It didn't take much to persuade Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears to get involved with a musical adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City novels. "I got an email from [librettist Jeff Whitty] wondering if I'd be interested in a musical that took place in the Seventies and had kinda fun themes that involved gays, copious drug use and trannies," he says. "I said, 'Of course – what is it?'"
When Shears discovered that Whitty had secured rights to produce a musical based on Maupin's series of books about gays, bohemians and other outsiders set in 1970s San Francisco, he jumped at the chance. "Jake grabbed me in the dressing room and said, 'Grab a keyboard, we're writing a musical,'" says John Garden, Shears' Scissor Sisters and Tales of the City writing partner. "That's when I was on board, it was that moment. We wrote a song that day that is still in the show."
Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a production featuring all-new music written by Shears and Garden, is set to run at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco between May 18th and July 10th. The show, which is penned by Jeff Whitty and directed by Jason Moore, both of the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical Avenue Q, condenses plots from several of Maupin's novels into a single story. "It's a really ambitious show," says Shears. "There are 50 characters and 60 themes; it's a massive undertaking. The show is just like the books – there are very short scenes that go really fast. It's a very different kind of musical."
Though Garden was familiar only with the televised miniseries version of Tales of the City from the early Nineties, Shears had been a fan of the books since he was a teen. "When I was 13, there were these two gay guys in my hometown and I think they probably picked up on the fact that I am gay," Shears recalls. "They were really lovely, they gave me a lot of music to listen to and turned me on to new stuff. One day, Sean, one of them, gave me a copy of Tales of the City and said, 'I think you'll really like this, you should read it.' I fell in love with the characters and read the entire series. The books were, for me, a rite of passage." Shears acknowledges that the Tales series had a particular resonance for him as a young gay man, but he believes that Maupin's stories have a universal quality. "Anybody can pick them up and really get into them," he says. "There's lots of lascivious behavior, but somehow they remain really kind of beautiful and nonjudgmental and strangely wholesome."
Though Shears and Garden's music evokes the sound of the era the story is set, they made a point of avoiding outright Seventies nostalgia. "I didn't want to do a kind of Seventies pastiche, and I didn't want it to resemble, even with original songs, a jukebox musical," Shears says. "I didn't want to just go in and do Seventies-sounding music. My writing style leans in that direction anyway, so I figured if we just naturally wrote the songs, they were going to have some of that in them."
Unlike Billie Joe Armstrong, who starred in several performances of Green Day's American Idiot musical on Broadway, Shears has no plans to join the production of Tales of the City as a performer. "I couldn’t act my way out of a wet paper bag," he says. "I’m a terrible, terrible, terrible actor, and you can watch the two episodes where the Scissor Sisters were on [the soap opera] Passions for proof. I can sing my face off, but acting is not my forte, and this show requires great actors. The characters have a lot of depth and the performances are super-important. I just don’t have the skills."
As of yet, there are no plans to stage Tales of the City outside of San Francisco, though Shears and Garden are hopeful that it will open elsewhere in the future. "If this is the only time I’ll ever see this show performed, I’m super-happy just that it’s happening in San Francisco," Shears says. "For the moment, we’ve just got our blinders on and we just want it to be the best show it can be for the city that it takes place in."
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