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 apercus 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?
Maupin says the heart of the book is still relevant. When pressed to characterize this quality, he responds with one word: “Tolerance.” For him, this is more than a preachy message — it’s the central tenet of a life that, from its start in the conservative South, has known stigma and shame. Fortunately, he had the example of an independent-minded grandmother, who was a model for Anna’s character. An English-born actress and suffragist who opened up the world of the theater to him, she once told him, “Any woman who is all woman and any man who is all man is a complete monster unfit for human company.”
Her words hit the right ear. Maupin took strength from them, and he shared that strength by extolling this deeper morality in his fiction.
Politics continue to be achingly personal for him. He wed his partner, Christopher Turner, two times — once in Canada (“after we got tired of waiting for our country to become civilized”) and once during the window of time in 2008 when same-sex marriage was legal in California.
The only thing Maupin seems to have no tolerance for is intolerance. His voice grows heated when he talks about the ongoing “organized hate campaign by the churches of America against the notion of homosexuality.” “Coming out” may not longer be a cultural “taboo,” he says, but in many quarters it continues to exact a hefty penalty.
“In some ways, I was luckier as a young man because no one ever talked about homosexuality,” he says. “I sensed from the few things I had seen that there was something terribly wrong with me, but my parents weren’t telling me that I was an abomination or sending me off to some horrible camp to learn how not to be gay. “
If there’s one figure that embodies the encompassing acceptance prescriptively depicted in “Tales,” it’s Anna Madrigal. And in this respect, the TV role couldn’t have been better cast, because along with a kind of Mediterranean earthiness, Dukakis radiates an empathetic wisdom as an actress. Even her humor — deadpanned or punched — comes across as homage to the human comedy.
“The characters in ‘Tales’ don’t know which way they’re going, sexually, professionally,” says Dukakis. “... That dilemma doesn’t scare Anna Madrigal. She’s been there already. To be helpful, she puts her little marijuana sticks on their doors. That’s how you get over the humps.”
“The line that sums up the character and Olympia,” Maupin says, is the one Anna says to Mary Ann soon after her arrival from Ohio: “Dear, I have no objection to anything.”
“Like Tennessee Williams’ ‘Nothing human disgusts me,’” Dukakis offers. Later, she lets slip that there’s a reason Williams is on her mind: There are plans for her to star in “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” next winter in New York, a play she did in 2008 at Hartford Stage in Connecticut. It’s one of this indefatigable 78-year-old actress’ many projects, and listening to her tick them off (one is “a kind of lesbian road picture” with Brenda Fricker, called “Cloudburst”), you begin to understand how she managed to co-found the Whole Theatre Company in Montclair, N.J., with her husband, actor Louis Zorich.
For all Dukakis’ personal levity, there’s a seriousness to her, a concern with the weight of other people’s experience. When she was preparing the role of Anna Madrigal, she immersed herself in research, which included a fateful encounter with a therapist who was herself a transsexual.
“It was very painful to read about,” Dukakis says. “Physically and emotionally, there is a lot of pain. This woman came in, 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4, big hands, small voice. I said, ‘Tell me what it was that you wanted that made it possible for you to go through this.’ She said to me, ‘All my life I yearned for the friendship of women.’ That for me was the key. There was an aspect of herself as a woman, and she wanted it to emerge. And I don’t think there is any woman that doesn’t feel that way about herself, that there are aspects of themselves that are silenced.”
“Olympia told me that beautiful line when we were on the set, and I incorporated it on the spot in a scene,” says Maupin.
Whitty is apparently adapting the first two books, starting with Anna’s revelation, proceeding to the desert whorehouse of Mother Mucca (played on TV by Jackie Burroughs), and ending at the Christmas reunion scene. The kitsch dangers are obviously high — the new stage version of “The Addams Family” should serve as a cautionary tale for the creative team. But Maupin is impressed with “how much they were able to get in, and how smoothly they could get everyone into bed with a song.”
After hugs are exchanged and Dukakis heads off to her matinee, Maupin ponders the alchemy that occurs when gifted actors personify something you wrote. He confesses that he used to envy his late friend Christopher Isherwood’s unparalleled success with “The Berlin Stories,” which gave rise to “Cabaret,” both the Tony-winning musical and Oscar-winning film.
“I thought that was the greatest compliment — to have your mythology be made into these wonderful forms of entertainment,” he says. “I’m so grateful for every stage of ‘Tales’ — from the newspaper series, to the novels, to the television series. This is my last act in the best kind of way. I feel so lucky at 65. Some people my age think it’s all over for them, and I get to sit back and watch a musical rise up out of my work.”