BY Jason Lamphier
May 17 2011 3:00 AM ET
Though Tales follows a recent spate of gay-themed adaptations and revivals — Priscilla Queen of the Desert, La Cage aux Folles, Angels in America — Whitty insists he isn’t simply waxing nostalgic or cashing in on a trend. For him, the themes and underlying message of Tales couldn’t be more relevant today. “From a gay perspective, it’s shocking how little has changed,” Whitty says. “Act 2 of Tales of the City opens with Anita Bryant giving a speech to the audience, and the things she says are the same arguments that Maggie Gallagher is pulling out now. And I think there’s something universal about characters who want to find family, manifest who they are, and be open and free. That’s the struggle of most of the characters in this show.”
Shears, who discovered Tales while in his early teens, agrees: “It’s timeless, like a Greek myth or something. The characters are so ingrained in your psyche; they’re so strong.” Since jumping on board when Whitty told him about the project four years ago, the musician has composed more than 20 tracks for the production. (Whitty describes the songs as “the 1940s via the 1970s via now.”) Shears exhibits a particular fondness for Anna Madrigal, one of the first positive portrayals of a trans character created for a mainstream audience. He’s so enamored of the character that he wrote “Next Time You See Me,” a revelatory, roof-shaking ballad for Madrigal (played by Judy Kaye) to close the first act.
While Tales revolves around the self-discovery of Michael and San Fran newcomer Mary Ann (played by Betsy Wolfe in the musical), Whitty also has a soft spot for Mrs. Madrigal — and these days, for trans characters in general. “I think transgender people haven’t had their turn yet in the public eye in the way they deserve,” he says. “I guess part of me is just so bored with gay people. I’m all about transgender people.” The playwright’s recent musical Bring It On, based loosely on the 2000 cheerleader film and set to start its national tour in the fall, also features a trans character, a fierce queen bee of an inner-city high school named La Cienega. She seems different from her peers, but she never explicitly addresses her gender. “I saw her most often as the ‘straight woman,’ the voice of reason amid the more eccentric characters around her,” Whitty says. “I didn’t want to go in the ‘sassy black’ direction because it’s been done, done, done.”
When Bring It On premiered in Atlanta in January, Whitty says the performance was met with glowing reviews: “Her curtain call always got one of the biggest ovations. The audience completely loved her throughout the show and appreciated that we weren’t sermonizing about it. For once we weren’t getting a sob story. There was something utopian about it.”
This time, Whitty doesn’t backpedal or try to tone down the grand idealism of his statement. “That’s the world I live in,” he adds. “You’re not always explaining who you are. You just are.”