Though only officially announced March 13, and not even anticipated to hit Broadway until the 2009–2010 season,Tales of the City has already been touted by Entertainment Weekly as “the gayest musical of the decade.” Sure, the stage adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s queer San Francisco–based 1978 serialized novel reunites Avenue Q’s out Tony-winning playwright Jeff Whitty with out director Jason Moore — and a composing team that includes way-out Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears — but Whitty, for one, doesn’t necessarily agree that Tales is as gay as all that. He is, however, thankful for his largely gay team, and admits to favoring gay actors for gay roles. We’d better let the self-described gay “chauvinist” tell this tale himself.
By Brandon Voss
Advocate.com: Congratulations! I hear you just had your very first reading of the Tales of the City script.
Jeff Whitty: Thanks. It was just supposed to be getting friends and actors together in Jason Moore’s — the director’s — living room, but it’s been blown up into this huge thing. It was totally casual. It wasn’t official at all. The first draft was intentionally overwritten, so we needed to hear it out loud to figure out what we’re going to slenderize. It went very well. Lots of work ahead, but there was a show there! I spent the next day feeling like I returned from war; I had so much anxiety beforehand.
When did you first discover the books?
1993. I’d just moved to New York and didn’t know anybody, and those characters kind of became my temporary friends.
How long before you approached Armistead Maupin about securing the rights?
About two years ago, almost three years after Avenue Q. There was no musical idea that I found inspiring, and I didn’t want to work on anything that I wasn’t excited about. Then a lightning bolt hit me that Tales of the City was the right project. So I called Avenue Q producers, and they contacted Armistead, because I didn’t know him at the time. Then he was totally on board, and it started coming together really quite easily after that.
Did Maupin turn out to be a fan of yours also?
Yeah, he knew me, and I flew out to San Francisco, and it was like hanging out with Mrs. Madrigal. I gotta tell you, he has been the best collaborator. I basically came in and gave him some ideas, and he said, “Great. Go.” He’s not been possessive, and he’s had fantastic ideas. He even came up with a couple of song titles that have been spun out into these fantastic numbers. The biggest fear going in, as would be with any project dealing with original material when the person’s still alive, is that you’re going to have to deal with a big box of crazy. But I thought, Is it possible that everyone in this project is as cool and sane as they seem? It’s rare.
One might argue that you’re too young to tackle this project, not being one of the old queens who actually lived through the period.
Gosh, I haven’t even though about that. It’s never occurred to me because it’s my favorite time period. In a way, I feel like it’s more real to me than anything I’m living through these days. I have such nostalgia for it. I wish culture was where it was back then. And I’m pretty much the same age Armistead was when he was writing then — maybe a little older.
Were you the first to request the rights for a musical adaptation?
I think there had been nibbles in years past, but maybe people would get daunted by the volume of material. The minute I got the idea, I was already shaping it in my head. Someone that read the books a year ago will think, Oh, it’s all there, but there are definitely secondary story lines that we won’t be able to include. And my goal is to never contradict the material; even though there may be a plotline that’s not in the musical, it could just be happening onstage. But it is daunting, I’ll say that. It’s taken a lot of thought and structure, which is ultimately the book writer’s job.
When you’re futzing with such beloved source material, disappointing fans seems inevitable.
Absolutely, and I’m ready for that. But I think people will be delighted by the amount that we have in the show. And that was why the structure took so long for me — figuring out how to keep the flavor of Armistead’s storytelling in the musical. A lot of the flavor comes from those intertwining relationships and accidental meetings. It’s a vital aspect of Tales of the City, and I don’t want to simplify it too much.
Is Broadway ready for a serious gay musical?
Oh, my God. It’s funny, because I never think about it as being a “gay” musical, really. So many of its characters are straight or bisexual, but I think the reason people always think of Tales that way is because it’s one of the first things that actually treated gay people as human, flawed, and like everybody else. I think the shock of that is what gives the books this gay reputation. No doubt that Michael “Mouse” Tolliver is a major character, but so is Mary Ann.
Do you fear any of your producers eventually attempting to tone down the gayness?
Absolutely not. We have the best producers — the Avenue Q producers — and it’s going to be that great stew of sexuality that we have in the book. There’s something for everybody.
If you had to compare, which musical will Tales be most like?
It’s really going to be tonally completely unusual. But I will tell you what musicals I study like a hawk. This is going to sound crazy, but Les Miserables, just because it’s this ginormous novel that I think they really successfully condensed to three hours — but, you know, ours has sex, drugs, and occasional nudity. And Rent, to some degree, the way the music works and the way it has multiple story lines running. I was inspired by Billy Elliot too. Pretty much every musical I see I’m pulling some idea from.
The soundtrack to the 1993 Tales of the City miniseries was pretty terrific. Did you ever consider going the jukebox route a la Xanadu?
[Laughs] No. The idea to use Scissor Sisters really came about organically, because I brought in a CD of music that was sort of a soundscape for the show before we ever picked a composer. It was Sylvester, Rose Royce — all these '70s artists, except for the Scissor Sisters, who were on there too. Again, it was sort of another really easy lightning bolt. I just thought, Well, I should just write Jake Shears, who I’ve known for years and years. So I shot him an e-mail.
How did you and Jake Shears — also known as Jason Sellards — meet?
