Last Thursday, I had the privilege of seeing the new Tales of the City musical at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I say “privilege,” even though anyone can buy tickets and go. I guess I had the privilege of not paying for my seat! I really enjoyed the show: it was a little slow to start, but once it picked up, I started to really enjoy the book, the score, and the way a series very dear to me had been translated into a theatrical production. But that last bit proved to be troublesome, too—as with all adaptations, I started to fixate on what was missing.
As I said in my first blog post, I won’t be writing many reviews here, and this post isn’t really a reflection on the quality of Tales of the City. You should go see the show. It’s fun, it’s creative, and it’s one of the gayest, ’70s-est musicals I’ve seen. If my fannish complaints/observations will in any way dissuade you from seeing it, please don’t read the rest of this post. That’s right, I’m giving you express permission to skip something I’ve written. It won’t happen again.
Tales of the City is an interesting choice for a musical. In a lot of ways, it makes sense, but there’s also a ton of ground to cover. The new show incorporates elements of the first book and its sequel, More Tales of the City, cutting out some plot points and characters but still managing to squeeze in a whole lot. And that’s fine: I didn’t expect the musical to go over every detail in the books, because a fuckton happens, you guys. Let’s not forget that Tales of the City and More Tales of the City were previously adapted into TV miniseries. And no one wants to sit through a 10-hour musical.
Still, I couldn’t help but reflect on what was missing. How could I not when I have such a fondness for Armistead Maupin’s novels? And perhaps more distractingly, I kept thinking about what happens next. The first two Tales books are arguably the best, but the story continues long past that. There are four more novels in the series proper and two later installments, including the recently released Mary Ann in Autumn. (Which, incidentally, ties up a loose end from the very first book.) You can’t adapt the first part of a series and not expect fans to start imagining the rest. The musical is very good in its right, but seeing it, my mind was working overtime.
Sitting in the audience, I began to mentally plot out the arcs and trajectories of every character on stage. Maupin’s universe is so dense and intricate that I couldn’t stop myself. (Minor spoiler ahead.) At one point, I remember thinking that DeDe’s daughter Anna (just a fetus in Tales of the City) would eventually grow up and make an appearance in Maupin’s novel The Night Listener, later adapted into a movie with Sandra Oh playing Anna. This is completely irrelevant to the stage adaptation of Tales of the City, but I don’t know how to turn these thoughts off. I wouldn’t say it took away from the show, though I am glad I’ll be seeing it again later this month. Maybe I’ll give myself a light but effective bump on the head first.
If anything dampened my joy, it was knowing where all these characters would end up. (Vague spoilers ahead, so just read the damn books already.) The musical ends on a bittersweet note, but there is a finality to it. You see how these stories could continue, but you’re not exactly left with a cliffhanger. The books, too, are self-contained—though if you’ve read them all, they do start to blur together a bit. Believe it or not, I watched Tales of the City at times with a sense of dread, because I could envision the break-ups and illnesses and deaths to follow. I saw the specters of Jonestown and AIDS, even when they should have been little more than blips on the radar.
And maybe it’s not even about the musical, which is—all things considered—an excellent adaptation of Maupin’s work. It’s the fact that I can never go back and read the books with a clean slate. I know too much already, and that’s kind of a bummer. (For the record, I rarely feel like I know too much about anything, so it’s also a little exciting!) I envy those who can see the Tales of the City musical without knowing how everything will eventually turn out, just as I envy those who can pick up the books and enter that world for the first time. I guess I know what I’d use that Eternal Sunshine technology for if it were suddenly invented.
Yes, I would erase books over a relationship. I’m a pretty cool guy, OK?