resting on her coffee table. These touches capture Mona Ramsey’s essence, the mid-1970s woman still attached to the late-1960s. Birdsong does well with that characterization and with her singing. The pipes on Birdsong. Wow.
The show stealer? Diane J. Findlay playing the awesome brothel madam, Mother Mucca, dropping f-bombs while swinging her hanging breasts with deadly intent. I want to believe that the only reason the writers included the second novel was to get Mother Mucca into the mix. How could they resist since her relationships with Anna Madrigal and Mona Ramsey play out so compellingly? Who needs the Chicken Ranch when the Blue Moon Lodge in Winnemucca, Nevada is much closer?
For $19.00 Tales of the City, the Musical is worth a lazy Saturday afternoon. That the creators focused less on San Francisco the city is forgivable – I’ll remain kinder than that unnamed critic from The Guardian. An acquaintance once compared Tales of the City to Friends, which equals comparing a fully loaded sundae to a single-scoop vanilla cone. Hopefully you’ll agree if you read the series, watch the PBS and Netflix adaptations, or experience this musical.