Jake Shears Talks Tales of the City, Tammy Faye, and the Coming Disco Renaissance
Viewers can stream the 2011 production for a limited time during Pride week.
Ten years ago, San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater staged a new musical based on Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a sprawling series of novels that first gained public attention in 1976 as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Set around a Russian Hill apartment complex run by an eccentric pot-smoking landlady named Anna Madrigal, the books shine a light through the bay fog to reveal the lives of the disaffected housewives, liberated Midwesterners, and freewheeling homosexuals who call the Golden Gate City home.
Maupin has penned nine novels in total (the final published in 2014) and the stories have been turned into a sporadically produced TV series starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis (most recently for Netflix in 2019).
"I've always felt that Tales of the City is the Lord of the Rings of San Francisco," said Jake Shears, one of the creators of the musical (along with co-composer John Garden and book writer Jeff Whitty). Shears is the frontman of the band The Scissor Sisters, whose music provided the soundtrack for this reporter's college years. While it has been some time since the group has gotten together for a kiki, Shears has undertaken a number of creative projects, including a solo album, a Broadway debut, and a new musical about Tammy Faye Bakker that he is writing with Elton John.
His first musical, Tales of the City, is currently available for streaming through this LGBT Pride weekend only. I spoke with Shears about the show and his plans to get the world dancing now that nightclubs are finally open again.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When did you first become aware of Tales of the City?
I was about 13 years old and I was living on a very small island. And there was a gay couple on the island — Sean and Larry. I became friends with them, and I'd hang out at their place. I wasn't out yet or anything, but I think they probably saw that I was a gay kid. They played me tons of good music. Larry sadly was dying of AIDS at the time. And one day Sean handed me Tales of the City. It was the first time in my life that I recognized myself in a book. I devoured it. It's always been a special story to me, because you never know what effect you're going to have on a kid's life when you pass on something like that.
Your music has always had a touch of the disco. Had you always wanted to put that sound onstage?
I wasn't necessarily going for just disco. With John Garden, who co-wrote everything with me, I think we were just writing in our natural way. I've always written in a style that hearkens back to the '70s, whether it's pop songs or dance music. That era is in my wheelhouse. I didn't have to try too hard to find a voice for the music to fit that show. It's already in me.
Jeff Whitty's book presents multiple coming-out moments, including a second-act letter that Michael writes to his conservative Southern parents in which he sings, "If you and dad made me the way I am I wanna thank you, mama." Where did that line come from?
It comes straight out of the book. We musicalized that letter. It's not word for word, but we really took the language from Armistead and set it to music. It's my favorite part of the whole show.
Is coming out still as significant as it was a decade ago when you wrote this musical? I'm thinking specifically of Carl Nassib, the defensive end for the Las Vegas Raisers who just came out as gay.
Yes, that was amazing. There's a world that needs it so bad. Visibility is the key in so many ways to changing hearts and minds — not just visibility, but relationships. I've got a whole family from the South, and it changes minds when you're just in their lives. I think a lot of homophobia comes from people who think they don't know any queer people.
Tales of the City was your first musical, but it won't be your last. What's going on with Tammy Faye?
I'm actually at the airport in London right now. We've been working on it for the last three days. I just had lunch with Elton. The score is fantastic. Musicals take a long time, so to really start seeing it come together is very exciting. I can't make any announcements about when you'll see it on a stage, but it's not too far away.
I'm sure it hasn't escaped your attention that a tremendous amount of great dance music was released last year: Gaga's Chromatica, Kylie's Disco, your own song "Meltdown" — all in a year when the clubs were closed. With all that pent-up energy, are we on the precipice of a disco renaissance?
I think people want to dance. I'm just about done with a new album myself. I put a new song out a week and a half ago that's very much a disco song, called "Do the Television." The response to the song has been amazing. It makes me so happy that I've got a big arsenal of more where that came from.
I'm definitely ready to get out and dance, and I think nightlife is a growth industry right now. Is that why you became an investor in The Q, the new multi-floor gay club in Hell's Kitchen?
Yeah! I'm going to be there Friday for the opening. For me, it was a chance to reinvest in the world without which I wouldn't be who I am. I think nightlife is where so many amazing people cut their teeth, and find inspiration — especially in a city like New York. You don't want that to die. This club is the kind of place New York really needs right now.
I love that it's in the space that was formerly occupied by Social Bar, which was the Irish pub where all the sailors would hang out on Fleet Week.
Hopefully, they'll come back.
I'll drink to that!