San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater (ACT) staged the world premiere of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, the Musical back in June 2011. The show, with music by the Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears and John Garden, was never to see another major production, though there was a benefit concert production on Broadway in 2017. Now, at-home audiences can watch it in its entirety for the first time, all week long, as ACT releases a multi-camera recording on Broadway On Demand's National Theater Network.
The plot of the musical, with a book by Jeff Whitty, choreography by Larry Keigwin, and direction by Jason Moore, uses the first two books of Maupin's beloved Tales of the City series as its source material — and fans of the early 1990s PBS miniseries will recognize most of this. The story follows the arrival of Midwestern gal Mary Ann Singleton in mid-1970s San Francisco, and her awakening to both the existence of gay and trans people and the libertine sexual mores of straight people at the time.
As I wrote in my June 2011 review of the production, "It's a joyous and almost fully realized piece of theater, with a terrific cast and at least three great musical numbers, and it is, by any stretch, a glorious celebration of the San Francisco of the mid-70s." I also noted of Shears' and Garden's songs, "There is a bevy of disco-influenced [song]writing, and there are several lovely melodies and some pretty themes throughout. But there are remarkably few satisfying hooks [or] stirring ensemble numbers."
This lack of catchy song material, along with some plot oddities held over from the original Chronicle serial and the books, likely doomed the show not to find backers for a Broadway run, though anything is still possible. The show received new attention following that benefit concert production, with former San Franciscan Mx. Justin Vivian Bond taking on the role of Anna Madrigal — an important casting change after calls in recent years for more trans representation playing trans characters. Bond actually made Broadway history that night, if only for one performance, becoming the first trans performer to play a trans character on Broadway.
The ACT production is streaming starting tonight, June 21, through June 27, and you can purchase tickets that give you 48 hours of streaming access here. Ticket purchasers will also get access to a filmed conversation between ACT Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon and Mx. Bond, discussing "the changes in casting over the past 10 years and highlight[ing] the importance of representation and diversity in theater."
The original ACT cast features a bunch of performers who have gone on to further Broadway greatness in the 10 years since. These include Tony Award winner Judy Kaye (Mamma Mia!, The Phantom of the Opera) as Anna Madrigal, Betsy Wolfe (Waitress, Falsettos) as Mary Ann, Wesley Taylor (Rock of Ages, SpongeBob SquarePants) as Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, Mary Birdsong (“The Descendants,” “Reno 911!”) as Mona, Tony Award nominee Manoel Felciano (To Kill a Mockingbird, Sweeney Todd), and Josh Breckenridge (Come From Away, Scottsboro Boys).
Top image: Friends Brian Hawkins (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Patrick Lane, far left), Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Wesley Taylor, second from left), and Jon Fielding (Josh Breckenridge) convince Mary Ann Singleton (Betsy Wolfe) to not move back to Cleveland. Photo by Kevin Berne.