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Armistead Maupin, Olympia Dukakis discuss ‘Tales of the City’

With the work being adapted into a musical, the author and the actress who starred in the television adaptations revisit the work.

May 02, 2010|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

Reporting from San Francisco — "Tales of the City" may have introduced author Armistead Maupin and Olympia Dukakis, the most memorable face from the three television miniseries adapted from the books. But American Conservatory Theater, the venerable resident theater on Geary Street led by artistic director Carey Perloff, is what keeps bringing them back together.

A few weeks ago, when Dukakis was performing in Morris Panych's play "Vigil" at A.C.T., where she serves on the board of trustees, the theater announced that a musical of Maupin's beloved chronicle would have its world premiere there at the end of next season.

This confluence suggested a reunion, so I invited them to lunch at the Four Seasons to talk about "Tales," San Francisco and old friendship. The presence of a third party was hardly necessary to get the conversational ball rolling, though someone would eventually have to sort out the dizzying cross talk, ricocheting aperçus and resounding confirmations ("That's exactly how I felt!") of two people who may not see each other much but who share a bond that is easily renewed.

"We live on different coasts, but one of the handy things about A.C.T. is that it brings Olympia back here periodically," Maupin dapperly pronounced, ever the Southern gentleman (raised in Raleigh, N. C.), even if a transplanted and infamously naughty one.

"That's when we get to see each other," Dukakis concurred, looking sporty in a black leather jacket, a boa-like scarf and white hair smartly coiffed. She had a matinee to perform after lunch, but gave no sense of fret or haste. One could say that she makes a gift of her attention, except that her interest seems too genuine to be mere courtesy.

"Tales," the phenomenon that started in 1976 as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle when Maupin was on staff there and has evolved into a pop cultural phenomenon that has come to define a San Francisco era and ethos, obviously occupies a primary place in his world. Dukakis acknowledges that playing Anna Madrigal, the wise transsexual landlady with a flexible and nonjudgmental sense of family, was a special event in her life too.

The gig spanned nearly a decade, with "Tales of the City" (1993) begetting "More Tales of the City" (1998) and "Further Tales of the City" (2001). Maupin never seems to run out of comparative adjectives, and audiences never grow tired of watching characters attempt to define themselves rather than being defined by society.

"Younger generations see ‘Tales' and come up to me and talk to me about it, and thank me for it," she says. "And I take all the credit," she adds, with the instinctive timing that won her a supporting actress Oscar for "Moonstruck."

"The beautiful thing was that Olympia already embodied all of those qualities celebrated in the book and still does," says Maupin. "She's an earth mother, a spiritual, animated, loving soul — it didn't have to be faked."

A saga about adults in the throes of identity crises, set in a hilly city of Victorian architecture and un-Victorian morality, "Tales" is a natural for musical adaptation. The overstuffed narrative will require telescoping, but Anna Madrigal's tenants, Mary Ann, Mona, "Mouse" and Brian (originally played on TV by Laura Linney, Chloe Webb, Marcus D'Amico and Paul Gross, respectively) seem as born for the stage as their pot-smoking surrogate mother.

A lover of musicals himself (as if we didn't know), Maupin is visibly elated that after a few aborted attempts and passing collaborative flirtations (the list seems to include everyone but Elton John), the show is finally set. The current creative team features two of the people behind "Avenue Q," book writer Jeff Whitty and director Jason Moore, as well as Scissor Sisters members Jack Shears and John Garden, who are composing the score, their first for the theater.

Maupin says he's mainly serving in an advisory role. "Carey Perloff has been nagging me in a teasing way to finish my new novel so I can get to work on the musical, because she wants it to be imprinted with the original spirit. But it's very much the job of these younger talented people."

San Francisco has changed quite a bit in the intervening decades. Old money has been dwarfed by dot-com money, foodies outnumber hippies and "cruising" has moved from the Castro to Craigslist. Has the successful assimilation of the gay and lesbian community rendered "Tales" obsolete?

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