Just out and about in that sort of 2000, 2001 East Village scene. We were both still at the beginning of our careers, to say the least. I love living in New York; I’ve learned you can’t ever discount anyone’s project, because it could just blow up into something huge. Like Hedwig, back in the day, was in clubs like Squeezebox, and watching that thing grow into a wonderful organism was really fun.
As much as you downplay the musical’s gayness, is this a project that only a gay team should be behind?
Oh, absolutely. [Laughs] Because I don’t want to shrink from it at all. I want to be as up-front about it as Armistead was back then. I guess I’m a bit of a chauvinist that way, but I want Michael “Mouse” to be as wonderful and flawed as he is in the novels. A lot of the time gay characters become one-dimensional, and these days they’re maybe heroic, but so often they’re just not that interesting. Armistead’s characters are so fascinating. Oh, but [Scissor Sisters tour keyboardist] John [JJ] Garden, one of our two composers, is a straight boy — so straight he’s gay, but straight.
Do you already have a dream cast in mind — particularly for landlady Anna Madrigal?
I play what I call the Madrigal game, where I just go around and around thinking of all kinds of actresses from the rock world, the theater world, the film world… she’s got to be really special. I kind of have a “Madrigal of the week” that I get obsessed by. But I’m nervous about talking about casting because then it gets back to the actors and they freak out.
OK, but what qualities are you looking for in central gay character Michael “Mouse” Tolliver?
Cute, obviously — he’s got to win a Jockey shorts competition at the top of Act 2 — great dancer, and a really good actor. The thing about Tales is that singing and dancing won’t cut it; we’ve got to have such good actors too — people you identify with immediately.
Would you prefer to have gay actors play the gay roles?
I’m getting into dicey territory, but I’ll be completely honest: Yeah. I do think it’s important. I think gay people play gay people better than straight people do. But straight people won’t be excluded from the audition process! If there’s a straight actor who can play Michael “Mouse” wonderfully, then I don’t have a problem, but I do have my chauvinist side.
I immediately thought about your infamous 2006 letter to Jay Leno the other night when he asked Ryan Phillippe to make his “gayest look” on The Tonight Show.
Honey, you’ve got to go to my Web page [whitless.com]! I have a little smackdown on Jay that I just posted. I’m over him now. Would you ask a guest to give their blackest look or their Jewiest look? At a certain point it’s like, Man, this is a serious civil rights struggle, Jay. Gay people are funny, and some of the stereotypes are true for some people, but they’re not true for everybody. And all you’re doing is minimizing us into this corner where we can be attacked and treated as less than human. I wrote this paragraph that’s just endless links to gay bashings — recent ones. I really tried to keep the tone of the letter different from the first one. But who cares? He’s off the air soon anyway. Good riddance.
So you two didn’t remain phone pals after your first conversation?
To say the least, no. And there are a couple funny-ass things in our phone conversation that I never talked about that I now feel free to bring up after the Ryan Phillippe thing. Like, I was saying how gay history is important for people to understand, and how no ones gets that there is a gay history. And he said, [in squeaky Leno voice] “Jeff, I know about gay history. I know about the Stonehill rebellion.” [Laughs] And the other thing he said — and I’m paraphrasing, obviously — was something along the lines of, “You know, Jeff, it seems like things have gotten a lot better for gay people. There used to be a time when a straight guy would never go to a gay guy to know how to look good, and that’s all changed now.” Everything I said was completely over his head, and I think there are people like him who are just never going to get it.
I dread his jokes if he interviews Sean Penn for Milk.
Yeah. And you know, after everything I just said about gay actors, good for Sean Penn. And good for Ryan Phillippe. I guess I’m contradicting myself, but Walt Whitman said that was OK. I traffic in ambivalence most of the time.
Some criticized you after your first letter for not having a sense of humor. Prove them wrong by sharing your favorite dirty gay joke.
I have no capacity to remember jokes at all. Isn't there an old chestnut about barstools turned upside down? I can't remember how it goes. I laughed and then it flew out of my brain. But I love pretty much all of Lady Bunny's filthy, musty old gags.
Much like when Sally Field’s diva Celeste goes to the mall in Soapdish, do you ever lurk around the Avenue Q theater hoping to get recognized on nights you’re feeling low?
No, and what I love about Avenue Q is that I’m utterly anonymous. No one has any idea who I am, and I get to sit in the audience and get people’s unvarnished opinions. That’s what’s fun about being a writer versus an actor. At Tales of the City, I’ll be standing at the urinal with my ears craned, listening to what everyone’s saying at intermission. That’s when you get the really honest feedback.
Whatever happened to your screenplay for Zora, which was commissioned by Jennifer Aniston?
That went into turnaround because she decided she was too old to play the character; the character sort of necessarily has to be 25. That was my first experience in the Hollywood spin cycle, shall we say. It’s fine. I’ve moved on. It’s a great story that someone should tell and could probably tell better than I did.
I also thought of you after the recent American Idol scandal surrounding contestant David Hernandez’s stint as a stripper. When practically every article written about Avenue Q mentioned that you’d been a go-go boy at New York gay clubs, did you regret that career decision?
But he wasn’t out of the closet, was he? Being out, I don’t care. Yeah, there was a point whenAvenue Q first started on Broadway and I was paying off the advance that I’d received two years before where I had a show on Broadway and was actually making my living dancing on a bar. It was a really fun, wild time. I have no regrets about it. And my parents love it.
What would it take to get you back up on a bar?
Oh, about 50,000 sit-ups and a Master Cleanse.
Advocate.com, March 2008.