BY Jason Lamphier
May 17 2011 4:00 AM ET
Whitty first discovered Tales of the City in 1993, three years after the Coos Bay, Ore., native came out to his family. He’d just graduated from the University of Oregon and decamped to New York City, where at 22 he moved into a tiny studio apartment on the Lower East Side. He hadn’t yet begun his studies in New York University’s graduate acting program and was waiting tables at the popular theater district restaurant Joe Allen. Alone but starry-eyed, he found solace in Maupin’s novels. “Those characters became my temporary friends because I didn’t know anyone here,” Whitty recalls. “I wasn’t in school yet. I didn’t have any way of meeting people, so Mary Ann and Mouse and all those folks became my buddies when I tore through those six books.”
He devoured the collection in a month, but when the first novel was made into a television miniseries — produced by Channel 4 in the U.K. that same year, then picked up by PBS in the U.S. in 1994 — he refused to watch it, not wanting to taint his own mental picture of 28 Barbary Lane. Showtime eventually coproduced and aired More Tales of the City in 1998 and Further Tales of the City in 2001, but Whitty continued to ignore the persistent efforts of his longtime partner, writer Steven Schmersal, to get him to watch the show, which included career-defining performances by Laura Linney, in her breakout role as Mary Ann, and Olympia Dukakis, who played pot-growing trans matriarch Anna Madrigal.
It wasn’t until April 2006 that Whitty’s Tales remake began to take shape. After completing Avenue Q, his first musical libretto, he was reluctant to jump back into writing, underwhelmed by the new offers coming in. “Avenue Q was truly a draining, exhausting experience,” he says. “I took a ton of meetings and said no to everything because there was nothing that felt worth the struggle to write a musical.” Then one day, on a plane ride to London to cast the West End production of Avenue Q, he popped in a DVD of the first Tales installment. “It’s Mary Ann on the phone to her mother saying, ‘I’m not coming back to Cleveland. I am embarking on this exciting new journey,’ ” he says, remembering the opening scene, in which the naive heroine arrives in San Francisco’s Russian Hill. “I thought, That’s how a musical starts — you plunge someone into this new world. They’re bringing their old way of living into this new environment.”
Upon landing, Whitty checked on the rights to the story (Maupin has collaborated on several smaller Tales-themed musical projects) and found they were available. By July he was on a flight to San Francisco to pitch his idea to Maupin. “I was super nervous to meet him for the first time,” Whitty says. “But when I got to Armistead’s he said, ‘Do you get high?’ We got baked and laughed for a few hours, and I don’t think I got all the way through my presentation. How could I say no? It was like being asked by Mrs. Madrigal herself!” After that, his Tales musical was a go. Though Maupin has made a few suggestions, contributing some of the show’s song titles, the novelist has taken a mostly hands-off approach to the production.
The stage version of Tales reunites Whitty with gay Avenue Q director Jason Moore and features a score by Scissor Sisters front man Jake Shears and the band’s touring keyboardist, John “JJ” Garden. Divided into two acts and clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes, it primarily mines the first Tales novel, originally published in 1978, while also touching on a few choice moments from its 1980 sequel, including the memorable scene in which Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, now played by actor Wesley Taylor (The Addams Family, Rock of Ages), comes out to his mother in a letter. For Whitty, telescoping Maupin’s work was a difficult but necessary decision. “Most musicals have the A story and the B story. This has the F story and the G story,” he says. “But we’ve done a ton of slenderizing because people don’t want to sit through a 17-hour musical.”